A prehistoric cemetery
On a gravel terrace above the River Nairn is one of Scotland’s most evocative sacred prehistoric sites. The Clava Cairns are dominated by a line of three exceptionally well-preserved burial cairns, each enclosed by stone circles. We know little about who the cairn builders were, for they left no written record. The actual remains of those buried within the cairns no longer survive because of overzealous archaeological digging in the early 20th century. However, recent excavations have shed new light on the cairns.
A regional tradition
The burial cairns at Clava are around 4,000 years old. They are not quite like those elsewhere in northern Britain. Other burial monuments generally incorporate massive standing stones – either in the facade as at Cairnholy
in Galloway, or supporting the chamber as at Maeshowe
in Orkney. In contrast, at Clava the circles of standing stones are separate elements from the tombs.
The three well-preserved cairns each have a central chamber. But while the two outer cairns have entrance passages, the chamber of the central one is completely enclosed. The outer kerb of each cairn is well defined by large boulders, and each is surrounded by a ring of standing stones.
The three cairns form a line running NE to SW. The passages of the two cairns are also similarly aligned, suggesting that the builders had their eyes on the midwinter sunset, just like their contemporaries who built Maeshowe. The standing stones around the cairns also acknowledge the midwinter sunset, for they are graded in height – the tallest facing the setting sun in the SW down to the lowest on the opposite side. Even the colour and texture of the stones seems to have been carefully selected to emphasise the veneration of the sunset on the shortest day of the year.
Tombs of the chiefs?
The burial chambers in each tomb were cleared out long ago. However, in the 1950s a few crumbs of cremated bone were found within the central cairn. Evidence from other similar ‘Clava-type’ cairns (such as Corrimony
, inland from Urquhart Castle) suggests that while many hands were needed to create the tombs, only one or two bodies were buried inside them. They seem therefore to have been built to house the privileged few among the local farming community, perhaps tribal chiefs.
- The location – set in a small wood, and best visited in the early morning or early evening at sunrise or sunset.
- The cairns – crawl along the passages, then see if you can spot the various cup-and-ring marks, examples of prehistoric rock-art.
- The other sites – enjoy a stroll up the road to see another cairn, and the foundations of a medieval chapel.
The Culloden Moor viaduct – admire the 28 spans of Scotland’s longest masonry viaduct, opened in 1898 and casting its shadow over the site.
Clava Cairns is the site of an exceptionally well preserved group of prehistoric burial cairns that were built about 4,000 years ago. The Bronze Age cemetery complex comprises of passage graves, ring cairns, kerb cairn, standing stones in a beautiful setting and the remains of a chapel of unknown date.
The site's usage
The cemetery was used in two periods. Around 2000 BC a row of large cairns was built, three of which can be seen today and there may once have been two more. A thousand years later the cemetery was reused. New burials were placed in some of the existing cairns and three smaller monuments were built including a 'kerb cairn'. Traces of a smaller cemetery can also be seen at Milton of Clava, a short distance up the valley to the west. The cairns at Balnuaran of Clava extended along a gravel terrace raised above the River Nairn. Excavations have found evidence for farming on the site before any of these monuments were built. The settlement was directly replaced by the cairns and it even seems possible that some of the material used to build them had been taken from demolished houses.
Excavations at the site
The site was excavated in part during the 1990s by Professor Bradley and his team from Reading University. In addition to the finds underground, a thorough survey of the upstanding remains revealed hitherto unnoticed connections between the colour and texture of the building materials, the architecture of the monuments and their known relationship with the rising and setting sun.
No traces of the bodies which would have been placed within the cairns survive. We know from other cairns of this type, most notably Corrimony
in Glen Urquhart, that probably only one body would have been placed within the central chamber.
Publication Visitor's Guide to Clava Cairns [pdf, 481 kb]
Region – North and Grampian
6m East of Inverness. Signposted from the B9091, 300 yards East of Culloden Battlefield.
Grid reference - NH 752 439.
Tel: 01667 460 232.