The Cairns of Clava, Scottish Highlands

Throughout north east Scotland there are many examples of cairns (monumental heaps of stone) of the 'Clava' type. Believed to have been erected in the late Stone Age/early Bronze Age, there were two distinct building plans for the Clava Cairns, one a passage-grave tomb, and the other a ring chamber. Both types of cairn were surrounded by free-standing stones or monoliths.

At this site two passage-grave cairns and a ring cairn survive to a good degree, and various other cairns are scattered across the area in a more ruinous condition. The diameter of the centre cairn measures some 55ft (16.7m), with the central burial chamber about 12ft (3.6m) across and contained within a circle of flat slabs. Ringed by an outer arrangement of monoliths, this cairn is linked from three of the standing stones by a unique cobbled causeway, not found at any other Clava type monument.

Of the two passage-grave tombs, the north east example has 11 monoliths surrounding the cairn, and the south west cairn once had 12. All the cairns have retained many of their original boulder kerb stones, and the cairn material piled in the middle of each varies in height between 4ft (1.2m) to 10ft (3m). Spanning the central burial chamber of these tombs was a corbelled domed roof of which only fragmentary evidence exists. All the tombs contain stones that have been 'cup-marked' with circular indentations, but the reason why is unknown. Bearing in mind the sheer physical effort it would have taken for prehistoric man to carve so deeply into the boulder, there surely must have been some importance attached to the markings, possibly religious.

Continual robbing of the stones over a long period of time has left many of the cairns barely recognisable in their planned form, but some excavations carried out in the 19th century did provide evidence of burials and grave goods. It has also been established that ring cairns were primarily used for cremations, and passage-grave cairns received both burials and cremations.

The religious beliefs and cultural rituals of early man may always remain a mystery, but it is abundantly clear from the proliferation of standing stones, stone circles, and prehistoric burial chambers, that this type of building played a significant role in their lives. Many of these sites have a magical, almost eerie, atmosphere, and this is so true of Clava Cairns, standing in a haunting silence beside the River Nairn.

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