Clava Cairns are in the care of Historic Scotland
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.
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.
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. copyright Historic Scotland