Clava Cairns is a well-preserved Bronze Age cemetery near Inverness in the Scottish Highlands.
For many years, it played second fiddle to its more famous neighbour, Culloden Battlefield. That all changed in 2014, with the release of the TV dramatization of Diana Gabaldon’s popular Outlander novel. Clava Cairns became a bucket list destination overnight, after it was suggested that Outlander’s fictitious stone circle, Craigh na Dun was inspired by the site.
It’s wonderful to see the ‘Outlander effect’ generating so much interest, however there’s way more to Clava Cairns than its Outlander connection. For history lovers, it gives a fascinating insight into the mysterious lives of our ancient ancestors.
The stone circles and burial chambers at Clava Cairns date back 4,000 years to the Bronze Age. This isn’t the earliest known use of the site either, as archaeological excavations has found it was once used for farming. Some of the early farm buildings may even have been recycled and incorporated into the burial site.
Today, the remains of Clava Cairns are located on two separate sites. The main site – Balnauran of Clava sits in a quiet, leafy setting. It consists of three large burial cairns, each surrounded by a stone circle. Two of the cairns are passage cairns, where the central burial chamber is accessed via a narrow corridor. Between the two passage cairns sits a kerb cairn, with an enclosed central burial chamber. Cup and ring markings, which commonly occur during this period, can be found on the cairns and stones. Sadly, the true meaning of this ancient art has been lost in time so we can only guess at the significance.
The second and smaller site, Milton of Clava is in a field a short distance from the main site. It has less dramatic impact than Balnauran of Clava but is still worth visiting. It consists of a solitary standing stone, a cairn and the ruins of a much later medieval chapel.
Excavations at Clava Cairns have confirmed that it was reused 1,000 years after it was first built. At this time new burials were interred and additional monuments erected. Today the remains of a ring cairn can be found at the main site as well as chapel ruins at Milton of Clava. This much later use of the cemetery suggests that Clava Cairns was an important place for a long period of time, before finally falling into disuse.
So, what do we know about the people who were buried here? Sadly, the answer is very little as early archaeologist did more damage than good with their overzealous excavations. What we do know is that only one or two burials were interred inside each cairn. The huge effort that it must have taken to build the cemetery, hints that these were probably people of status and importance.
Clava Cairns are best viewed on a clear winter day, as the sun begins to set. Then a magical light envelopes the place, casting a golden glow on the stones and cairns. It’s fascinating to witness as the alignment of the stones and cairns suggests that their placing was no accident. They align with the midwinter sunset, meaning real planning and precision must have gone into their construction. This gives us a fascinating and fleeting glimpse into the past, to a time when our ancestors were in tune with the rising and setting of the sun, the cycle of the moon and the changing of the seasons.
If you visit Clava Cairns then by all means take a time-travelling selfie, but first a word of warning. Historians would definitely advise against travelling back to the turbulent, Scottish Highlands of 1743. Instead, why not venture back further to the Bronze Age and discover the fascinating history of the real Craigh na Dun.
Visiting Clava Cairns
Admission charge: Free entry
Opening times: Open all year
On site facilities: Free parking
Location: 6 miles east of Inverness. The cairns are signposted from the B9091, 300 yards east of Culloden Battlefield. Grid reference: NH 752 439
Samantha Grant (January 2017)archaeology, bronze age scotland, cairns, cawdor, clava cairns, culloden, free days out, inverness attractions, outlander, scottish highlands, scottish history, standing stones