Another day, another chance for me to steal my wife's blog! Hey, it happens, what can I say. So several weeks ago, we went on one of our exploration trips, and wound up going further afield than normal - clear up to Inverness, actually. Our goal was Culloden Battlefield, site of a famous battle during the Jacobite rebellion in Scotland (1600s, clansmen, etc.). Now, often when we have a set goal in mind for a particular day, we like to look up other places that might be nearby. Thanks to the Google machine, when I looked up Culloden on the map the night before, I noticed that there was another site only a few kilometres down the road - a site that I HAD to see - Clava Cairns. Now you may say what, exactly, is a "Clava Cairn"? I'm SO glad you asked! It's basically several piles of rocks, with rings of rocks around them. No seriously, take a look!!!
See?! Giant piles of rocks! With rings of rocks! Ok, technically they're not JUST piles of rocks. These cairns are ancient passage-tombs. Clava Cairns has three very similar passage-tombs, each with the remnants of a stone circle surrounding it. Look at the pictures! Behold the awesomeness!!!
Ok, craziness over. So, Clava Cairns is easily the oldest site we've seen in Scotland. It falls into the same category of prehistoric sites as the more famous stone circles like Stonehenge in England; one author dates the cairns at around 3000 BC.
The site itself consists of three cairns. Each one is surrounded by a circle of standing stones, although some of the circles are missing a stone or two or have a stone fallen over. The stone cairns have a passageway leading to a circular area in the center, and would probably have been covered with a low wooden roof originally. Seen from above, the cairns might look like three giant stone bagels, each with a bite taken out of it.
Although the cairns are very similar, they have subtle differences. The first one you come to is the largest, and features some giant stones in its circle. The middle one is slightly smaller, and behind it in the trees is a mini-circle, which archeologists think might have been a grave added much later. The third cairn also has kerbs of raised earth, extending from the cairn to several of the stones around it like the spokes on a wheel - but only on certain stones, not every one.
Now, Sarah will testify that I was beyond ecstatic to visit this site. I've been wanting to see an old stone circle or something similar since we came to UK; in preparation, I purchased a beautiful hardbound copy of Aubrey Burl's A Guide to the Stone Circles of Britain, Ireland and Brittany before we left. I don't know why, exactly, I find the prehistoric sites so fascinating. I think it's because there are so many unknowns. I mean, we think the cairns were tombs. But they suspect that the stone circles were added much later, maybe a thousand years or so after the fact. A thousand years!!! So, the cairns were already old when someone decided to add the circles; who was buried in those tombs, that a thousand years later the locals would add to the cairns with elaborate, deliberately placed stone rings? And, why stone rings?! Why not build a monument of some kind, or add another tomb or something?
In addition, the whole Clava Cairns site itself is beautiful. It's set in the middle of an old farm, and the cairns are surrounded by a grove of trees that are probably an easy 100 years old themselves. On a bright summer's day, like the one Sarah and I visited, there's a hint of magic in the air. Nor am I the only one to think so - Aubrey Burl quotes a previous writer who said of Clava Cairns, "A visit to the Clava Cairns on a summer night of bright moonlight is one way to absorb the eerie mystery and fascinating character of these long-deserted stone tombs standing in their leafy glade of old trees." While we didn't visit at night, I have to say that I completely agree.
That combination of mystery and history is absolutely intoxicating, at least to me. A lot of people (including, it must be told, my wife) don't necessarily find the cairns or other prehistoric sites very interesting. But to me, they represent the romance of the unknown - some of the only remnants of entire cultures of people that we know nothing about. At the same time, these sites have survived for thousands of years, and their presence raises the same questions - who were these people? What great kings or queens were buried here? How did they live, and what did they do? Why are the cairns oriented the way they are, aligned on the midwinter sunset? What significance did they have?
I can't answer those questions; no one can. But even the questions themselves hint, for me, at the powerful allure that these ancient stones still hold.
The Clava Cairns site is probably one of my favourite sites so far in the UK. Admission is free, and the site is easy to find, although it is off the beaten path. While not as grand as Edinburgh Castle or as well-documented as Stirling, if you're looking for something truly ancient to add to your itinerary, this is an excellent spot. If the weather is good, bring a picnic lunch and enjoy the idyllic setting as well.