Clava Cairns

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We first visited these 40 years ago. We’d never seen anything like them before and were entranced by the stone cairns set back off the road surrounded by trees. Few people visited and they were a secret and magical place.

Times change. The road is a lot busier and there is now a huge coach and car park. Many of the trees have been felled leaving the site open to the road. Admittedly the trees were planted by the Victorians and the cairns would have been built in a treeless landscape. Even at 5pm there was a steady stream of visitors. It just wasn’t the same…

The cairns date from 3000-4000 years ago. There are two passage graves, a ring cairn and a later kerb cairn. Each was short lived and may only have housed a few bodies, possibly even one. No offerings survive. Once they went out of use, the tombs were sealed, surrounded by a row of stones round the edge of the cairn and a ring of standing stones. These used different coloured coloured rock and when first constructed would have looked colourful with red, pink and white stones. They were reused about 1000BC when the small kerb cairn was built.

The north east and south west cairns have a stone circle round them and a neatly arranged row of larger stones around the cairn. The central passageway is neatly lined with large stones as is the base of the centre of the cairn. Originally the cairns would have been covered and the walls are slightly corbelled.

The stones are covered with moss and lichen, which hides the cup marks supposed to be on some of the outer stones. These can be seen on one of the stones inside the south west cairn, which is built on a slightly raised platform.

The central cairn is different as it is an unbroken circular enclosure with a thick wall around an open centre. Larger stones line the inner and outer surfaces. This might have marked to site of a funeral pyre or ceremonies connected to burials in the adjacent passage tombs. When it went out of use, the centre was filled with rubble (which has since been removed) and it was surrounded by a stone circle and there are traces of ‘paths’ from some of the standing stones to the cairn.

Near it is a small kerb cairn, a small ring of boulders made of different coloured stones and a larger ‘threshold’ stone which is supposed to have cup marks on it.

As well as being burial sites, the cairns are also aligned on on the midwinter sunset.

There are information boards around the site and it is still very much worth visiting. Plan to visit early morning or late afternoon as the low sun is much better for photographs.


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