The only thing new in the world is the history you do not know.
― Harry S. Truman, 1884 – 1972
Glimpsed through the mist of a March day, Clava Cairns seemed to me the embodiment of mystery, a shrine to all things occult. Entering the grassy knoll next to the river Nairn where these three Bronze Age cairns stand, the scene before me was awash in shades of grey. The low circular mounds and surrounding upright slabs were constructed in stone the color of ash. Enclosing the expanse were stands of barren trees with silvery bark, their silhouettes swaying against a steely sky.
I had come to Clava Cairns from nearby Culloden Battlefield, five miles outside Inverness. Culloden is a patch of ground known to every Scot as the site of the brief but bloody battle in which Bonnie Prince Charlie and his Jacobean forces were routed by the Duke of Cumberland and the Hanoverian government troops. Fought in 1746 and lasting an hour, this was the last pitched battle on British soil and marked the death knell for the Highland clan system as it then existed.
Across the moor where the carnage took place, small stone markers memorialized the mass graves of the almost 2,000 Highlanders who were killed. One carried the inscription “Here the chief of the MacGillivrays fell.” Others scattered across the soggy field simply bore the names of a clan: Donald, Maclean, Maclaghlan, Mackintosh, among many others.
While Culloden preserves and honors a very specific moment in history, far less is known or understood about the Clava Cairns cemetery complex—including whether we can even be sure that was the purpose of the site. I visited Clava Cairns with my guide Johanna Campbell and her husband Gilbert Summers, a Scottish writer who eloquently articulated the vagaries of these structures that were erected 4,000 years ago.
“We may speculate as to function of these impressive monuments but ultimately, surely they are unknowably ancient?” he asked. “We assume they are memorials to the dead that probably required a society or community capable of working cooperatively. That’s about all that’s certain. Ritual functions? Sacrifices? Communing with ancestors? Praise in stone for successful war leaders or farmers or priests? Visit and speculate…feel free…the people here have no names.”
Pondering the purpose of Clava Cairns is something Dougie Scott has done for more than thirty years. A silversmith who lives in Tain, Easter-Ross, his Celtic jewelry has been inspired by the Book of Kells and the ancient cross slabs created by the Iron Age Pictish people, which are common throughout the northeast of Scotland. In the early 1980s he became passionate about pre-historic astronomy and rock art. Since then he has been surveying the standing stone alignments and cairns, photographing them in relation to the sun and moon as the planets rise and set.
Dougie explained that there are two types of alignment indicated by the stones. The first is a pattern of solar alignments at 45-day intervals known in British and Irish tradition as quarter days, which fall close to the two solstices and two equinoxes. These quarter days have been observed for centuries; each year on these dates servants were hired, and rents were due. The other alignment pattern occurs on four Pagan festivals roughly three months apart: Candlemas (February), Beltane (May), Lammas (August) and Samhain (November).
“It’s thought from the quantities of quartz found during excavations, laid on the upper surface of the cairns, that its use made them a dazzling white in the sun or moonlight,” Dougie said. “Access into the cairn’s central chambers by the southwest entrance, would have meant crawling awkwardly on hands and knees down the sloping passage roofed with flat slabs.”
Dougie said that evidence suggests that the passage and ring cairns had been used for burials and cremations respectively and that while the structures are aligned to the sun and moon, it is likely that the cairns had been used for a religious purpose, rather than an astronomical one.
“If the sun and moon were believed to be gods, perhaps the cremations were only carried out when they rose and set in line with certain standing stones,” he said. “Perhaps after the cremations the burnt bone would then have been deposited in the chambered cairns to await the coming of the sun or moonlight into the cairns. Did the winter sunlight or the full moon shining into the cairn mark the final sequence in the burial rites with the remains of the dead being cleared out to make ready for the next burial, leaving only residual amounts of bone and charcoal? This use of ring cairns for cremations throughout the country could be the origin of the tradition of bonfires being lit at the regular divisions of the year up to the present day.”
“Recent experiments in covering the northeast passage cairn at midwinter have produced stunning effects, with the whole back wall of the chamber shimmering with red light,” he said. “While there is no surviving folklore about the cairns at Clava, was the entry of the sun into these wombs like cairns believed to be a magical phallus of a sun god impregnating a female earth deity, or was this the time when the spirits of the dead were reborn back into the world?”
“The cairns could have also been used for a number of other functions from interaction with the gods or ancestors, meditation and initiation rites to perhaps the actual act of giving birth,” he continued. “It is likely that the cairns were used as a religious focus for the living and as folklore and archaeology suggests as spirit houses for the dead. While we can only speculate what happened as the light of the sun and moon penetrated into the darkness the cairns, it seems they have only begun to give up their secrets.”
To read the rest of the story and see the accompanying slide show, go to page 2!