Scotland Trip 2022 Part 5: Clava Cairns

In my overview post I talked about my first trip to the British Islands and how I chose to visit quite a few ancient sites. Unfortunately, with so many people traveling and with such limited time and so many things to do and see, we only were able to fit one place in, Clava Cairns. But it is a great place to visit!

The Clava Cairns, aka the Prehistoric Burial Cairns of Bulnuaran of Clava, are a complex of chamber tombs, circle cairn and kerb cairns that are in such good condition to give their name, “Clava Cairn”, to the type of cairn that is found around Inverness. There are actually several other features from the same time as part of the complex, including other cairns, but the main group of 2 chamber tombs and a circular cairn with the small kerb are the main attraction.

The two chamber tombs are now open to the sky. The are defined by an inner and outer ring of stones to hold the “rubble fill” in place. These are on a small platform, which would work to make sure there was no spreading, and surrounded by a circle of standing stones. There is some rock art on a few of the stones of the type found in Mesolithic sites.

Despite all of the ancient pieces, the Clava Cairns were built in a short period of time more recently than expected. OK, “recent” is early Bronze Age, about 4000 years ago, but people had thought Neolithic, 5000 years ago. It is possible some of the components, such as the rock art, came from older sites. What is interesting is that many of the symbols from 3000 BC were still used a thousand years later when Clava Cairns were built.

And they were used, off and on, for more than a thousand years after they were built. In fact, there is an early Christian chapel on the site (a few hundred yards/meters from the cairns featured here), showing that it is possible the people of the area may have kept the idea of this being a sacred site up until, and possibly beyond, the time that they began following the “new” Christian religion some 1500 years ago.

The entrances to the two chamber tombs line up to the setting winter solstice sun. The one in the northeast also lines up, more or less, with the one in the southwest. Some people say the standing stones also mark other solar and lunar events, but, although there is a lot of evidence for this, not all experts agree.

At first glance the site looks pretty boring – piles of uniformly gray stones and gray flat stones in the circle, but the more you look, the more varied it is. Back in the day, the southwest sides would have been dark red while the east sides would have been very light colored and covered in quartz. People suspect that the west end would glow red at the setting sun of the winter solstice while the east end would flare up with light at the rising sun on the summer solstice.

On a similar subject, there is a very tall stone that seems to attract most people’s attention. This place was used, with a name change, in the books and series Outlander, and the stone in that series has a special significance.

In reality, it is perhaps the most boring stone in any of the circles.

There is one stone that, to me, seemed to be the focal point of all three cairns and has a very different profile from each (you can see it at the center of the photo at the top of the post). This was my favorite! I took a few photos of it early and then gravitated towards it before I left.

I also grew aware of at least one stone in each circle made from large red chunks.

And, look at this photo of my brother by a stone. The stone he is close to is like many of the others, but look at that other standing stone in the photo, the one to the left.

Do you notice anything? Look at the lines. See it? There is a very clear face on that stone! I drew the lines in and will share if people want to see, but I think seeing it naturally is better.

With all of the people and all of the noise (not just our group – at least 20 other people were there – it is a super popular place) I did not get the spiritual experience that Sue used to talk about from some ancient sites, and yet, in ways I did. It was not just dead stones. The past did seem to come to life. And not just for me. A few people in our group told me how much they enjoyed their time there and called it one of the highlights of the trip.

So if you ever do visit the Inverness area (it is only 6 miles from town and literally across a river from the Culloden Battlefield), you should stop in! It is magical…

Here are some photos from our visit, including those used above. If you click a photo, you can enlarge it and go through them like a slideshow.

I hope you enjoyed! If you want to go back to the original post of this series, you can find it here.

(Side note – on one photo, one I actually used for a few clips, there is a strange ring of light in the tree branches. It is not on any other photo, so most likely not a smudge on the lens. What is it? A sun flare? Not sure. Odd…)

36 thoughts on “Scotland Trip 2022 Part 5: Clava Cairns

  1. Prior...

    Hello Trent
    I am going out of order in your Scotland posts – as the fifth is my second read – but it doesn’t seem to matter as this post was all about this cool site!
    I liked all the different photos and seeing your family (like your brother) let’s us feel the size of the stones

    I saw the face

    never saw or read outlander but how
    Fun when something modern connects with an ancient site like this –

    Oh and sun flare ? Or ghost !! Hahah “we are not alone…..”

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    1. trentpmcd Post author

      Except for the first one, no real order, so… Actually, it is best to save the Tattoo (misnumbered “8”, it is really 7).
      The weird thing about the “sun flare”, is as I looked through the raw photos, there is a mist or haze in that same spot no matter were I took the photo from, so something seemed to be there. If it was a 4000 year old ghost or not, well… lol, that’s a long time to hang out.
      It was a very cool site. I really enjoy ancient sites and in many ways find a deeper connection to them than to castles and such. i think it is because they are like part of the landscape, almost more natural.
      They chose the rocks and placements of the rocks purposefully, Did someone carve the face, or did they just decide to use it? Sue Vincent posted several large standing stones with faces, but that doesn’t clear it up. But it is cool, and cooler yet that I read a 60 page official document about the site and they never mentioned it!
      Anyway, I’m glad you enjoyed the photos :)

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      1. Prior...

        Hi trent
        I think the face in the rock (and other rocks) is from erosion and we just see the shapes of faces because of mental models we have –/
        I noticed a face in the pattern of our hardwood floor the other day and now see it all the time –
        ***
        “pareidolia- a form of apophenia, which is a more general term for the human tendency to seek patterns in random information”

        Re: sun flare
        when you talked about some of the special rock types of stones (and mineral?) placement here – and how certain colors would emit at different times of day (which is so cool too) well I think the sun flare and other light capture in that “special area” might be mere science.
        The earths metals and the energetic field likely interacts with something in the properties of those rocks or stubbed mines and in the layers of the earth around it.
        -/
        I was just chatted with someone about salt lamps and they were snarky claiming the salt lamp was worthless ?
        Then said it didn’t filter and clean air the way it was advertised to do!
        Well I had a few thoughts – (like has she ever tested air? And because every salt lamp is differ and every room or house has different air – how generalizable would other results be) but didn’t want to be argumentative as it was casual chat – but I pointed out the smile science – the natural properties of the salt chunk would impact the ions in the air and could help purify depending on temperature, humidity, etc.
        It was a fun little chat – and came to mind here because those very old rocks/stones/minerals likely have unique properties – hmmmm

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        1. trentpmcd Post author

          It is very possible that the stone eroded to have something that our minds see as a face – very possible. But, on the other hand, the people who built these sites were very particular about size, shape and composition of stones, and some ideas are repeated all over the British Isles and over the many centuries that they built such monuments. I think it is possible they chose some stones because their minds saw faces, or perhaps they helped it along. Again, perhaps not, it just might be 4000 years of aging and our predisposition. These people have shown to be far more clever than people even 100 years ago would have imagined they could have been (they were not the stupid brutes some thought), but we can’t know what they thought. In fact, nobody has any inkling of an idea of what any of it meant to them. But it is fun to think about :)
          I do not think that odd mist/haze or whatever had any supernatural source. Again, fun to think it did, but… My guess is that it was very humid. It was a little hazy. There could have been a reflection or stray beam that hit some lingering haze just right. Like the double rainbow in front of the mountain in the top photo of my post on the Highlands – just luck of the vapor and light. And, yeah, you are right, maybe the vapor was helped along by the rock below, and there is even a possibility that some mineral or shape was chosen by those clever people just to help that illusion along. As I said, fun to think about what it might have been, even if it was almost certainly some dull source.

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          1. Prior...

            This has been so much fun to chat about, Trent
            ;)
            And is there any chance the face with the rock was once flat and not upright?
            I ask because when I gave nature hikes in 2002 – we taught about Ohlone Indians at YSI in Northern Cal
            And on one hike there was a Ghost Rock – and it was vertical and had the hole areas to show a ghostly face
            And during training we learned that the rock was flat at one point and was used as a mortar and pestle by the tribe – and it ground out the area and then earthquakes or storms moved it and it ended up on its side
            (Something like that)

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            1. trentpmcd Post author

              Most likely the stone was always standing. If you go back and look at the photos, there is one of a stone with several circles – I called it “rock art” (that is what the historic society called it). It is very possible that is very old (5000 – 5500 years) and was flat and later “quarried” to be used as part of one of the chamber tombs.

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    1. trentpmcd Post author

      There were so many places that we visited that either someone said, or it was written some place, “They used this in Outlander”. Of course I am sure there was no place more special than Cava Cairns and that special 12 foot tall stone….

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  2. msjadeli

    Fascinating how these assemblages are put together. I can only imagine how much energy is concentrated there in the stones. Very neat to learn how they used to be one color on one side to reflect sunset and and another sunrise. I can believe there are spirits afoot there, no surprise to hear it. There is a cemetery just north of here where, when I looked at pictures later, were *filled* with orbs, but only inside the boundaries and along the iron gates. It was the site of an Indian massacre years ago as well as being a settler cemetery.

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    1. trentpmcd Post author

      When I got home I found a 56 page document put out by Historic Environment Scotland that went into a lot of depth about the site, all based on different studies over the years. The reason for the document is to show why tax dollars (sorry, pounds) should be spent preserving and studying the site. There was a huge amount of data including about the colors and the effects they would have. I am a bit of a scientist, so…
      So, yeah, it there are things that can’t be explained, and there is some type of presence in places like these. Spirits? Historic memory? Who knows. And I am sure it is strong at a cemetery built where there was a massacre of the natives! And the orbs thing is pretty wild – I did see clips of that hazy circle I mentioned in other photos, and always in the exact same place. Weird.

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    1. trentpmcd Post author

      It is a magnificent site! Somehow I missed the face until I was looking through the photos later. A few times while I was visiting I thought about the different symbols that Sue said were represented by different stones in many circles and I wished I remembered even a bit of it! I did remember to look at the different stones with eyes and mind to see the differences, but mostly only got pulled to the triangle rock at the focal of the three tombs… And I did remember that three is significant.

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      1. Alethea Kehas

        I think what you did was just right. Following the “pull” of the stones leads you to what you need, regardless of the original intention of the site. At least that’s what I’ve found from my own experiences.

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  3. Ruth

    I’ve always loved Clava Cairns, and have been going there since I was a young girl… I just love the deeply grounded feeling of communing with the ancestors. Oh, and it has quite a stunning atmosphere in the winter when it’s all frosty – not to mention much quieter people-wise :-)

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    1. trentpmcd Post author

      I’m sure you know it well, like an old friend. I’d love to visit it in the winter… and in the spring and the autumn as well! Particularly the late autumn. It is a great site and I can understand going there to commune with the ancestors. I felt close to my past durign much of the trip, but I felt it more there and in some of the empty landscapes then I did in any of the buildings I visited. Certainly not in any of the castles (though they were cool). I can’t wait to return and hopefully be able to visit at a quieter time :)

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    1. trentpmcd Post author

      I’m surprised you hadn’t heard of the site. It was great! There are so many ancient sites in Scotland and I will have to visit more when I return. And you need to visit this one when you return – unless you are still there, then you need to take a detour and see it ;)

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    1. trentpmcd Post author

      I’ll admit that I never saw nor read Outlander, but since half of the places we stopped had a connection to Outlander, it is now on my TBR pile… A few people in our group talked about the significance, but I thought it was funny to see that ever person that enters goes straight to that stone and touches it….
      Fairies seem to be associated with circles, so that is the direction I’m going ;)

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      1. Suzanne@PictureRetirement

        Trent, my husband did not like Outlanders, but you might because of its time travel component. It was a bit too heavy on the violent sex scenes and I gave it up after season two. Even so, I would be one of those people going straight to the stone to touch it – you just neve know when the magic will happen.

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        1. trentpmcd Post author

          I’ll admit that I had to touch the stone after it was explained to me. I did not slip in time or whatever was supposed to happen (OK, that was a reference to Kurt Vonnegut, but…). At least not with -that- stone ;) Yeah, I’ll research a little before I read or watch. Violent sex is not my things so, but time travel is fun, as are old Scottish locations.

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  4. Diana

    Wow, that’s so old! I know the history in Europe is rich and old, but that’s really old! Beautiful photos and I think I found the ring of light ever so faint in the trees, and I could see the face in that tall stone! Very magical! 😀

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    1. trentpmcd Post author

      It is amazing how old some of the sites on the British Isles are. There are sites in Scotland that are 500 years older than Stonehenge, and yet Stonehenge is hundreds years older than this site! Yes, standing in a building (pantheon) in Rome that has been in continuous use for 2000 years (OK, I exaggerate, for 1995 years ;) ) is amazing, but standing in the middle of these tombs is to be in a place twice as old. You might not see the light circle I am thinking about – it is partially cropped out of the photo it is in and the photo is one that is only at the bottom of the page. But I am sure that face is obvious! Yes, it is all very magical!

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  5. Pingback: Scotland Trip 2022 Part 1: Overview | Trent's World (the Blog)

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