Carn Glas – A Life in Seven Acts

by Roland Spencer-Jones (NOSAS)

DSC_0008 The Opening of the Cairn 12.10.15

The Opening of the Cairn 12.10.15

Carn Glas is one of a cluster of six Neolithic cairns at the base of the Black Isle in Ross-shire. A trio of local archaeology groups have collaborated with the Adopt-a-Monument team of Archaeology Scotland in its restoration. The opening party for the “new” cairn happened during Highland’s Archaeology Fortnight, on October 12th. Why did it need restoring? Well, it’s a story in Seven acts:

Act One started with the construction of a Cromarty-Orkney-type chambered cairn approximately 3600 BC, as the Neolithic farming package developed in the area. The passages of the chamber at the heart of the huge cairn were aligned north-west to south-east. They consisted of an entrance passage to the south-east, leading to a middle chamber, leading to an inner chamber. An excavation over two seasons by Tony Woodham in 1955-6 produced a series of artefacts dating to this period – a leaf-shaped Neolithic arrowhead, other flints, and numerous pottery shards.

Neolithic Arrowhead from 1956 excavation

Neolithic Arrowhead from 1956 excavation    (c) National Museums of Scotland

Act Two: A previous excavation by Lord Abercromby (John Abercromby, 5th Baron) in 1906 found a fine tanged-and-barbed arrowhead, which is evidence that the cairn was used during the Copper Age (Early Bronze Age, 2300-2000 BC). Whether this was re-use, or indicative of continued use, isn’t known. The 1950’s excavation also produced fragments of a Beaker, typical of this time period.

Copper Age Barbed & Tanged Arrowhead from 1906 excavation (c) National Museums of Scotland

Act Three: By the time of Lord Abercromby’s excavation in 1906, the cairn had been much reduced in size. An engineer visiting it in 1881 recorded it as standing 21 feet high. So, between 1881 and 1906 the third, destructive, act of cairn robbing occurred. Presumably the cairn stones went to local walls, buildings, etc.

Act Four is shady. There is nothing on record of the 1906 excavation. Sadly. Nor in what state Lord Abecromby left the cairn and its tombs. But we know he supervised some digging there!

Act Five: Over two seasons, Tony Woodham, a chemical engineer and an amateur archaeologist, excavated the inner chambers. Instead of backfilling as would be the custom now, he left the chambers open to the air. His report in the PSAS can be found here.

Carn Glas Excavation Woodham (1956)

Carn Glas Excavation Woodham 1956

Act Six: Nature moved in, and by 2008 the cairn and its chambers were heavily overgrown, almost unapproachable. Only the most intrepid could struggle through the undergrowth to see the chambers. The chambers were filling up with vegetation, debris and soil.

Carn Glas Feb 2008

Carn Glas in 2008

Act Seven: In several stages, between February 2014 and October 2015, the cairn was cleared of vegetation, the chambers emptied of accreted debris and soil, fallen stones restored to their 1956 positions, chips laid on the floor and a signboard erected. The full story of the restoration can be found on the NOSAS website here.

Carn Glas 075 - Chambers After Cleaning

Carn Glas – Chambers After Cleaning


The ceremonial opening of the cairn by Colin, Tony Woodham’s son – 12.10.15. (Press and Journal)

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