by Anne Coombs (NOSAS)
Clava cairns are unique to a small area of Eastern Highlands of Scotland. Identified originally along the valley of the River Nairn, a good start point for any tour of these sites is at Balnuaran of Clava near Culloden. Here Historic Scotland cares for a well preserved group of three circular burial cairns in a small area with a car park and interpretation panels (see the H.S. leaflet). Surrounded by trees beside the river this location can provide an atmospheric even ‘sacred’ sense of the past, especially at mid-winter or in the spring. Two small chambered passage ‘Clava’ cairns with their associated stone circles are sited on either side of a ring cairn with its own stone circle. The ring cairn (Highland Council HER MHG4366) appears to have been built at a similar time as the other cairns but is likely to have been used for a different purpose as it seems to have no entrance and may never have been roofed unlike the other cairns. On the west of the site there is a later small kerb cairn part of later reuse of the cemetery 1000 years later.
The two chambered passage cairns (See HER MHG3013 and MHG3002) fit the ‘standard’ ‘Clava’ type with large stones on the inner and outer faces forming a kerb with a substantial fill of smaller stones between. The passages are aligned to face the mid-winter sun at the solstice and experiments have shown that the sun arcs across the back wall of the cairn during the day. The inner and outer facing stones have been selected carefully for size and colour and set into the cairn according to some lost pattern presumably in line with the use and beliefs of the builders of the cairns. Many of the ‘Clava’ cairns have carefully positioned cup marked stones built into the cairns. Some of the cup marked stones are visible on the outer face of the cairns, for all to see. Others are hidden inside the cairn available originally only to those with access to the interior. Some stones are even placed so the cup marks are facing into the rubble fill of the cairn so only accessible to the builders and possibly a limited number of people, maybe the priests who knew their position?
The whole cairn would have had a corbelled roof. Around the edge of each of the cairns at Clava a low platform was constructed. The whole structure with its associated platform and stone circle was built in a single phase. In the case of the ring cairn the platform was extended to three of the standing stones forming a sun ray appearance. Although some of the stones of the associated stone circles are massive, investigation suggests they have relatively shallow socket holes as do all the inner and outer kerb stones of the cairns. The stone circles provided another opportunity to include a carefully selected range of different types of stone of graded sizes. The largest stones are often placed on the same axis as the passage facing the direction of the mid-winter solstice sun.