The Grey Cairns of Camster and the Hill O’Many Stanes

The great ediface of the long cairn at Camster and the neighbouring round cairn is one of the oldest and best preserved Neolithic sites on mainland Britain.
Only it’s location, in this vast empty moorland in the far north east of Scotland has made it relatively unknown compared to, for example, the great prehistoric sites in Wiltshire or Orkney. However, that is changing due to the hugely popular ‘North Coast 500’, a motoring route round the far north of Scotland which is bringing many more people to Caithness and Sutherland and giving lots of publicity to all the places to visit along the route.

Portal stones inside Camster Round Cairn
Portal stones inside Camster Round Cairn

Caithness has a wealth of prehistoric sites and driving north up the A9, or A99 towards John O’Groats, brown signs point the way to brochs, standing stones and cairns.

Boardwalk to Camster Long Cairn
The boardwalk to the long cairn. The round cairn is out of the picture, to the left.

What you see today is one huge long cairn and a round one a short distance away but they weren’t always like that. They started life as three separate round cairns, built around 3,500BC. Sometime after their construction, two of the cairns were covered by an incredible amount of stone to form one long cairn about 70m (or 230ft) long. It must have been built to impress. Not only were the 2 round cairns made into one but the length of it was extended by quite a distance so that it stretched further across the ridge on which it sits.
Horns were added at each end to form forecourts, the main one being at the highest and widest end where the original cairns were.
Camster Long Cairn
You can see the stepped platform and walls of the forecourt but these have been reconstructed to show what it probably looked like originally. This design is quite different from other court cairns of Scotland and Ireland, where the forecourts would you usually be formed from orthostats.
Another difference is that there was no entry into the chambers from the forecourts. This is where the ceremonies would have been performed but the entrances to the two tombs are through tiny openings in the SE facing side of the cairn.

Entrance to Camster Long Cairn - Copy

Restoration work has made access to all three tombs easy, although you do have to crouch down and crawl through the entrances and some of the passageways are quite low and narrow. Each cairn has a passage leading into a central chamber, where you can stand to full height and where enough light has been provided by skylights and a little light getting in from the entrance, that you don’t need a torch.

Of the two chambers in the long cairn, one is tripartite and the other is a simple chamber.

Camster Long Cairn passage
The passage into one of the long cairn chambers

The round cairn has an anti-chamber and this leads into the main chamber which is tripartite, with pairs of orthostats dividing the 3 compartments. It has a fine corbelled roof and stonework.

Camster Round Cairn chamber

Passage, Camster Round Cairn
Passage inside the round cairn
Camster Round Cairn anti chamber
Anti-chamber in the round cairn

 

When the tomb of the round chamber was opened up by antiquarians in the 19th century they entered from the collapsed roof of the cairn. After clearing the rubble that had fallen into the chamber they discovered that the entrance passage had been completely infilled with stones and rubble to seal off the tomb. This was a common practice when Neolithic tombs came to the end of their use.
Skulls and bones from 2 skeletons were found placed in the rubble.

The scant finds from the 3 tombs included some animal and human bones, ash and charcoal, pottery sherds and flints.

Hill O’Many Stanes (or Mid Clyth Stone Rows)

This is an intriguing prehistoric site, about 6 miles away from the cairns (as the crow flies). It is from the Neolithic or early Bronze Age and one can only guess at what it was used for.

Hill O'Many Stanes (1)
On a barren hillside near the coast there are 22 rows of upright stones, all less than 1m high, and radiating out in a fan shape. There are about 250 stones but there could have been many more originally.

Hill O'Many Stanes (2)

There aren’t many stone rows in Scotland, at least not of any complexity or size, but for some reason, Caithness has a concentration of them.

 

Great Bernera Standing Stones

An unusual stone setting on the Isle of Lewis

Great Bernera (8)

Following on from my last post about Callanish Stones, this is a little group of standing stones on the nearby island of Great Bernera. They are not in the immediate vicinity of the Callanish Stones and its neighbouring stone settings but they are designated as Callanish VIII and are just over 3 miles away as the crow flies – or if you were to cross Loch Roag by boat.
Great Bernera (7)

Going by car they seem much further away, as the road to Great Bernera has to wind its way inland round the long tendrils of Loch Roag. The drive is well worth it for the scenery on the way and then the chance to cross over onto another island. Each of the smaller inhabited islands of the Outer Hebrides has its own unique character, even though nowadays they are all joined to the larger islands by bridges or causeways.

Bridge to Gt Bernera
In 1953 a bridge was built to link the island with the rest of Lewis and these stones sit just above this rather striking white bridge. They aren’t very prominent from the road but once you walk up to them and experience their setting in the landscape you can appreciate why they were built here. They stand like sentinels keeping watch over the deep waters of the sound, with views along the sea lochs to the east and west and to the distant hills.
Gt Bernera Stone Setting

It is certainly an unusual stone setting and its position is unusual too, being set on the edge of a 12m high cliff above the water and with a steep hillside rising above it.
There are 3 tall standing stones and 2 small ones, all facing south, although there is evidence that there were orignally 4 or 5 large stones, rather than just the 3 standing today. Quite a number of packing stones can be seen at the base of some of them and these have since been cemented into place.
The part of the site where the western stone stands had been built up to form a level platform and then the ground was covered in cobbles. Excavations found that the cobbles extended to the cliff edge, where a retaining wall had been built.
Great Bernera (6)

Great Bernera (3)
Although it is thought that the site was most likely used to witness solar and lunar events, I can’t help thinking of the stones as a family group looking out across the water. Looking down on them from the hill above they seem to take on human-like form, particularly as each stone gets its own character from the way it has been cut and the way the Lewisian gneiss gives it its own unique patterns.

Portnancon Souterrain

Portnancon is a well- preserved souterrain near the western shore of Loch Eriboll in Sutherland. It took 3 attempts to find it but after getting directions from a very helpful lady in Durness Tourist Information Centre we easily spotted the 2 large stones by the roadside that marked where to park. The souterrain wasn’t far from the road and I soon spotted the dark hole in amongst the heather.
Portnancon (Eriboll )Souterrain

This was my very first experience of a souterrain and would turn out to be the catalyst for much more research into the souterrains of Scotland and Ireland. It has also  remained one of my favourites.
Souterrains were underground storage facilities,and in Scotland, were usually built underneath or beside Iron Age round houses. There had been evidence of a round house here in the past but this was destroyed when the road was built.
There has been some speculation that they may also have served some ritualistic purpose, but mainly, they were for storage and possibly sometimes used for refuge as well.

With great excitement, I pulled back the heather and tentatively made my way down the 12 steps into the darkness, not knowing what it was going to be like inside. Like most souterrains, the roof was very low at the entrance but then got higher. I started to make my way along the curving passage and I must admit, it was quite scary when I turned the corner and was out of site of the entrance and would have been in complete darkness if it wasn’t for my torch.

Eriboll Souterrain 09
Into the darkness

It is a fairly typical design of the small souterrains found on the Scottish Atlantic coast. An 8.5m long passage curves in an anti-clockwise direction and culminates in a small rounded-off chamber at the end. It has dry stone walls and the roof is made from stone  lintels.
As the end of the passage came into view I had a heart-stopping moment! I’d seen a photo of it, so knew roughly what it would look like. However, down there at the end of the passage I could see what looked like two ropes hanging from the ceiling, one of which appeared to have a sack suspended from it. This was disconcerting for a few moments but I carried on and investigated. It turned out they were just roots from the ground above which had woven themselves into this sack-like shape –  it looked quite eerie, though.

Portnancon Souterrain
Approaching the end of the passage

A slideshow is a good way of showing the descent into the souterrain!

This slideshow requires JavaScript.