The Clava Cairns are a regional type of cairn found in N.E. Scotland, covering an area around Inverness, the Black Isle and along the Spey Valley. They get their name from the Bronze-Age cemetery at Balnuaran of Clava, where the best examples are found.
Unlike the much earlier Neolithic chambered cairns, the Clava cairns were built around 4000 years ago in the Bronze Age and were erected more as places of ritual than tombs for the dead.
The typical design was a round cairn surrounded by kerbstones and a passage leading into a round chamber in the centre. This was then surrounded by a stone circle and other standing stones.
They tended to be built in areas of fertile land and consequently many have had their stones removed and used to build dykes and farm buildings. Often all that is left are a few large stones from the cairn or the remnants of the stone circle that surrounded it, but fortunately, the cairns at Balnuaran of Clava and at Corrimony in Glen Affric are still more or less intact. Both these places are well worth a visit, not just because they are the best examples of Clava Cairns but Balnuaran of Clava, in particular, really does have a special ambience. It is no coincidence that it was the inspiration for Craigh na Dun in Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander books.
Balnuaran of Clava
Situated down a country road in the Nairn valley near Inverness, the Bronze-Age cemetery is surrounded by trees planted by the Victorians, which only adds to the sacred atmosphere of this enchanting place. On an autumn day the whole site, including the chambers of the cairns, is carpeted in golden and red fallen leaves, making a lovely contrast with the worn grey stones.
The cemetery consists of three burial cairns in a row, each surrounded by a stone circle and other standing stones. The outer two are passage graves with a passageway leading into the central chamber but the middle one is a doughnut shaped ring cairn without a passage into the inner chamber – possibly used as a funerary pyre.
The two passage cairns are aligned to the south west, so that the setting sun shines down the passage when it’s the winter solstice and this is another typical feature of the Clava type cairns.
There are several cup-marked stones and this one has
been used as a kerb stone.