The last post was about a picturesque cairn in a garden on the Isle of Harris. As a contrast, this is another Neolithic cairn in the Western Isles but in a much bleaker moorland setting, further north, on the Isle of Lewis. The islands of Lewis and Harris are not separate islands but one large landmass, with the larger, northern part being the Isle of Lewis and the southern part being the the Isle of Harris.
Duirsainean Cairn sits up on the moors above the village of Garrabost and has panoramic views across Lewis as well as to the distant hills of the Scottish mainland.
On the day we visited it there had been heavy rain all day and I was resigned to getting wet and having very poor light for taking any photos. However, after a rather damp walk the rain eased off and shafts of sunlight shone through onto the landscape.The cairn has been heavily robbed for its stone but the remaining orthostats and kerbstones, coupled with its location, make it worth a visit. An unusual feature is that the position of the kerbstones would indicate that this cairn was square shaped rather than round.
A tall orthostat marks the entrance to the passage which is on the east side and there is evidence to suggest that there might have been a forecourt.
Garrabost is a village on the Eye Peninsula, east of Stornoway (An Rudha on the map and known locally as Point) and the cairn is on a waymarked walk from the village.
On a journey along the west coast of Harris recently, I couldn’t resist taking a few photos of the remains of this Neolithic cairn. It sits in a roadside garden and with the last of the summer flowers still in bloom around it, it made an attractive, if rather unusual picture of a cairn.
The cairn has been affected by the road building and again by road widening over the years and some of the site has no doubt been lost. However, within the garden you can still see the layout of the chamber and the large capstone which is lying on the ground between the upright orthostats.
The cairn is in the crofting township of Horgabost and its setting today makes it hard to visualise how it would have looked in the Neolithic landscape when it would have been in a much more prominent position above the coast.
There isn’t room to park at the roadside and the cairn is in a private garden but it is easy enough to park nearby and walk along the road to view it over the garden fence.
The west coast of Harris, looking north towards Horgabost
Further down the coast at Borve can be found the remains of two more burial cairns and a standing stone known as MacLeod’s Stone
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
From the information board at the site
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.
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.
A well-preserved Bargrennan type cairn, close to the village of Glentrool in Galloway Forest Park.
My favourite cairn or prehistoric site is often the one I last visited, but I’m sure this one will remain a favourite. It exceeded expectations in every way, from the ease with which I found it, the pleasant walk from the village and then the first glimpse of it through the trees. I expected to be taking some atmospheric photos of it through the mist and rain (like many other photos I’d seen!), but the rain stopped when we arrived in the village and then the sun came out and shone down into the clearing where the cairn is situated.
The Bargrennan type cairns are unique to this part of Scotland and consist of a small chamber,covered with a round cairn. The White Cairn is well-preserved and you can follow the short entrance way into the chamber itself, which is still covered by its capstones.
Excavations revealed that the cairn had been reused in the Bronze Age, when a cist was inserted into the side of the cairn. This contained an urn and cremated bone from a man.
There are many Neolithic cairns in Galloway, including some long cairns, but the main types are the Bargrennan ones and the Clyde cairns. The Bargrennan type are not found anywhere else in Scotland and are unique to the upland moorland areas in the west of Galloway and into southern Ayrshire. The Clyde cairns are found in the more fertile areas along the coast. These were court cairns with impressive facades leading into a gallery and similar to the court tombs in the NE of Ireland (see Cairn Holy post).
Nine miles west of Drumnadrochit and Loch Ness, and going towards Glen Affric, a little road on the left takes you into the upland valley of Corrimony.
A whole day could easily be spent here, exploring the chambered cairn and other historical remains and walking in the RSPB nature reserve.
Corrimony Cairn dates from over 2000BC and is one of the Clava-type cairns, common in this part of Scotland. They take their name from the well-known cairns at Balnuaran of Clava, near Inverness.
The cairn has a passage leading into a well-preserved round chamber and is surrounded by a circle of about 12 standing stones.
The cairn material consists of water-worn stones sourced from the River Enrick which runs through the valley.
A short walk from the cairn takes you to the end of the road and from there you can follow other paths and tracks to explore further.
On the left is Killuradan Graveyard (the graveyard of St. Uradan), thought to have been the site of St. Curitan’s Chapel (around 700-750AD). A 19th century wall surrounds the graveyard and set into the NE wall is a triangular basin stone, probably from the original chapel.
Also at the end of the road, across the hump-backed bridge, is Old Corrimony House, built in 1740 during the time when Corrimony was a barony.
Further up the valley is the site of New Corrimony House, which was a grand Scottish baronial style mansion, from the period when Corrimony was a prosperous Victorian sporting estate. The house burned down in 1951 and only a few traces remain, mainly the wall from a terrace and some steps which lead down onto grassy slope, below which you can still make out where there was a small ornamental lake.
One feature which still exists is the formal avenue of trees which lined the driveway up to New Corrimony House. Set among these trees is the 6ft high Mony’s Stone. Legend has it that it was erected during Viking times to mark the burial place of Mony, the son of a Danish king.
The car park at the cairn is also the starting point for an 8.5 mile long nature trail through Corrimony RSPB Reserve. The Caledonian forest and moorlands are home to black grouse, eagles, crested tits and Scottish crossbills.