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.
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.