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by Chris Brooks, Heritage Action.
After successfully transferring from train to bus and finally plane, I arrived in a reasonably sunny Inverness. It was about 4pm and after picking up the hire car I made my way towards the Bronze Age Clava Cairns, a short distance east from the city. On the way I noticed a sign for the Culloden battle field and decided to take a quick look (well, I was already going past it after all).
A short journey up the drive and you are met with a futuristic wooden clad building which I assume is the museum, and a sign to pay a parking charge… no matter what time of day it is. Ignoring the museum due to lack of time (but not the parking charge) I headed for the battlefield itself. This was as you would expect in this part of the world, a large gorse field with various paths running across it and initially not too exciting. There are two rows of flags, one red representing the Duke of Cumberland’s governmental lines and the other blue flags representing the Jacobites. I must admit although this doesn’t sound too exiting, I did feel humbled in this place and as I walked around reading the various markers and information points they started to drive home the carnage that took place here.
I stayed for about an hour just walking and reading and thinking heavily about the purpose of wars and why we have them. I suppose they start for any number of reasons such as repression, greed, hatred and of course religion. They have been going on for many hundreds and thousands of years, as many of our ancient sites prove and I do not suppose they will ever stop. It was quite depressing really so I left Culloden and made my way to Balnuaran of Clava just down the road.
Clava Cairns. Image credit and © Chris Brooks
I drove into a large well kept parking area which was empty but for one other car. Apparently you can get coachloads of people to this place so I felt quite privileged to have got here at such a peaceful moment. Stepping through a kissing gate which has one of those electronic device for detecting the comings and goings of visitors, you enter the site and are teased of what lies ahead by the obstructing trees swaying in the strong breeze. As I continued forward the couple who owned the other car appeared and as they walk past they said “hi, this place is amazing”. Clearing the trees I noticed the first cairn on my right gleaming yellow/white in the bright warming evening sunshine. Then as I looked around I realised that I was stood in a field full of cairns, boulders, stone circles and various humps, lumps and bumps and initially it was almost all too much to take in.
The first Cairn is a massive passage grave surrounded by a circle of equally impressive standing stones. The cairn itself seems to be set upon a rubble plinth with large kerb stones around the outside. A fairly long passage takes you to its central circular heart some 3m in diameter and where some of the internal wall stones carry evidence of cup marks. These were often difficult to see (or photograph) due to the lack of shadow in the chambered area. According to the nearby information board these stones are made of various different types of rock designed to catch the the mid winter sun. They also detail the way the stones in the circle around the cairn are arranged so that the largest two stand guard of the passageway and then get gradually reduce in size as they circle the cairn, finishing with the smallest of the original 12 at the back directly opposite the passage entrance.
The second cairn has no passage way but does have a central chamber which is open to the sky. Commonly know as ring cairns it is believed that these were not designed to be re-entered after initial use and were closed off for that reason but as I didn’t want to climb the cairn, I couldn’t get access to the centre. What was apparent were 3 low banks radiating like spokes on a wheel, from the cairn towards the outer stone circle but which wasn’t present on the first cairn.
The third and probably the smallest cairn was very similar to the first with a passage way leading to the central chamber and also showed signs of the radiating banks similar to the second.
There is a very much smaller circle of stones from what I think is a later structure. In fact because there are lots of stones and bumps on the whole site, it is quite difficult to work out what is what just by looking. The various information boards are very useful in helping you see what you probably miss just by looking around and I spent a long time at this site doing just that.
It was very moody with the sun going down, the wind in the trees and the birds making themselves known and it was 7:15pm before I got in the car again, I was behind schedule and needed to get a move on.
Edderton Stone. Image credit and © Chris Brooks
I next drove to a standing stone called Edderton or Clach Biorach (Sharp Stone) described as having a series of early class 1 Pictish designs. Standing stones are not big on my wish list and it was a little off route but I tend to like those that are a little different and wanted to see this one as it wasn’t far from the side of the road so no big walk was involved. I eventually found it, after my satnav seemed to take me the long way round, standing in a field about 50m from the road. Parking is very easy as is access through the gate. It isn’t a particularly tall standing stone but was nicely set against the nearby hills. The normal wooden fence surrounded the stone to keep the cattle off but unfortunately it was also covered with barbed wire as if to keep people out too. Now I am not the most nimble of people and I wasn’t willing to risk cuts and bruises or ripping my clothing at the beginning of my trip so I declined to climb the fence, which was a bit of a shame really. As the sun began to set behind a nearby hill it brought out the carvings very nicely. A very strong image of a fish was present with some further difficult to recognise markings lower down. I couldn’t stay too long but got a few photos before returning to the car.
The next place was supposed to be Camster but it became clear that as the sunset I was not going to be able to make it in time …. or at least in daylight. This was a disappointment as the site came highly recommended and maybe I should have not bothered with Edderton but that was the way it was.
I continued the drive north only to find that my overnight stay in a local B&B was taken by somebody else as I had not told them I was going to be so late (it was gone 11pm by now!) I drove around a bit (went to John O’Grouts and Dunnet Head just to say I had!) but eventually decided to get my head down in the car at the Gills Bay ferry port and looked forward to the following day…