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Historic Sites in Scotland: Clava Cairns Neolithic Burial Site and Standing Stones

Updated on July 18, 2012

Balnuaran of Clava

A few miles outside of Inverness in the Scottish Highlands, lie the fascinating remains of burial cairns (man-made piles of stones) which are around 4000 years old. The site is a great place for people with an interest in archaeology to visit as it features passage graves, ring cairns and standing stones. The cairns at Balnuaran are not the only ones in the area. There are, in fact, 45 cairns in the area around Inverness but few are as well-preserved as those which lie within the beautiful setting of Balnuaran.



Passage Grave

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There are two passage graves at Balnuaran of Clava which would, at one time, have been enclosed by a domed chamber approached by a low passage. According to archaeologists, when the cairn was first constructed it would have been brightly colored with sections of red sandstone and white rocks with quartz. The alignment of one the passage craves (at the north east and south west of the site) is such that at the Midwinter Solstice, the rays of the setting sun would have traveled down the passage to divide the chamber in two.

You can walk through the passageway, into the center of the tomb. When the site was excavated, evidence of cremated remains was found, but there were no bodies buried in the tombs.

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Ring Cairn

At the center of the site is a large ring cairn which is laid out so that it does not obscure the view between the two passage graves at the north-east and south-west of the site. It is different to the other monuments on the site as it never had a roof and did not have an entrance passage. This cairn is damaged but, nonetheless, is an impressive sight. It is surrounded by a circle of nine standing stones.

Standing Stones

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There are several standing stones at Balnuaran of Clava, of differing heights. Some have been broken, but many remain in an incredibly well-preserved condition, given that they have been there for around four millennia. Some of the standing stones are in circles surrounding the cairns, while others are dotted about the site and the precise relevance of their positioning is the subject of some debate. Some of the standing stones are paired, like the ones in this photograph.

The stone circle around the passage grave to the south-west of the site has been divided by a modern road which means that one of the standing stones has been cut off by the others.

A Visit to The Site

Although the weather in Scotland can be pretty inclement around the time of the Winter Solstice on 21st December, it is the ideal time to pay a visit to the site, to witness the way in which the setting sun creates a beam of light along the passage into the graves.

The site is open for members of the public to visit at any time and there is no admission charge. There's a car park at one end of the site. Sensible walking shoes are recommended as the ground is uneven, but the site can be enjoyed by anyone with reasonably good mobility.

Local folklore tells of haunting fiddle music that is heard playing at Clava and this is attributed to the presence of fairy folk. Whether you choose to believe in such legends or not, a visit to Clava can be quite a moving experience. The location is beautiful, there's an intense feeling of calm and the sense of being connected with something ancient. Well worth a visit, even if it is a little off the beaten track.

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