Saturday, 20 May 2017
The Clava Cairns
Not far from Culloden is a remarkable place. The cairns at Balnuaran of Clava are simply one of the most evocative prehistoric sites I have ever visited. The impression is rather like walking onto the film-set for some tale of swords-and-sorcery like The Lord of the Rings. The large chambered burial cairns are almost too perfectly preserved, the standing stones surrounding each cairn uncannily picturesque, and the setting and atmosphere thick with a wary watchfulness. In this open-air cathedral to something just out of memory, thickly cushioned underfoot with moss, it almost comes as a surprise that no linen-shrouded body lies within each chamber, surrounded by rich but untouchable grave-goods. Or, less romantically, that a film-crew and actors are not taking a lunch break among the trees.
Of course, some of this is stage-setting. In the 1870s, the site's owner regarded these Bronze Age burial cairns as Druidic Temples, and enhanced the site by planting a grove of trees around it. As at Culloden, the Victorians were great interpretive "improvers" of historic sites. It's also not impossible that some of the features have been tinkered with or repurposed: they are 4,000 years old, after all. Certainly, the archaeologists regard the stone rings enclosing each tomb as a later feature, perhaps acting as an insulating, apotropaic barrier, perhaps serving some more mundane purpose. But such tombs are a feature of the Moray Firth region, and their authenticity is unquestionable; I have rarely felt the presence of the distant past so tantalisingly close at hand.