|The day after making our acquaintance with our first Scottish stone circle at Aviemore comes the main prehistoric day out of our Highlands holiday. I’m impossibly excited about getting to see Clava, even the prospect of coachloads of tourists can’t detract. We get the bus to the Visitor Centre at Culloden battlefield, from where it’s a short enough walk to the Clava complex, crossing the River Nairn and admiring the impressive viaduct on the way.
Approaching from this way, the Mains of Clava NE standing stone is the first monument we encounter, first glimpsed tantalisingly through trees opposite Clava Lodge and then immediately to hand in the field next to the road as we head towards the main site. But we pass straight on for the moment, as the excitement of getting to the central complex is too great, especially as it becomes apparent that there are no cars parked in the parking area, and no people to be seen amongst the trees.
As soon as we’re under the trees the incredible atmosphere of this place hits home. Under a canopy of leaves turning slowly from green to autumn shades, the NE cairn is the nearest to us, surrounded by an impressive ring of upright stones. It’s almost too much for the brain to compute, the size of the cairn, the exquisite choice of stones for the circle. And then the eye relays the information that there’s two more of the damn things, right THERE. I’ll be honest – nothing I’d read about the site, no photos I’d seen, really prepared me for its raw, in the flesh, splendour. And it’s all ours for the moment, no coachloads of disinterested gawpers, just us in this magical glade. By now I’m wearing the stupidest grin ever.
Walking around the NE cairn reveals the deliberate grading of the stones, up to a slender monster all of 9 feet. Both of us walk around the circle for a while, neither somehow quite ready for the cairn itself yet. During our circuits, we admire the amazing cup-marked kerb stone. What a beautiful thing. At length we head into the chamber. It’s a little difficult to imagine this open passage as a low “creep”, in truth. But the stonework inside the chamber is wonderful and the feeling of seclusion, already heightened in the quiet of the glade, is complete in here. When we re-emerge we spend another 10 minutes or so re-circling the circle. I can’t get enough of this.
The central cairn is very different. The mound is lower and there is no passage into it (and apparently never was). Although its surrounding circle is similar to that around the NE cairn, it is connected to the cairn by a series of low rubble “spokes”, apparently at random but no doubt anything but. The effect is striking, if typically unfathomable, at least to me.
Tucked away on the edge of the site near the central cairn is a lovely kerb or ring cairn, consisting of an open ring of small boulders, one decorated with cup-marks and a cup and ring. I like this little ring very much, although it feels almost like a whimsy in the company of the three main cairns and circles.
The first thing that attracts my attention at the SW cairn is the rather unusual “double” stone in the surrounding circle. It looks like a single stone that has been split vertically and then prised apart, leaving an enigmatic upright V shape. There is so much to ponder over at this complex. The cairn itself is very fine, sitting on an even wider low mound. As well as the “double” stone, the uprights in the surrounding circle match the careful choice of those around the other two cairns. As with the NE cairn, we spend a while circling, taking in the stone over the road, sadly divorced from its family, and the couple built into the fence/wall.
While we are here a couple on bikes arrive at the other end of the site, the only people we’ve seen so far. We head into the interior of the SW cairn, noting both the lovely cup-marked stone just inside the chamber and another stone built into the walling that appears to have a single cup-mark (although I’m not aware of reading about that). I could sit and look at the different stone textures for hours, but at length we decide to head back around the site again before checking out some of the neighbouring monuments. Apart from the cyclists, we’ve had the whole place to ourselves for over an hour.
I can’t put into words how deeply this place has impressed me. I hope we can come back again, although perhaps the perfect visit won’t be easily repeated.
We head back to the Mains of Clava standing stone that we’d bypassed on our way earlier. It stands in a field right next to the road, so unless there are animals about, access is as straightforward as can be. The current OS 1/25000 shows a “Chambered Cairn” to the NE of the standing stone, but all we can see is an overgrown area with some possible field clearance. [Post-visit check of Canmore reveals nothing either.]
The stone itself is rather fine, at least six feet tall and very solid and chunky. It appears to serve as a rubbing stone, but there are no animals in the field today.
We have a quick look over the wall in the vicinity of the Mains of Clava SE
site, but it all looks very overgrown and the wall in between isn’t particularly inviting for climbing, so we decline a closer look.
Instead we return along the road towards the main complex, where a gate leads into the field in which Mains of Clava SW can be found. Previously dismissed as a hut circle, this site has now been reinterpreted as a ring cairn after excavation. We find a decent sized but rather overgrown mound, with some exposed stonework. Obviously nowhere near as impressive as the main enclosure, but this is still a very decent addition to the group.
Back onto the road, we take the opportunity to re-visit the SW cairn of the main group. It’s very difficult to leave this site (again). But leave we do, heading along the road in the direction of Milton of Clava.
The site is a short stroll along the road from the main Clava Cairns
, access is along a neat path from Milton of Clava, where the road bends sharply southeast.
The most obvious marker is the lovely “playing card” slab, all that remains of the circle that once surrounded the cairn here. The cairn itself is disturbed and much of the material has been rather scattered, but a low mound remains, still pretty substantial. It lacks the special atmosphere of its near neighbours, and the river is unseen and unheard in spite of its proximity. The valley location is very pleasant and peaceful though, and the site probably sees substantially fewer visitors than the more famous site so close by. Certainly worthy of the very minimal effort required.
On this, our first trip to the Highlands, I am uncertain about access rights. Being a rule-bound Englishman, I can’t quite believe that the freedom to go pretty much anywhere can be for real. So for this reason we don’t attempt to visit the further ruined cairn close by at Culdoich, or another at Culchunaig. Next time, perhaps.
Instead we follow the road round to Ballaggan, where a slight elevation is rewarded with a nice overview of the whole Clava complex and River Nairn. We walk along the quiet country lane to Castletown, past fields of inquisitive cows and friendly horses, then drop back down to the Nairn before completing the loop back to Culloden’s Visitor Centre.
As introductions to Scotland’s prehistory go, it’s a pretty unforgettable one we’ve had today.
Posted by thesweetcheat
13th July 2012ce
Edited 13th July 2012ce
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