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.
It was -10 when we, the two Johns + me, visited the Clava Cairns. A walk down from Culloden, a sad place, warmed us up. All posts say what I would say except that there is a badly ruined ring cairn on the other side of the road opposite the car park entrance. Treaclechops has the right idea.
This site has just about everything you could wish for in one place. Stone circles, burial mounds, outlying standing stones, kerb cairns, cup-marked rocks and a very peaceful setting make this a place you could linger for hours. Although there are over 60 known 'Clava Cairns' as a type in this part of Scotland, (Corrimony being one) these are the originals the others were named after.
Three beautiful cairns in a wooded river valley, each surrounded by their own Stone Circle. Although all of the cairns are now roofless, this does enable you to see and understand their construction better. Different coloured stones were deliberately placed for effect, and several stones were decorated with 'cup-marks' for reasons we can only guess at. All in all a wonderful site, and I can think of no-where better for your final resting place.
A pleasant, 1.5 mile walk will take you from the Culloden visitors' centre, down past Clava Lodge and Mains of Clava to this lovely fantastically well-preserved site. If you're going in summer, you'd be advised to visit early in the morning or late in the evening, as this is a 'coachloads of tourists'-type attraction. Two graves, a ring cairn and the 'kerb cairn', plus numerous other stones of all shapes and sizes.
Excavations in 1828, 1857 and 1858 found bones and pottery in the NE cairn, flint flakes in the ring cairn, and bones in the SW cairn. Prof. Thom found that the entrance passages align exactly through two stones in the ring cairn with the midwinter sunset. (Source: 'A Guide to Ancient Sites in Britain, Janet & Colin Bord, 1978).
I arrived there at about 9am at the height of summer (although it was a traditional Scottish summer day - gray, drizzly and very still), and was only joined by a few other quiet people, who soon left me on my own for a good forty minutes. By 11, when I was returning from Miltown of Clava, the place was heaving with bawling children, amateur photographers, loud tourists and disinterested coach drivers.
The site extends on beyond the boundaries of the Historic Scotland 'official fence', in one direction into easily-accessible fields, and in the other, into people's gardens (also easily-accessible, but I wouldn't recommend it!) and beyond to the Miltown site.
Two lovely graffiti'd stone picnic tables are available next to the car park if you need to take a break. This site suffers badly from litter, so if you're feeling charitable, bring a litter bag and pick some up. Historic Scotland don't seem to be doing it (although I did see one of their representatives driving around so they're not entirely neglecting the site).
If you're looking for something else to do, it's worth having a walk down to the rather imposing viaduct.
What a beautifully preserved, peaceful and interesting site. A standing stone in a field on the right just before the car park welcomes you as you arrive. Two passage graves, a central ring cairn and a kerb cairn, with another dilapidated cairn and enigmatic ruined chapel (?) 10 mins walk to the west at Milton of Clava. My favourite stone has to be the split 'crocodile' stone in the circle around the SW cairn (see images). I had the place to myself for a while this morning and it was pretty special. Now a variety of folk have passed through, all obviously impressed with the power and artistry of this place. (See the
link to the leaflet below for practical info, then just get here and soak up the atmosphere of this perfect resting place).
After the French tourbus left, there were only two other cars here – not too bad for this site, but it was nearly sunset.
A lovely place, purposefully peaceful. The trees make the sunlight stripy. Although the site has obviously been prepared to be enjoyed by as many visitors as possible, the atmosphere is still wonderful. Spend as much time as possible here.
Disabled access: There are two large gates to allow easy access but when I visited they were padlocked. The remaining access is a swing-gate into a small fenced area created by the locked gates, which would allow a wheelchair inside, it’s tight but it looks like an experienced driver could squeeze through the space. Once inside the site, a path has not been cleared so the ground is quite uneven, but firm. At the far end, there is a kissing gate out to the road.
This is a very cool place. It's almost too idyllic, and wonderfully evocative. If you believe in faeries and other spirits, this is where they live. And it's a pretty marvellous place to spend eternity, so I recommend a visit.
Very near, in fact practically next door to the battlefield (Culloden), is the ancient site of Clava Cairns. Burial chambers thought to date from the 3rd or 4th millennia BC. There are three of them and there all very impressive, cups marks can be found on various rocks and the place is in surprisingly good condition. Again we were blessed with the timing of our visit. We were the only people there, if we’d have had time we would have loved to have stayed a little longer.
I bought a short leaflet on The Cairns of Clava at the National Trust shop at Culloden Battlefield. This was written by Edward Meldrum in 1983 and is described as 'a delightful leaflet' by Aubrey Burl in his 1995 book, 'A Guide to the Stone Circles of Britain, Ireland and Brittany'. If you can find it it's well worth a read, and describes not only the main 'show site' at Clava but also briefly mentions some of the other clava-style cairns in the area.
The short drive from Culloden wasn't as well sign-posted as expected (both sites are in the care of the National Trust of Scotland), but rest assured, once you reach the little single track 'Clava Bridge' over the River Nairn you are getting very close.
The site was full of tourists jumping around on the cairns, but it was still an amazing place in a sexy woodland glade.
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.
A circular earthwork SE of the guardianship enclosure, which is currently recorded as a 'hut circle', was examined by small- scale excavation and proved to be the remains of a ring-cairn. Four of the outer kerb stones still survived, together with a broad bank of rubble. It seems likely that the monument was constructed in two phases. The first involved the construction of the cairn from surface boulders. In a later phase the interior was excavated and soil was piled against the outer kerb of the monument. This material included a small amount of cremated bone and contained a number of sandstone slabs - a feature which was also recognised in the ring-cairn within the guardianship enclosure.
Sponsors: Historic Scotland and Reading University with assistance from Highland Archaeology Service.
R Bradley 1996