Case Study: Clava Type Cairns

Susan Kruse

Ring cairn in the foreground with standing stones and a further cairn in the background.
Figure 1: Ring cairn at Balnuaran of Clava, one of three chambered cairns at Clava which have given a name to the whole group of similar cairns throughout the area ©HES

The Clava Cairns have been the centre of attention for over a hundred years. They are part of a distinct regional burial tradition from Moray to Glenurquhart, and the upper Spey Valley to the Black Isle. Two types of burial cairns, one with a passage to a central chamber, the other a closed ring cairn, are surrounded by a stone circle of monoliths. An interesting aspect of construction is that the stones in the inner and outer kerbs, as well as the free-standing circle are graded in heights, so that the north-eastern members are smallest, the southwestern tallest. Most of the cairns with passages are also aligned to the southwest, positioned to correspond with the setting of the midwinter solstice. Many of the stones have cup mark decoration.

Cup marked stone at the entrance to a cairn.
Figure 2: Cup mark decoration is present on many stones at Balnuaran of Clava ©HES

In the 1990s, Richard Bradley and a team undertook detailed analysis of the cairns at Balnuaran of Clava (which gives its name to the monument type; MHG3013, MHG3002; MHG4366), as well as looking in depth at several others nearby. Fieldwalking in the area, particularly the areas between Culloden and Nairn, was also undertaken to provide further information about the prehistoric landscape in the area.

Before Professor Bradley’s work, these monuments were generally considered to be Neolithic, based on their superficial similarity to Neolithic chambered cairns. However, his work conclusively showed that these monuments are Early Bronze Age, a local tradition fusing that of Neolithic chambered cairns and the recumbent stone circle tradition further to the east, but built in different ways. The harking back to earlier burial traditions can also be seen in the large number of Neolithic chambered cairns which were re-used in the Bronze Age (and it is noteworthy that Neolithic chambered cairns are virtually absent in the area of Clava-type cairns). Moreover, at some of the Clava-type cairns the sites were re-used in the Late Bronze Age, showing further continuity of tradition.

Bradley argues that the cairns need not be one period construction, perhaps with the circles and platforms coming later (Bradley 2016a, 116). Most are in low-lying areas, and he argues that they were probably near domestic settlements, supported by the fieldwalking evidence.

The team took several years examining the monuments, and feel that their results are the better for it – as Professor Bradley put it, ‘taking time to become acquainted’ (Bradley 2000, 214). This also allowed them to see the monument in different lights, and from this he argues that stones were carefully chosen by shape and colour as well as height.

The work and analysis were also well served by the final publication (Bradley 2000), which provides details of the work as well as a number of thought-provoking insights. Why was this monument type built here in the Early Bronze Age, and what is happening elsewhere in the Highlands? Altogether Bradley’s study is a model for good practice on investigating research questions, using non-destructive analysis, integrating dating, having a landscape analysis, and providing a good publication.

Further information

Bradley, Richard 2016a ‘After the great stone circles’, in Bradley and Nimura 2016, 112–121.

Bradley, Richard 2000 The Good Stones. A new investigation of the Clava Cairns, Society of Antiquaries of Scotland: Edinburgh.