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Clava Cairns Stone Circles: Fascinating To See?

On our second day in Scotland, we saw the (now) popular Clava Cairns, a Bronze Age feature of stone circles.  

clava cairns stone circles

The stone circles have been made very popular by the Outlander TV series as the circles are apparently the inspiration for Craigh Na Dun.  In the series, Craigh Na Dun is how the heroine is transported from post-WWII Europe to 1700s Scotland.  (I read the first book in high school based on the recommendations of my French teacher.  When I read the scene, I pictured stones like the Callanish Stones, just on a narrow hilltop.  To each their own?)

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Arrival

We flew into Edinburgh Airport early in the morning and got our rental car and headed out of the city towards Perth. The drive to Clava Cairns from Edinburgh is 153 miles, and we’ve learned not to go too far the first day. Jet lag and long-distance driving do not mix.

The Greyfriars Burial Ground was our first stop.

Perth

Greyfriars Burial Ground

Is it odd we like to wander around cemeteries?  The older the better?  Well, Greyfriars is an old cemetery.  It was first put into use in 1580 after the burial grounds at St John’s Kirk became full.

If you can find it, there is a burial stone from 1580 that has survived.

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Greyfriars Burial Ground.

The burial grounds were expanded in 1795 and 1820.  In 1978, the last burial took place.

Tip: We avoided parking at the Kinnoull Street Multi-Story car park due to the bad reviews, but had a pleasant experience with the car park on Victoria Street.

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Tree stumps and headstones at Greyfriars Burial Ground.

Tip: There is a Greyfriars Kirkyard in Edinburgh and in Kinross.

Black Watch Castle

After we had our fill of wandering around the very old burial ground, we went across town to the Black Watch Castle.  The museum portion of the stone building covers the history of a regiment called the Black Watch.  

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Black Watch Castle.

Begun in 1725 as a Scottish force inside the Highlands to keep the peace. Supposedly the regiment was only supposed to be utilized inside Scotland.  However, the regiment was sent to Flanders, Belgium in 1745.  After this betrayal by King George II, the regiment was sent all over the world for different battles over the centuries.

Once we were done touring the museum and the gift shop, we had afternoon tea in the cafe.

Then it was onto the Scone Palace.

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Scone Palace

We didn’t tour the palace, but we did enjoy wandering around the garden and cemetery there.  Of course, we stopped and saw the imitation Stone of Destiny at the ancient Moot Hill where the Kings of Scotland were crowded.

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Stone of Destiny (Stone of Scone).

After our wandering around, we got some hot drinks at the Old Servants’ Hall Coffee Shop.  While Scotland is warmer than Vermont in March, it was still cool and rainy.

After the Palace, it was to the Bed and Breakfast for the night and then on the road to head towards the Clava Cairns stone circles and its standing stones.

Tip: Scone is pronounced skoon.

Traveling to the Inverness Area

My sister really wanted to see the Cairngorms National Park, however, somewhere around Braemar, the roads were closed due to snow.  So we had to backtrack on our way towards Inverness.

We did stop at several sites along the way!

Cargill’s Leap

We got out to stretch our legs in Blairgowrie.  There’s a walking path along the River Ericht and in a narrow spot is Cargill’s Leap.

clava cairns stone circles

Per the sign: “Donald Cargill was a presbyterian minister…during the latter half of Charles II reign presbyterianism was outlawed…Ministers who resisted were evicted from the church.  Cargill…was forced to hold illegal meetings…These meetings were often broken up by the military and those captured were cruelly treated.  It is said that on one occasion Cargill managed to escape pursuing troops by leaping across the falls…He was eventually captured in 1681…and executed.”

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Former mill works.

The River was used to power mills in the past.

Somewhere in Scotland…and Pitlochry

We used one of the car pass spots to pull off and take pictures.  You’re not supposed to, but we hadn’t been seeing many other vehicles out on the roads.

We drove through Pitlochry and stopped for lunch. I thought this building below had very interesting window art on its side.  Then it was back on the road.

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Building in Pitlochry.

Culloden Moor and Battlefield

In April 1746 about 1,500 Scotsmen lost their lives in a battle with the duke of Cumberland.  (Of the 1,500, there were 300 that were slaughtered instead of treated for their wounds.)  The battle was the end of the second Jacobite rebellion.

Jacobites got their name from the Latin version of James, Jacobus.  After a succession of childless queens died in England, the crown was voted to pass to the house of Hanover. However, there were those in Scotland that felt James Edward Stewart should be the rightful king.

The first rebellion began in 1715 and saw some victories, but by the time James arrived in Scotland, the battle was essentially over.  Over 6,000 Dutch troops had preceded James and reinforced the English troops.

The second uprising began in 1745 by the son of James, Charles Edward Stewart, or the Bonnie Prince Charlie.  This uprising was over about a quickly as the first, but with much more loss of lives to the Scottish people.  And a way of life.

It is a hallowed thing to walk the moor where so many lost their lives and their freedoms.

While the moor offers beautiful views of the Scottish highlands across Moray Firth and the mountains to the west, it is a moor.  Marshlands that make it difficult for walking across or fighting on.

Given what archaeologists have found during an excavation of certain areas, they believe the hacked musket parts and ripped-off buttons indicate, essentially, hand-to-hand combat.  Things must have been desperate for the Scottish soldiers.

Aftereffects

After Culloden, the Scottish were no longer allowed to wear their tartans, play the bagpipes, bear arms, and were placed under military occupation.  Effectively, the clan system was destroyed.

clava cairns stone circles
Replica farmhouse of the one which stood here during the Battle of Culloden. Supposedly a cannon ball was found in the turf wall of the original building.

Clava Cairns and Stone Circles

A short drive away from the Culloden Battlefield is the Clava Cairns.

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A Clava Cairn and Stone Circle.

There seems to be some disagreement as to what the cairns were built for.  Some say the cairns are houses for the dead.  Others say the cairns were buildings the living used, not the dead.

I like the house’s idea better.  And why would the dead need to make the most of the mid-winter light on the shortest day of the year?  Both the Northeast Cairn and Southwest Carin entryways align with the sunset on the shortest day of the year.

At any rate, the original three cairns were built around 2000 BC, per carbon dating of charcoal.  Experts believe the cairns were in use for about 200 years and then abandoned.

Archaeologists aren’t sure what the Ring Cairn was used for, possibly a temple and later a crematorium.  Maybe it’s just from growing up on a farm, but it reminds me of a silo.  So I have to wonder, was it used for food storage?  Per analysis of prehistoric pollen, it is believed the cairns were set amid a pasture used for barley, wheat, and oats…

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Ring Cairn.

Experts think Kerb Cairn was built about 1,000 years after the other Cairns.  And given the white quartz fragments found, the experts believe this Cairn was for burial purposes.

If nothing else, the cairns are fascinating to walk around and wonder what they were used for and who the people were.  And how did they build them?  With no excavators and cranes?  And if the people were malnourished why would they expend more energy than needed?

Time Travel

You might see people touching the standing stones, trying to travel back in time (go read the intro if you skipped it).  So far, only fictional characters seem to be able to make use of the standing stone circles to travel back (or forward) in time!

Culloden Viaduct

Don’t miss the views of the Culloden Viaduct, the longest in Scotland, while visiting the Clava Cairns.  Just be respectful – some people, rightfully so, don’t want you parking in their driveway to take pictures.

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Culloden Viaduct. The center arch is 100 feet wide, while all the other arches are 50 feet wide.

There are 29 arches that make up the 1,800-foot masonry viaduct.  The viaduct carries the main rail link into the Highlands and has been in use since 1989.

One of the ways to get views without worrying about parking is to leave your car at the Clava Cairns car park and walk down the road to the Milton Cairns.

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Milton site and Culloden Viaduct.

Milton Cairns

While this may have been a more impressive site several hundred years ago (or thousands), today these cairns are in disrepair.  Centuries (millennia?) of weather and reuse of the site and removal of the stones for other structures have laid these cairns bare.  But it’s still worth the walk down the road to see the viaduct and stretch your legs!

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Milton Cairn ruins and a standing stone.

Moray Firth and Fort George

We stayed in a rental unit on Moray Firth in Ardersier.  If nothing else, stop in for a walk along the shoreline.  You may even spot a dolphin!  The sunsets and sunrises are beautiful and inspirational.  One could argue they even are visual stress relief.

We didn’t leave ourselves enough time to tour Fort George we did have fun walking to it and along the outside for a bit in the early morning light.

The Fort was built in response to the second Jacobite uprising and bristled with cannons, muskets, pikes, and swords.

Glenfiddich Distillery

One of the other sites we saw while in the Inverness area was the Glenfiddich Distillery.  (My friend really wanted to stop at a distillery while we were in Scotland, so we ended up at Glenfiddich “valley of the deer“.)

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Part of the original Glenfiddich building.

We got to the distillery and bought our tour tickets, but had some time to spare, so we wandered down the road and found a war museum and a path through the woods.

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Dufftown Memorial.

Then it was time for the tour.  My sister and I went on the basic tour and our friend went on the more advanced tour.  We learned about how whiskey is made, the barrels they use, about the original buildings, and then it was time for taste testing.  I couldn’t have any since they don’t allow the tourist who is driving to partake – which is very smart of them.  Since I couldn’t partake, I made my sister try the samples.  Being mostly a non-drinker she made some interesting faces while trying the samples.

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Glasses for taste testing.

Tip: No worries for those who are the designated drivers, you get a bottled sample to take away with you.

While waiting for our friend to finish her tour, we had a snack at the restaurant.

Tip: On the side of one of the buildings, there is a water spigot that is fresh, pure, mountain water.  They tell you about it on the more advanced tour.  We filled up our water bottles with the water before going on a walk towards town.  It’s really good water.

Balvenie Castle

The day had warmed up a bit from the snow in the morning and the sun came out.  We had a nice walk past Balvenie Castle, built in the 1200s.  Three hundred years later the castle became elegant lodgings.  We decided we had seen enough castles in Ireland, we skipped seeing the inside of this one.  Well, that and we had castles planned for later in the week.

End of the Day

Then it was back to Ardersier for the night before heading towards Loch Ness and the Isle of Skye in the morning.

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