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Clava Cairns - A retreat from Culloden Moor

Just South of Culloden Moor along the banks of the Nairn river in a beech grove lies the site of the Cairns of Balnuaran of Clava . I arrived there on an early spring evening when, as often is the case in Scotland, the clouds had dissipated leaving behind a crisp light that threw long shadows from the trees and stones across the clearing making for an evocative atmosphere. Apart from the odd local out walking their dog I found myself alone within this remnant site from an historical era that is now so distant from our modern world.

Not more than a mile away is the site of the Battle of Culloden which remains a well trodden pilgrimage for many people and although already nearly 300 years old, it remains culturally significant to many Scots. The Battlefield is now carefully managed by The National Trust of Scotland with a museum, shop, café and neatly laid pathways leading the visitor around it. The Clava Cairn site is none of that; there is a small carpark and some signage but once I was through the gate and onto the grove the notion of ancientness was immediate. The rich green of the grass and new spring growth of the beach leaves bathed in the still warm sunlight added to the magic of this ancient burial ground.

Late evening sunlight streaming through the beech trees at Balnuaran of Clava
Late evening sunlight streaming through the Beech trees at Balnuaran of Clava

Clava consists of two distinct sites Balnuaran and Milton and date back more than 4,000 years to the bronze age - although there is evidence of some stones being later additions. I found myself in Balnauran in which feature two types of cairns - the passage graves, of which there are two and a single kerb ring cairn. The main difference between the two types are with the access; the passage graves have an access into the centre whilst the ring cairn is completely enclosed. Both of the passage graves have a surrounding circle of widely spaced standing stones one of which runs out of the grove and across the road.

I was lucky to experience the site in the quiet evening sunlight - there are many standing stone sites around Scotland in magnificent settings but as I wondered amongst the stones it was difficult not be moved at how over time it had blended into its surroundings in a way in which the Culloden field had not done so, at least not yet. Research has indicated that the entrances to the cairns are aligned to the midwinter solstice and you can palpably feel the spiritual essence of the place. At Culloden you can feel the stress of its history, grasp its connection to the modern world, but at Clava you can feel the separation from an age which has since transitioned into a magical mythology.

The Cairns & Standing Stones at Balnuaran of Clava
The Cairns & Standing Stones at Balnuaran of Clava

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