Clava Cairns


published on 21 October 2012
Balnuaran of Clava (Dave Conner)

Dating from the late Neolithic period, the Balnuaran of Clava (popularly known as Clava Cairns) consists of three well-preserved cairns (two of which are passage graves) and a number of free-standing stones strategically placed for astronomical purposes. The site is located east of the modern day city of Inverness, Scotland, and dates from c. 2500 BCE; though the site was added to and portions date to c. 2000 BCE. The site was in continual use for over 1000 years and evidence suggests re-use by communities, intermittently, until 770 CE.

Excavations at the site began in 1828 CE and continued, at intervals, through the 1990’s CE. There is no doubt among the scholarly community that the site was originally used both as a burial ground and as some sort of celestial marker as the passage graves are aligned to the winter solstice. According to Andis Kaulins of, `Bal' meant Pole and `Nuaran', River of Light, thus linking the site to the Milky Way and designating Balnuaran as the centre of the heavens from which the ancients could chart the stars. There are forty-five other cairns in the Inverness-Nairn valley which form a definite pattern corresponding to the planets.

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The cairns at the site have been designated the North-East Cairn, Central Cairn, and South-West Cairn. It is thought that there were at least two other cairns at the site which are no longer extant. The north-east and south-west cairns are both passage graves with entrances built leading to a circular center. The central cairn completely encloses the circular space inside and it is thought that bodies may have been cremated here based upon finds in the 1950’s CE which uncovered cremated bone and evidence of recurring fires.

There is a fourth, poorly preserved, structure at the site known as the Kerb Cairn which, today, is only a circle of stones near to the central cairn. The 1950’s CE excavations designated this stone ring a grave site, though no human remains were uncovered, based on similarity of construction to the nearby ancient cemetery of Milton of Clava.  All three cairns are surrounded by upright, slender, standing stones of slightly different colour. 

It is probable that only one person was buried in each of the cairns or, perhaps, only a single person at the entire site.

While these upright stones bear no symbols, some of the stones which make up the cairns are inscribed with ring and cup marks. Examples of the mysterious circles carved in stones have been found all over the United Kingdom and beyond. No one knows what the circles symbolized to the ancient carvers but it appears the petroglyphs were wrought using stone tools or deer antlers.

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The north-east and south-west passage graves, extensively excavated by Professor R. Bradley in the 1990's CE along with the rest of the site, exemplify these engravings, but whether these were carved into the stones before they were in place or after is unknown.  Professor Bradley concluded that the entire site was originally constructed "during a single phase" but this only means that the stones and the cairns were erected at once and sheds no light on whether the ring and cup marks were a part of the rituals which may have been observed there.

Digs at the site have revealed bone fragments indicating that this site, like others, was also a burial ground. Bradley reports that, “A few flecks of cremated bone were found on the surface of the platform" of the north-east cairn and, further, that "over a hundred lithic artifacts were recovered during the excavation and samples were taken for study by soil micromorphology, pollen analysis and radiocarbon dating" (Bradley, Historic Environment Record). It appears, however, that it served as a final resting place for a very select few and was not a cemetery for the common people. No complete skeletal remains have been recovered from the site and it is probable that only one person was buried in each of the cairns or, perhaps, only a single person at the entire site.

It has been speculated, based on the amount of quartz found in proximity to the cairns, that they were once adorned with the white stone which would have caused them to almost glow and this suggests the importance of the site to ancient people.  Professor Bradley has shown that stone rubble was used to initially help hold the larger stones of the cairns in place and that this rubble then extended outwards toward the eleven monoliths which surround the site. These smaller rocks and gravel, after the stones of the cairns were fully situated, were then spread to form an even platform between the structures and the monoliths so that, taken together with the quartz-covered cairns, the site would have been most impressive. 

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The Balnuaran of Clava (Clava Cairns)

Professor Alexander Thom conclusively showed, in the 1940's CE, that the entranceways of the passage graves align directly and, in correspondence with the standing stones, point to the winter sun's setting position. The cairns are now all open to the sky and rise to a height of about five feet (1.5 metres) but evidence suggests that they were once much higher than the ruins one sees today, probably at least ten feet (3 metres) tall, and that the inner chamber of each cairn was enclosed by a roof.

On the winter solstice, sunlight beams directly into the chambers of the passage graves, illuminating the rooms which would have been in darkness the rest of the year. Regarding this, Historic Scotland observes:

The [north-east cairn] is aligned on the midwinter solstice. In recent years this phenomenon has been observed by covering the chamber and passage with tarpaulin. This showed that on a clear day the rays of the setting sun travel down the passage and divide the chamber in half. A beam of intense light focuses on the back wall. The same effect would have been visible in the south-west cairn where the view is obstructed by a modern farmhouse. (Historic

The midwinter solstice is recognized as a matter of considerable importance to the ancients as so many early structures are found aligned to it (such as the famous site of Maeshowe in Orkney, Scotland). As with more famous locations, the cairns at Clava are situated so precisely that, when considered in a pattern with other sites nearby, an astronomical purpose is very clearly suggested. What that purpose may have been, however, remains unknown.

A version of this definition was published as an article in Celtic Guide, August 2012. Grateful acknowledgement to James McQuiston, Editor.

About the Author

Joshua J. Mark
A freelance writer and former part-time Professor of Philosophy at Marist College, New York, Joshua J. Mark has lived in Greece and Germany and traveled through Egypt. He has taught history, writing, literature, and philosophy at the college level.

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Cite This Work

APA Style

Mark, J. J. (2012, October 21). Clava Cairns. Ancient History Encyclopedia. Retrieved from

Chicago Style

Mark, Joshua J. "Clava Cairns." Ancient History Encyclopedia. Last modified October 21, 2012.

MLA Style

Mark, Joshua J. "Clava Cairns." Ancient History Encyclopedia. Ancient History Encyclopedia, 21 Oct 2012. Web. 25 Feb 2018.

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Visual Timeline
  • c. 2,500 BCE - c. 2,000 BCE
    The Balnuaran of Clava (Clava Cairns) is built.
  • 770 CE
    Last recorded use of Clava Cairns site in antiquity.
  • 1,828 CE
    First excavations begun at Clava Cairns.
  • 1,828 CE - c. 1,990 CE
    Ongoing excavations at Clava Cairns.
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