The Clava cairns or fully named the Prehistoric Burial Cairns of Balnuaran of Clava, are a group of 3 Bronze age cairns near Inverness, UK. These prehistoric graves are almost unknown, despite being located right next to the Culloden battlefield, which is a famous tourist site. I was studying in the UK in 2017 and fell in love with the Scottish Highlands during my solo travels around the UK, which meant I carefully scoured the Internet for every possible bit of beautiful nature sites accessible by foot and public transport.
What I found were sometimes not only natural wonders, but also obscure historical sites, located in beautiful nature and the Clava cairns were one of those. I can confidently state that besides the Fairy glen on the Isle of Skye, the Clava cairns were probably the most out-of-this-world beautiful and magical sight I’d seen in the UK. They were worth every bit of the strenuous walk there and it is easy to see why the prehistoric mounds were often attributed to faeries in the olden days. Similarly, it’s equally easy to understand why the Clava cairns were the inspiration behind Craigh na Dun, the fictional standing stones from the Outlander series. There have been claims that the Clava cairns became a bucket list destination after the TV series aired, but I’d say not many people besides the extra hardcore fans are aware of their existence.
The Clava cairns are located about a mile away from Culloden down some backwater country roads rising and falling across the rolling Scottish hills. Naturally, there was no public transport there, but since I walk everywhere, I figured I could handle a mile. Well, this was one of those times when I severely underestimated the journey, which took me much longer than the expected hour or so. The road kept detouring and climbing uphill and since I was wandering around during the winter, the normally soggy ground was hiding random extra puddles and streams, so I was afraid to cut corners off-road and I also managed to get lost twice. As they say though, fortune favours the brave and I was rewarded with some amazing sights.
It began with a viaduct and an open field full of grazing sheep. Do not ask me exactly where I was, as I have no idea and the phone signal was rather poor, but as I rounded the corner what I think must have been the Culloden viaduct appeared straight out of thin air and the green field conspired with the cloudy sky to create some of the best views ever.
On the way to the Clava cairns
When I finally reached the Clava cairns the sun was out and I stepped straight into faery country, there were even some fluffy Highland cows grazing nearby to complete the mythical image. To be fair, the Clava cairns are actually two separate sites, Balnauran of Clava, the larger site and the one I visited, and Milton of Clava, a smaller site in a field a bit further away. However, the Balnuran of Clava site is usually the one meant as the Clava cairns and it consists of three large cairns, dating back to 2000 BC. There are two passage graves and one central ring cairn, surrounded by standing stones. For a bit more detail regarding the construction of the cairns, go here.
The land was apparently used for farming even earlier than that and the Clava cairns remained an important site up to 1000 years after they were built, as they were reused for new burials at that time. The Milton of Clava site also contains the ruins of a medieval chapel, which indicates that the site continued to be significant in some way even in the later periods, but there is sadly very little conclusive evidence regarding the people who were buried there. Due to the amount of construction effort it is likely that they were people of importance and status, but we will probably never know for sure.
The Clava cairns
Getting there: If I had a car, the Clava cairns would have been relatively easy to find, as they are marked on Google Maps here. There are some brown signs marking the way from Culloden and there’s even a short introductory sign about the history at the site. Alas, I had no car, but I think the sight was still more than worth it. 🙂 However, I really do not recommend visiting the cairns on foot, unless you like to work and are determined enough. There is no public transport to the cairns, I’m assuming there must be organised tours, which include them as a stop on the way to or from Culloden.