Ring and Passage Cairns

To the East of Inverness in Scotland lay the three cairns at Balnuaran of Clava, a set of Bronze Age chamber tombs, circular in shape.

In total there are around 50 ‘cairns’ of this type in Inverness, and archaeologists have divided them into two sub-types:

  • Corbelled passage graves. These cairns have a single burial chamber that can only be entered via a short passage running to the centre, and are usually covered with a layer of cairn stones, with the entrances directed to the south west, for the midwinter sunset to enter.
  • Annular ring Cairns. These tombs are slightly less impressive to see, they consist of an unroofed area with no proper means of access from the outside. Usually, the arrangement of the stones is that the bigger they are, the further outside of the ring they are.

  In both of these cairns, another stone circle surrounds the main tomb, and a kerb runs around the cairn.

  So have human remains been found inside the cairns? Well, as the Annular ring Cairns are exposed to the elements, it is much rarer to find any kind of remains in these tombs, but over the years, some have been found in the Corbelled passage graves. However, only ever one or two individual bodies have been found inside, so it may be that these graves were for the wealthier to use. The lack of access to the Annular ring cairns could be an indication that they were used as communal graves, where the poorer folk were thrown in to be disposed of, without the relatives having any intention of re-visiting to pay respects. Similarly, this is another indication that the Corbelled passage graves were for wealthier people to use, as the whole design is more fancy, with the passage inside being used for relatives to enter to pay their respects or make offerings to the dead.

  So which are the cairns at Balnuaran of Clava? As I said before there are three of them, lying close together in a line running north east to south west, and the tombs at either end are the Passage graves, with a Ring Cairn in the middle of the two. Uniquely, the middle grave has stone paths forming ‘rays’ leading out from the platform to three standing sones, set outside the graves. It is unknown why this grave is built with this design, but some archaeologists have put forth the suggestion that it was used as the entrance for rituals to take place inside, such as offerings to the dead.

  What do you think of all this? Why were the Passage graves so much fancier than the Ring Cairns, and what was the purpose of the pathways?

  Until next time,

  Stay Curious!