Monday, September 24, 2007

The Prehistoric Burial Cairns of Balnuaran of Clava

Monday September 17, 2007:

It was a bit of a shock to the system first thing on a Monday morning to descend from the sleeper onto a chilly platform at Inverness. When I left London the day before, the city was bathed in unseasonably warm sunshine. I hadn’t banked on autumn turning up just yet and was inadequately clad for adventures in gale force winds and driving rain.

The sky lowered threateningly and the nasty little easterly squall spat ice straight from Siberia into my face. During the night the weather had turned and shown, for the first time in my various journeys, a rather disapproving face. Shivering, I trailed after my companion in search of a hot breakfast and a woolly hat. Both successfully obtained, we made our way to the Clava Cairns.

A mile southeast of Culloden battlefield along the east side of the River Nairn, lies three ancient cairns each ringed with a circle of standing stones, dating from around 2000 BCE. Two are passage burial cairns and the last is a ring type cairn.

In a fit of romanticism, Victorians had planted the sight with a grove of what looked like beech trees. The result was a rustic greenness which did not however shelter us any the more from the rain which took turns with the brave sunshine to splash our faces. Still, it meant that we pretty much had the place to ourselves.

The Cairns are all without roofs. When complete, it would have been necessary to crawl on hands and knees to get into the burial chambers. Quarts is embedded into the stones at the back of the chambers and both passage cairns have been angled in such a way to catch the rays of the setting sun on the winter solstice. All the chambers and the rims are open now to the elements and, on such a day as this, rather muddy inside.

Walking between the hip high stones of the passage, I could only imagine what it would be like to crawl in. The chambers were used as burial mounds, but I wondered whether, in later times, they might also have been used for other ceremonies. Certainly, to crawl on hands and knees into a darken round chamber would feel like crawling back into the womb of the earth. Emerging later, perhaps after a significant period of contemplation into the light of a day, might feel like being reborn.

I walked around and around the chamber, stroking the stones, getting the measure of the place. I called the elements and asked the spirits to be with me as I made my slow walking meditation.

The procession moved slowly, the still figure they carried held preciously on an open litter. The river burbled behind them as they made their way to the field of the dead through the dark night, pierced by the sad keening of the mourners.

All was still. Light seeped in along the passage, gradually bringing the structure of the stones, heaped upon each other in apparent disorder, starkly into relief. The grey winter day light shifted towards dusk. It would soon be time.

Suddenly a warm golden ray penetrated the womb like chamber and splashed glittering on the wall, sparkling like a scatter of stars in a darkened night. The watchers, flanking the body, shifted and began to make ready to leave. The sun had returned.

Turning, I moved back, unwinding the circle. AS I walked, a voice chanted in my head:

“Rocks surround the earth mound,
The silent one is homeward bound.
The wheel turns and the sun returns,
The darkness will soon be over.”

Voices brought on the gusting wind, told us we were soon to be interrupted. Silently thanking the spirits of the stones, we moved out and across the field.

Watched by the stones standing in the circle, on hands and knees, I clambered over the piled boulders to the inner circle of the ring cairn. Here, the grass was short, as though grazed by sheep, but there were no sign of their presence. I wandered the inner circumference calling silently to the beings of the place to connect with me. My hands touched gently the casually seeming though carefully balanced stones, inquisitive fingers explored the crevices, stroked the damp lichen covering those with their back to the sun and caressed the soft dry graininess of those lying in its intermittent but warm beams.

I sat down on the grass in the middle and, sheltered from the sharp wind, basked in the warm sun. In the distance crows cawed and the wind shook the trees. All was still.

The sun, an intense beam, warmed me to my core. In the dark, the fire danced. I was in the fire; I was the fire dancing.

Shooting hot tongues of flame into the sky, I danced with the wind, leaping and turning, coasting on its every breath, allowing it to shape me as I moved. Flickering and spiralling I consumed and was consumed; transformed and was transformed, purified and made new.

I felt young, filled with energy. Getting up with surprising agility, I made my way back to the inner edge of the ring and began to move counter-clockwise, unwinding the spell, breathing in the fresh gusting wind, rejoicing in the warmth of the sun beam through a gap left by the rain.


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