You’ll find the Corrimony Chambered Cairn in Glen Urquhart in Inverness-shire. This remarkable Bronze Age construction has given direct insight into the priorities and practices of early Scottish peoples, but it still remains shrouded in mysteries which we are still struggling to unwind to the present day.
Glen Urquhart is really quite an interesting place to study various civilizations as you go through the centuries. At the eastern end of the glen, you have Urquhart Castle on the shores of Loch Ness, it was actually a fortress going back to Iron Age times. Urquhart Castle was besieged in 1297 by Edward the First of England’s army but it was liberated by Andrew de Moray. De Moray became one of William Wallace’s lieutenants in the Scottish Wars of Independence, so it marks an important place in Scottish history – but that place starts over a thousand years prior when the mound of that Iron Age fort was first raised to dominate this glen.
As you move through the glen, you can move through different eras of civilization. Closer to the present day, in the post-Jacobite era following the battle of Culloden, the Duke of Cumberland’s soldiers waged their policy of fire and sword and farm through Glen Urquhart, as they did in many places in the Highlands. The skeletons of these burnt out crofts show the true horrors of the clearances which harrowed the highlands and islands for nearly two centuries but never more starkly than after the battle.
Going back further, in 565 A.D. St Colomba was here on his mission from Iona to Christianise the Highlands and the northern part of Scotland. He came specifically to Glen Urquhart, where he Christianised and converted our Pictish chief and waged his war here against Druidism and against paganism. Here he is said to have encountered the great “water beast” which is believed to be the first sighting of the Loch Ness Monster.
Corrimony offers visitors a real glimpse into the Bronze Age 2000 B.C., 4000 years ago and a place difficult for modern people to imagine. Standing in this ancient place it is easy to wonder how our ancestors saw the world, to imagine how they lived their lives, and to peer through their eyes into Corrimony Cairn which still remains.
The Bronze Age originated around 5000 years ago in the Near East, and it reached Scotland around 2000 B.C. about 4000 years ago. It brought with it significant changes in technology through the use of metal-making. The making of weapons or jewellery or implements for everyday life was a serious innovation that radically altered society here. There are quite a number of sites around the highlands of Scotland where Bronze Age artefacts have been found. In Balnalick about three miles from Corrimony, they found the shards of a beaker from the Bronze Age period and also a shaving razor. Alongside the introduction of metal making, the Bronze Age people also introduced more advanced methods of farming, enclosures, field systems etc. While trivial to us, these incremental advances were massive for Bronze Age people; they allowed them to step away from their Stone Age roots as hunter-gatherers to put down more permanent roots as farmers.
Corrimony is classified as a Clava type cairn, after the passage cairns at Clava, about 20 miles from Corrimony as the crow flies. The significance of the passage in the cairn appears to be related to the turning of the seasons. In the case of Clava, the two existing cairns have their passages aligned directly to the southwest, at the point of the sun’s lowest depression in the mid-winter solstice sunset. These cairns had a significant purpose and recorded the cycles of the sun and the cycles of the seasons. This would have been useful information to what were essentially agricultural communities.
The cairns at Clava and Corrimony Cairn are also burial cairns. In the case of Corrimony, the remains of a body of a woman were discovered under the centre of the cairn in the 1950s. She was in the classical crouching position, which quite often happens with Bronze Age burials, and remnants of quartz have been found scattered around the outside of the cairn. This confirms that there were ceremonial and burial purposes as well as recording the seasons. It seems that the cairns were at an intersection of remembrance as well as function for those who remained, further underlining the importance of their construction alongside the effort which was invested in making them.
The cairn would have actually been enclosed or roofed over at one time. The idea of cairns having passages that record the Winter Solstice, sunset or sunrise actually pre-date the Bronze Age. Corrimony shares remarkable similarities with the famous Newgrange Burial Passage Tomb in County Meath in Ireland, which records the Winter Solstice sunrise and that predates the Bronze Age by a thousand years or so. That Irish cairn is over 5000 years old and gives remarkable insight into pre-Bronze Age society. It’s also known from Newgrange, which is completely roofed over, that when the sun rises on the winter solstice the sun floods into the centre of the tomb and illuminates the white stones in the back of the cairn. Newgrange was also a rich Neolithic agricultural site. Similarly, the cairns at Corrimony and Clava are on fairly good farming land, which has made the area perfect for settlement.
The cairn itself is constructed mostly from river rounded boulders, most likely from the nearby river Enrick. The cairn at Corrimony used to have a capstone on top of it, although with the passage of time, it’s now adjacent to the cairn. If you look at this capstone, you’ll find cup marks, which are quite widespread at stones at various sites throughout Scotland. These are known as Bronze Age Rock Art. The cup marks at Corrimony were produced by the very simple method of taking a harder, river rounded rock and beating out an indentation on the softer rock. That’s how the Neolithic and the Bronze Age people left their mark, this practice actually predates the Bronze Age. People wanted to leave their mark on the stones, the purposes for doing so are unknown, although there are various theories.
Some people say that cup mark stones mark out sacred sites. There are other theories that they might have been waymarkers on routes for drovers or travellers, possibly even waymarkers on some kind of pilgrim route that led to these sites such as Corrimony or Clava. And they’re quite fascinating. There’s also some speculation that there are certain instances where cup mark stones and ring mark stones mark out movements of celestial bodies.
Anyone with an interest in history will be delighted with a visit to Scotland, Scottish history is fascinating. This small country has seen ancient civilisations, conflict, and innovation that’s changed the world. Walk in the footprints of dinosaurs on the Isle of Skye. Imagine life as a Viking at the Up Helly Aa festival in Shetland. Stand at the most northerly edge of the Roman Empire at the Antonine Wall. Survey the moody moor where the course of Scottish history was decided with the Battle of Culloden. Visit the University of Edinburgh and see the place that inspired history’s most notable thought leaders like Charles Darwin, James Hutton and Alexander Graham Bell.