The Living and the Dead in Northern Scotland 3500-2000 BC

Article excerpt


Monumental architecture dominates the archaeological record of prehistoric Britain and has often been central to the interpretation of early societies. Monuments may have changed the relationship between people and the natural world. In this sense, they are seen as domesticating the landscape (Bradley 1993). The distribution of tombs has also been taken as an indicator of land tenure, the monuments being situated at either the core or periphery of territorial units (Renfrew 1973). A problem with both these approaches is that highly visible constructions are being emphasized at the expense of less obvious forms of evidence: the distribution of megaliths is studied whilst the wider pattern of settlement remains unknown. In this way, the landscape of the dead comes to dominate the landscape of the living.

Monumental traditions in northern Scotland

These issues were considered during recent fieldwork conducted around the Moray Firth in northern Scotland (FIGURE 1). This is a region containing a concentration of megalithic tombs. North of the Moray Firth, the dominant style of monument is the Orkney-Cromarty cairn. At these sites a megalithic chamber is enclosed within either a long or circular cairn. The main concentration of these monuments is in Sutherland and Caithness and further north into Orkney (Henshall 1963; 1972). The Black Isle peninsula in Eastern Ross-shire is the setting for their most southerly focus, with 17 or 18 examples.


Immediately to the south across the Moray Firth from the Black Isle, a quite different monument tradition prevails. The coastal region to the east of Inverness contains the major distribution of Clava Cairns. These are architecturally distinct from the Orkney-Cromarty tombs and are represented by either passage graves or ring cairns. The internal chambers and covering cairns are consistently circular and, in many cases, they are surrounded by a free-standing stone circle. A feature of Clava Cairns is that the stones used in their retaining kerbs and standing monoliths are graded in height towards the southwest. This is the general direction of the midwinter sunset and the southerly extremes of the lunar cycle. Indeed, some of the monuments are aligned directly upon these events (Phillips 2000a).

Prior to excavations at the Clava Cairns, it was generally assumed that they were contemporary with the Orkney-Cromarty cairns. While there are no radiocarbon dates from the latter group on the Black Isle, structural and locational similarities with cairns which have been scientifically dated in Sutherland and Caithness would suggest an earlier Neolithic context (Corcoran 1966; Sharples 1981; Masters 1997). This is also indicated by the artefacts from some sites. Likewise, elements of the Clava Cairns suggested parallels with the Neolithic passage-grave tradition in Ireland. However, a series of radiocarbon dates from a number of Clava Cairns have placed the construction of these monuments firmly in the Late Neolithic/Early Bronze Age (Bradley et al. 2000). There appears to be no megalithic tradition in the area to the south and east of Inverness until that time. The two groups of monuments have an almost mutually exclusive distribution. While many Orkney-Cromarty tombs were re-used for burials and other deposits in the Beaker and Early Bronze Age periods, no new tombs of this type were constructed.

Rationale and methodology

To understand the distribution of these monuments, it was crucial to consider the pattern of domestic activity across the landscape in the vicinity of both groups of tombs. Two fieldwalking projects were conducted on either side of the Moray Firth (FIGURE 1). In order to identify the distribution of worked stone in a way which would be comparable between the study areas, an identical methodology was followed. Many of the fieldworkers participated in both projects, which should allow consistency of observation. …