Grey Cairns of Camster 

By Nancy Lyon

Down south in England, the Stonehenge car park is jammed with tour buses. In Caithness you still have the rare privilege—if you dare—of entering the inside of a 6,000 year-old burial cairn with nary a soul around to save you.

The  Grey Cairns of Camster  date from 3800 B.C. These 200-foot long chambered tombs are the best preserved in all of Britain.

The Grey Cairns of Camster date from 3800 B.C. These 200-foot long chambered tombs are the best preserved in all of Britain.

In 1968 I flew to London to research a university thesis on drama critics. By a wonderfully odd turn of events, hours after landing on June 21, I found myself on a chartered bus heading for the Salisbury Plain. The bus was filled with urban “Druids” eager to celebrate the Midsummer Druid rites at Stonehenge. By 2 a.m.— experiencing jet lag for the first time— I was garbed in a long white gown and groping my way through the bone-chilling fog to the sacred stone circle. I did my duty, bearing a bowl of soggy bread crumbs past the Heel Stone and the Slaughter Stone and around the North Barrow to the Station Stone, where I waited to greet the dawn. Now I am glad to have my photos of the Druid Rites, because Stonehenge is roped off to visitors now, like many other monoliths that have been crawled over, picked at, scrawled upon and otherwise vandalized.

Down south in England, the Stonehenge car park is jammed with tour buses. But in Caithness you still have the rare privilege—if you dare--of exploring the inside of a 6,000 year-old burial cairn with nary a soul around to save you.

On one of my explorations of Caithness, I drove the four miles out from Lybster and found the bee-hive shaped piles of stones. Iresistably drawn to ancient mysteries, I was keen to explore the inside of it.

CAMSTER sign

I slowly wandered the processional length to the beehive-shaped piles of stones weighing several thousand tons. The iron grill door barring the entrance to one of the cairns was easy to creak open, but the passage over the dirt and into the dark of the interior was suffocatingly narrow. I got down on my knees, and then on my belly and started to crawl through the 7-meter long passage to the inside chamber. Inhaling the ancient blackness, a panic seized me. Was it being buried alive, or being locked in, with no one to scream to? In this lonely landscape I could wait a thousand years for rescue. Or so my imagination wandered. Afraid of my own fear, I was. Which is fear enough. After all, the neolithic people entered these cairns with ceremony and ritual, surrounded by witnesses to the sacred events. I would leave it for a sunny day...