Grey Cairns of Camster 

By Nancy Lyon

Stonehenge gets all the attention and World Heritage admission fees. But Scotland has stone circles and tombs and monuments older than the Egyptian Pyramids. In Caithness you still have the rare experience—if you dare—of crawling inside 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, as an Indiana University student mad about theatre, I made my first trans-Atlantic flight to London to spend the summer interviewing West End drama critics. By an odd turn of events, hours after landing at Heathrow on June 21, I found myself on a chartered bus filled with would-be “Druids” heading for the Salisbury Plain, to celebrate the Summer Solstice Druid rites at Stonehenge. By 2 a.m.— jet lagged into an other-worldly state— I found myself garbed in a long white gown, groping my way through bone-chilling fog to the sacred stone circle.

I did my Druidic 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 with all the other Druids to greet the dawn. It was more fun than the Lutheran Catechism classes I was forced to attend as a teenager. And now I’m glad to have my photos of the Stonehenge Druid Rites, because Stonehenge is a World Heritage Site roped off to visitors and vandals now, like so many other ancient monoliths that have been crawled over, picked at and scrawled upon.

Down south in Salisbury, England, the Stonehenge car park is jammed with tour buses vying for a distant glimpse of the prehistoric stone circle. But in Caithness in the north of Scotland you still have the rare experience—if you dare--of crawling inside a 5,000 year-old Neolithic burial cairn with nary a soul around to save you.

Over 60 cairns have been discovered in Caithness, a land of unexplored and unearthed archaeological treasures. But the Camster Round Cairn, 55 feet in diameter and 12 feet high, is regarded as the finest chambered Neolithic tomb in all of Britain. The larger Long Cairn of Camster is 200 feet long and 65 feet wide!

On one of my explorations of Caithness, I was staying at the comfortable old Portland Arms in Lybster (now renovated as The Portland Hotel). One morning I followed the lonely moorland road linking Lybster to Watten, and turned off five miles north of Lybster. From a distance, the heaps of stones forming Grey Cairns of Camster, with their long winding stone passages, look like gargantuan grey dragons hibernating on the treeless landscape.

Fifty centuries of human births and deaths had passed, and these 15-foot high slab built ceremonial tombs—thousands of tons of stone—were still standing. These enormous bee-hive shaped chambered stone cairns had been painstakingly erected by New Stone Age farmers when the surrounding countryside was fertile farmland. Through over-use and tree felling, by the Bronze Age this landscape had become desolate, decayed and boggy.

CAMSTER sign

Irresistably drawn to ancient mysteries, I was foolishly keen to explore the inside of the Round Cairn. If the gate wasn’t locked, then surely it was OK to go in. I walked the processional length to the eerie stone piles. The iron grill door barring the entrance to the Camster Round cairn creaked open with a chilling funereal tone.

I got down on my knees, and then on my belly and started to crawl through the 20-foot long passage to the inside chamber. But what I didn’t expect, the passage over the dirt into the dark of the circular interior was suffocatingly narrow, only 31 inches wide. How could the bodies of Stone Age chieftains have been brought here? Were humans that much smaller, or was the chamber larger…eons ago?

Archaeologists excavating in 1865 found a foot-thick layer of ash and burnt bones inside, and skeletons placed in sitting positions, but strangely missing the leg bones. Archaeologist John Corcoran studied the cairns between 1971-1973 but became ill and died during the excavations. A Stone Age curse?

Crawling along inhaling that ancient blackness, a panic seized me. Was it the fear of being buried alive, or being accidentally locked in, with no one to scream to? In this lonely landscape I could wait a thousand years for rescue. After all, the pre-historic peoples entered these cairns with ceremony and ritual, surrounded by witnesses to the sacred events. The gate to the Camster Round cairn passage had been left unlocked, but I suddenly felt that I had no right to be there, a mere 21st century tawdry tourist…a cairn bagger?