Chambered Cairn: OS Grid Reference – NC 7247 5687
Also Known as:
- Canmore ID 6212
From Bettyhill village, take the road east towards Tongue and Durness. A half-mile out of the village, at the bottom of the hill, just before you cross the small metal bridge across the River Naver, a very minor road, left, takes you to Skelpick. Go down here and follow the directions to reach the giant long cairn of Skelpick Long. Once there, walk east up the moorland hill (there are no footpaths) for about 150 yards. Once on top of the rise, the moorland levels out a little and there, before you, amidst the small overgrown undulations of many old cairns, a giant one rises up to greet you about 100 yards away. Y’ can’t really miss it!
Archaeology & History
Neolithic in nature, this giant circular cairn, standing on the ridge above the hugely impressive chambered long cairn of Long Skelpick, isn’t quite as grandiose as its neighbour below, but it’s still an impressive feature in this beautiful moorland landscape. Comprised of tens of thousands of small stones raised to a height of 10 feet above the moorland peat, several ‘pits’ have been dug into the top of this undoubted tomb of regal nature; but whether it was originally the burial-place of a single person, to which were later added members of the same family, is simply unknown.
On the top of the cairn, at least one of the ‘pits’ that drop into the centre is covered by a large heavy tombstone with a small upright monolith at its side. Although the late great Miss Henshall (2005) thought no ‘chamber’ was here, it is very likely that a chamber will be found beneath this large rock-covered flat stone (see photo). In our visit, a hollow seemed to be apparent beneath this.
Highlighted on the earliest Ordnance Survey map, it was shown to be just one cairn amidst the mass of other smaller surrounding tombs—most of which were probably built for people from the same tribal group. None of these small cairns have been excavated, but they were probably built after the construction of the major Queen’s Cairn.
The Royal Commission lads visited the site in 1909, but said very little of the place (probably over-awed by Long Skelpick, Coillie na Borgie and other nearby giants!), merely that this large circular cairn has
“a diameter of about 54′. It is about 8′ high, and though the stones have been pulled about here and there on the top, it does not appear to have been excavated.”
And so it remains to this day—although the cairn is slightly larger than the dimensions given by the Commission boys. Beneath the encroaching heather, the cairn is closer to 67 feet (10.23m) across, with a circumference of 210 feet (64.25m).
The monument sits on a plateau immediately above the giant Long Skelpick cairn—although neither can be seen from each other. But if you walk only a short distance from the Queen’s Cairn towards the long cairn below, a very notable and extensive line of ancient walling runs along the edge of the geological ridge separating the two tombs, as if deliberately keeping them apart. Other lines of ancient walling run closer to the cairn, seeming to indicate that a settlement of some form was also apparent on this ridge, in close connection with the group of smaller burial cairns.
It’s a gorgeous arena with many prehistoric sites and puzzles to behold, and plenty of unrecorded ones nestling quietly in the heather. It’s bloody superb to be honest!
- Gourlay, Robert, Sutherland: An Archaeological Guide, Birlinn: Edinburgh 1996.
- Henshall, Audrey S. & Ritchie, J.N.G., The Chambered Cairns of Sutherland, Edinburgh University Press 2005.
- Royal Commission Ancient & Historical Monuments, Scotland, Inventory of Monuments and Constructions in the County of Sutherland, HMSO: Edinburgh 1911.
- Stuart, John, “Report to the Committe of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, Appointed to Arrange for the Application of a Fund left by the Late Mr A. Henry Rhind, for Excavating Early Remains,” in Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries, Scotland, volume 7, 1868.
Acknowledgements: Big thanks to Aisha Domleo & her frobbling Lara for our meandering day out to this olde place… Gorgeous! x
© Paul Bennett, The Northern Antiquarian