Visiting Culloden and Clava Cairns: Touring The Scottish Highlands

On our first day of touring with Haggis Adventures we explored the Scottish Highlands including stops at the visitor center of the Battle of Culloden Moor and the mysterious Clava Cairn.

Visiting Culloden & Clava Cairns in the Scottish Highlands with Haggis Adventures Tours
Visiting Culloden & Clava Cairns in the Scottish Highlands with Haggis Adventures Tours

Scottish Highlands: Culloden & Clava Cairns

The Scottish Highlands are a rugged and picturesque region of Scotland, famous for its dramatic landscapes, rich history, and unique culture. For visitors who are interested in exploring this fascinating part of the world, understanding its history is essential. The Scottish Highlands have a complex and fascinating past that has played a significant role in shaping the region as it is today.

The history of the Scottish Highlands dates back thousands of years, to the time of the Picts, who were one of the earliest recorded tribes in Scotland. These people were skilled farmers and metalworkers, and they created many impressive monuments that can still be seen in the Highlands today. The Picts were eventually absorbed into the wider Scottish culture, but their legacy lives on in the region’s art, language, and folklore.

In the Middle Ages, the Highlands were ruled by a system of clan chiefs who were responsible for maintaining order and providing protection to their people. This system was based on loyalty and mutual obligation, and it fostered a strong sense of community and identity among the clans.

During the 17th and 18th centuries, the Highlands were the scene of many conflicts, including the Jacobite uprisings, which were attempts by the exiled Stuart dynasty to regain the throne of Scotland and England. These conflicts had a profound impact on the region, leading to significant social and political changes.

In the 19th century, the Scottish Highlands experienced a period of great change and transformation. The construction of new roads and railways opened up the region to tourism, and many wealthy visitors were drawn to the area’s natural beauty and rugged charm. At the same time, the Highland Clearances saw many people forcibly evicted from their homes, leading to widespread poverty and social upheaval.

Today, the Scottish Highlands are a popular destination for visitors who are interested in exploring Scotland’s rich history and culture. The region is home to many historic sites and landmarks, including castles, ancient ruins, and museums. Visitors can also experience the unique traditions and customs of the Highlands, such as traditional music, dance, and cuisine.

Overall, the Scottish Highlands are a fascinating and complex region with a rich and diverse history. For visitors who are interested in exploring this part of Scotland, understanding its past is essential to fully appreciate its unique character and charm.

Battlefield of Culloden Moor

Dramatic skyline at Culloden Moor during sunset

Standing on Culloden Moor I saw nothing but blue sky, white clouds and grassy fields dotted with sporadic trees. Upon first examination this seemed as quiet, remote and peaceful of a place you could possibly ever visit; however, a wisp of the wind revealed that Culloden Moor was the tragic battlefield grounds and final confrontation of the 1745 Jacobite Rising.

Our Haggis Adventures guide Dave at Culloden

Dave, our gregarious guide from Haggis Adventures, (clad in a kilt, sporting an impressive ginger beard and wielding historical artifacts associated with the time period [various weapons and flags]) informed us of the significance of this now memorial site: “No jokes, no humor at all. This is a massive war grave where my ancestors and other people’s ancestors died needlessly. Just the utmost respect guys.”

The Battle of Culloden Memorial Cairn

Not far from our initial starting point stood a 6.1 meter memorial cairn with the following inscribed:

16TH APRIL 1746

Dave continued explaining the significance of Culloden to the Scots and especially the Jacobite highlanders: “People come now to sing songs, tell stories and to remember on the 16th of April. A blind piper plays. He plays songs on the bagpipes for 45 minutes, which is the length that the battle lasted for. It tugs on your heartstrings.”

Dave standing beside the 6.1 meter Cairn Memorial

The Battle of Culloden, which took place on April 16, 1746 near Iverness in the Scottish Highlands, was the final confrontation of the 1945 Jacobite Rising. Jacobite forces under Bonnie Prince Charlie fought passionately against loyalist soldiers under the leadership of William Augustus – better know as the Duke of Cumberland. This bloody and ultimately quick conflict lasted less than an hour in which an estimated 1,500 to 2000 Jacobites were killed/wounded as opposed to significantly less casualties from the redcoats. The aftermath of the battle was a time of oppression for Jacobites who were brutally marginalized earning the Duke of Cumberland the title of ‘Butcher.’ Policing and civil penalties were implemented with the intention of weakening the Scottish clan system and Gaelic culture.

Dave sharing one of the many historical flags from his impressive collection

Most tragic is the grave post of the ‘Mixed Clans’ – members who were so brutally disfigured in the battle that their remains were unidentifiable. Their family name and clan ties forever wiped out from history.

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However, the spirit, passion, courage and morale of the Jacobite Highland forces remains in tales told today: “Lord George Murray was a Jacobite General. He led a charge into the front-line of the British government army. Snapped his sword in two, lost his horse and came back out of the front line; he got another sword, got another horse and led a second charge in.”

Dave explaining the battle of Culloden as the sun is just about to set

This battlefield is protected by Historic Scotland where a visitor center has been functional since December, 2007. On the anniversary of the battle people come to pay their respects.

Scenic views from Colloden

Dave, accurately summed up the realities of war and conflict: “One thing that is guaranteed in war is death. Death and destruction.”

As someone with a certain amount of Scottish ancestry, I couldn’t help but wonder how many of my relatives may have lost their lives on this very moor. Standing quietly on the field alone, I stopped to pay my respect with a minute of silence.

One last shot from Culloden before sunset

Balnuaran of Clava (Clava Cairns)

The Clava Cairns, located near Inverness, Scotland, is a prehistoric burial site that has attracted visitors for centuries. These standing stones and passage graves are believed to date back to the Bronze Age, roughly 4,000 years ago. They were constructed by early settlers in the area and are considered to be one of the most significant prehistoric sites in the Scottish Highlands.

The cairns are made up of three main structures: Balnuaran of Clava, Clava North Cairn, and Milton of Clava. The Balnuaran of Clava, also known as the Clava Ring Cairn, is the most impressive of the three structures. It consists of a ring of standing stones surrounding a central cairn, which is believed to have been a burial chamber. The stones are aligned in such a way that they are illuminated by the sun during the winter solstice, a testament to the incredible engineering skills of the ancient builders.

The Clava North Cairn is similar in design to the Balnuaran of Clava, but it is smaller in size. It also contains a burial chamber, which is now open to visitors. The Milton of Clava is a short distance away from the other two cairns and is the smallest of the three. It has been largely destroyed over the years, but visitors can still see the remnants of the cairn and its passage grave.

Many visitors to the Clava Cairns are fascinated by the mysterious history of these ancient burial sites. Archaeologists believe that they were used for ceremonial purposes, as well as for burials. The alignment of the stones with the sun suggests that the builders had a deep understanding of astronomy, and there are many theories about the spiritual significance of the site.

Today, the Clava Cairns are a popular destination for tourists visiting the Scottish Highlands. Visitors can walk among the standing stones and explore the burial chambers, imagining the lives of the people who built these incredible structures so many centuries ago. There are also guided tours available for those who want to learn more about the history and significance of the cairns.

Silhouette trees nearby Clava Cairns

Not far from Culloden was our next stop – Clava Cairns. In an area with more forest and shade stood a mysterious Bronze age circular chamber tomb cairn.

The ever mysterious Clava Cairns

The significance of the cairns is one that is still highly debated by academics today: “Every winter solstice people with professor suits on and they all argue with each other basically. These chambers are older than the pyramids. Built by teenagers because the lifespan at the time would have been around 30.”

As we huddled down as a group around the perimeter of the inner cairns circle, Dave continued: “The sun would set in alignment with fire and smoke. Very very spiritual.”

A close-up shot of Clava Carins stone formations

Those who have taken stones from the cairns have documented bad things happening to them prompting the stones to be returned, which Dave jokingly warned us about: “Don’t go on facebook (and say) Dave my arm is falling off!”

Scenic views from Clava Cairns

Overall, our first day visiting the highlands was an eye opening experience not only because of the stunning Highlands scenery but moreover because of the historical significance of the areas we visited.

Gorgeous scenery from the Scottish Highlands

Tips For Visiting The Scottish Highlands

The Scottish Highlands are a truly remarkable destination that should be on every traveler’s bucket list. This stunning region is steeped in history, culture, and natural beauty, offering an abundance of experiences for visitors to enjoy. Whether you’re a seasoned traveler or a first-time visitor, here are some tips to help you make the most of your trip to the Scottish Highlands.

  1. Plan ahead: It’s important to plan your trip to the Scottish Highlands in advance, particularly if you’re traveling during peak season. Accommodations, tours, and activities can book up quickly, so make sure to book ahead to avoid disappointment.
  2. Rent a car: While public transportation is available in the Scottish Highlands, it’s limited and can be unreliable. Renting a car will give you the freedom to explore the region at your own pace and on your own terms.
  3. Dress for the weather: The Scottish Highlands are known for their unpredictable weather, so it’s essential to pack for all eventualities. Make sure to bring warm layers, waterproof clothing, and sturdy walking shoes.
  4. Explore the great outdoors: The Scottish Highlands are home to some of the most breathtaking landscapes in the world. Whether you’re hiking in the Cairngorms National Park, kayaking on Loch Ness, or exploring the rugged coastline, make sure to get out and explore the great outdoors.
  5. Visit the historic sites: The Scottish Highlands are rich in history, with a wealth of historic sites and monuments to explore. From the Culloden Battlefield to the ancient Clava Cairns, there’s something for everyone.
  6. Sample the local cuisine: Scotland is known for its hearty and delicious cuisine, and the Scottish Highlands are no exception. Be sure to try some traditional dishes like haggis, Cullen skink, and cranachan.
  7. Attend a traditional Highland games: The Scottish Highlands are famous for their Highland games, which showcase traditional Scottish sports and events like caber tossing, tug-of-war, and the hammer throw.
  8. Visit a whisky distillery: Scotland is home to some of the world’s finest whiskies, and the Scottish Highlands have their fair share of distilleries. Take a tour and sample some of the finest single malts in the world.
  9. Take a road trip: The Scottish Highlands are perfect for a scenic road trip, with winding roads and stunning vistas around every corner. Make sure to take your time and stop at some of the many viewpoints and attractions along the way.
  10. Embrace the culture: The Scottish Highlands have a rich and vibrant culture, with a strong tradition of music, dance, and storytelling. Embrace the local culture and take in a traditional ceilidh or listen to some live music in a local pub.

In conclusion, the Scottish Highlands are a must-visit destination for any traveler, with their stunning natural beauty, rich history, and vibrant culture. With these tips, you can make the most of your trip and create memories that will last a lifetime.

#blogmanay is brought to you by Edinburgh’s Hogmanay and is supported by ETAG, EventScotland, Homecoming Scotland,VisitScotland, Edinburgh Festivals, Marketing Edinburgh and co-creators Haggis Adventures. Created and produced by Unique Events. As always, all opinions expressed here are entirely our own.

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  1. says: Arti

    Fascinating place, just so very old those structures.. I am glad I follow your blog for the stories and places you show make me want to travel so much more!

  2. says: Dana Carmel @ Time Travel Plans

    Looking at your photos of Culloden Moor, I can only imagine what that final battle must have been like. Wars today are so technological, but back in the day, it was all hand-to-hand, sword-to sword combat. What a terrifying scene it must have been. Looking at the beauty of the battlefield, you’d never guess that something so tragic took place there.

  3. says: Robin McKelvie

    Great post, really sums up the drama of the wilder parts of Scotland and one of the most intoxicatingly wild chapters of Scottish history. Writers and photographers like you are always welcome here. As we say here – Haste Ye Back!

  4. Culloden is my very favorite place in Scotland. Our daughter, 9 at the time, did NOT want to leave – we closed the place down. It’s the spot where in all of gorgeous, scenic, historic Scotland, I most felt the past and present collide. So glad you shared your experiences and incredible photos.

  5. says: Heather

    Beautiful post. I also have some Scottish ancestry so it hits close to home. I have yet to visit Scotland, but hope to remedy that in the near future! It looks like an absolutely stunning place.

  6. says: Sunny

    I really enjoy reading your posts because it not only includes beauty of the place you are getting to know but also its history (and local culture). Thanks for the wonder post again!

  7. says: Nils

    This article is very interesting and spectacular. The great pictures from your trip are amazing and they easily show how fantastic Scotland could be. The text under every photo and video underlines the conclusion of the photo and invites every reader to start a trip to Scotland with Haggis Adventures, too.

  8. says: The Guy

    That is a very fitting and well toned article Samuel. It is very true that the Scots have a lot of pride and recognition for their history which is well decorated around Scotland. Maybe fitting that later this year they get to decide their fate in a more peaceful way with the referendum.

    That Dave certainly comes across as quite a character. Ginger hair and beard and dressed appropriately he must have been a great tour guide.

  9. Scotland is an amazing country to visit, it is one of our favourites, and my husband has always dreamed of living there, (if he can convince me to be so cold!). Thanks for sharing all of your lovely photos, they bought back such wonderful memories of the beautiful country side and epic history of the Scottish Highlands. Great to see “Haggis” are still doing such great tours 🙂

  10. says: mike@foodbyfoot

    Culloden is an amazing place. I am Scottish by birth but only recently visited it for the first time. There is a very special, eerie feeling when you stand there. Not the typical sort of tourist attraction but unforgettable

  11. says: Neil

    Ah you can’t beat a knowledgable bearded guide! Looks great Samuel, Culloden is a complex chapter in Scots history no doubt. Great visitor centre up there too.

  12. Scotland is really amazing. I lived there for 2 years in Aberdeen and explore the place. Sometimes it’s so surreal to stand in some places that you can only see in a movie. Great post!

  13. says: Mike

    Your pictures completely captured the mood of the post, Samuel. Thoroughly enjoyed the brief look back in history too. If a tour host is holding an 8 inch knife admonishing me/us not to laugh, no jokes and show respect…he would have my undivided attention 🙂

    1. Mike,

      He was one of the best guides I’ve ever had. He was so passionate about all of the places he was showing us on the tour; moreover, that knife was certainly a great tool to command our attention/respect 😉

  14. Culloden really does have a feeling about it. I haven’t been there in years, but having Scottish heritage really gives you a personal sense of what happened there. I can’t describe the feeling that’s there, but if a place can have an aura about it, and simply be a field, it’s definitely Culloden.