IN last week’s column about the Celtic roots of Halloween, I showed how the Scots tribe brought the celebration of Samhain with them from the north of Ireland to their kingdom of Dalriada in what is now Argyll and Bute.

One of my regular readers emailed me to say I had previously asserted that links between Scotland and Ireland went back much further, probably thousands of years. She said she did not doubt what I said but asked what evidence I could provide to show that prehistoric Irish people and ancient Scots interacted.

I’m happy to oblige with the story of something that is common across Scotland, namely cairns. It is a big subject and so I will tell it over two weeks, with the extraordinary Clava Cairns scheduled for next week’s column, not least because they are not linked to this week’s subject, the Clyde-Carlingford cairns.

Cairn building is a huge tradition in Scotland, one that began in the Neolithic era, also known as the New Stone Age, which began around 4000BC and peaked around 3000BC, and which continues to the present day when cairns are often erected by groups and individuals to mark special places and events.

Cairns are usually defined as mounds of stones piled upon each other but the cairns I will be writing about are mainly the burial sites erected by our Stone Age ancestors to be the homes of the dead – tombs by another name.

The cairns in this column are also almost all located on mainland Scotland and are quite distinct from the extraordinary constructions on Orkney such as the Ring of Brodgar.

Were the standing stones at Callanish on Lewis connected to the cairn culture? An interesting question but I think they were not.

The National: Chambered cairns in ArranChambered cairns in Arran

Let’s go back into pre-history, ie before there were any written records of the peoples of the lands known as Hibernia and Caledonia to the Romans – the first recorders of any sort of history of these islands.

Thanks to the discoveries by archaeologists of their tombs and implements, we know that the Stone Age people of the south-west of Scotland – roughly equivalent to modern Ayrshire and Galloway – had considerable interchanges with the people who then occupied what is now the north-east of Ireland, so at the start of the 20th century when archaeologists first documented the similarities between burial cairns here and across the North Channel they named them Clyde-Carlingford cairns.

The latter name came from Carlingford Lough in County Louth and the Clyde element signified that they were mostly found around the Firth of Clyde, though in fact they extend all the way from the Solway Firth to the southern Hebrides.

The evidence gathered over the decades proves conclusively that these cairns were part of a shared culture among peoples who had only basic implements to build them – stone axes and tools made from deer horn. At the very least, these cairns were massive achievements by primitive people.

Long before Christianity took root in northern European countries, the people followed what we now call pagan rites and their religion strongly emphasised belief in the afterlife and respect for the dead.

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It can be said with certainty that Ireland was the birthplace of what is now known there as “court” cairns, with multiple chambers associated with individuals of high social status.

Another name for these court cairns is gallery graves and almost 400 of them are known to have survived in Ireland with less than 20% of them excavated and preserved. More than 100 have been identified in Scotland and all of them date to before 2900BC when the post-mortem practice seems to have changed to straightforward burial or cremation. Or perhaps they just got tired of putting food and drink in the burial chambers to accompany the dead into the hereafter …

It seems utterly remarkable but you can visit such prehistoric cairn sites in the current day and two that I have personally visited are the Giants’ Graves on Arran and Cairnholy overlooking Wigtown Bay in Dumfries and Galloway. I will be describing it later.

The cairns started as burial chambers usually covered over with slabs but as time progressed these ancient Celts developed the science of preserving the sites by piling stones upon them. Cairns were sometimes extensive with numerous chambers, presumably to house the bodies of entire families, much as we have family lairs in cemeteries today.

SOMe cairns had a main burial chamber at one end and forecourt at the other. Some were surrounded by stone circles and it is these cairns which are among the oldest in Scotland, dating back to 3500BC and possibly even earlier. The contents of almost all the cairns in Scotland have not survived but radio-carbon dating has been able to suggest such early origins.

The cairns all had people buried under them, a process known as inhumation, but at some point in their history, the Neolithic peoples began to cremate their dead, though they continued to bury the ashes in the cairns – a case of dealing with overcrowding, perhaps?

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What can be said is that such cairns are only found in Scotland and Ireland. In 1983, Professor Ruth D Whitehouse of University College, London, in her essential work Macmillan’s Dictionary of Archaeology defined the Clyde-Carlingford cairns thus: “Group of megalithic chamber tombs are found in south-west Scotland and northern Ireland.

“They are sometimes described as segmented gallery graves, since they consist of rectangular chambers subdivided into a number of segments. Another important characteristic was the forecourt, concave or semicircular in shape; in some of the Irish examples this may be oval or circular and the term ‘court cairn’ is sometimes used for these tombs.

“The overlying cairns are normally long but may be oval, rectangular or trapezoidal in shape. Collective inhumation was the normal practice, although cremation sometimes occurs in Ireland. Two sites have produced radiocarbon dates before 3000BC, demonstrating that these tombs were constructed from an early stage of the Neolithic.”

So there you have it – the early peoples of Scotland and Ireland were heavily linked to each other and the existence of the Clyde-Carlingford cairns suggests that these early Scots-Irish tribes were not only good seafarers but enjoyed trading and exchanging with each other.

To me the most impressive cairn remains are those at Cairnholy, which are in the care of Historic Environment Scotland and are scheduled monuments. On visiting them you really do get a sense of the ancients who built them and a realisation of just how old this Scotland of ours actually is. If those who think that Scotland only dates from the British Empire could see Cairnholy they would weep for what we have lost.

There are two burial chambers at Cairnholy, which is so named not because of any sanctity but because in Gaelic the place is known as Càrn na h-ulaid, the “cairn of the stone tomb”. They can be found next to Cairnholy Farm about three miles east of Carsluith and four miles south of Creetown on the A74. The site overlooking Wigtown Bay is worth visiting for the view alone.

The chambers are known as Cairnholy I and Cairnholy II and legend has it that the latter was the tomb of an ancient king, Galdus or Caldus, though there is no real evidence of such a royal connection.

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Let Historic Environment Scotland take up the story as it did in its 1986 guide to Dumfries and Galloway derived from the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historic Monuments of Scotland:

“Cairnholy I has been robbed of most of its overlying cairn material.

“In its final prehistoric form it was a long straight-sided mound, about 43m by 10m, aligned along the contour and extending beyond the present road. The inner burial chamber with its massive side-slabs probably represents the nucleus of the tomb and was covered with a small cairn.

“To this was later added an ante-chamber, and then a concave ‘homed’ facade comprising eight tall pillars. The forecourt seems to have been designed as a setting for ritual ceremonies. At least six fires had been lit in this area before it was blocked for good and indications of pottery-associated offerings were uncovered. A fragment of jadeite axe blade found in the outer compartment may also have been related to these ceremonies.

“There is a large slab in the inner chamber which bears a weathered cup mark with four or five concentric rings; it possibly roofed the last (cist) burial within this compartment. A small cup-and-ring-marked slab found in the inner chamber is now in the Royal Museums of Scotland.

“The cairn which originally covered Cairnholy II has been much denuded, leaving only its irregular oblong outline around the summit of the hillock. Most of the stones evidently went into the construction of dykes and buildings in the late 18th century but robbing stopped at the large slabs of the tomb itself.

“It consists of slab-sided inner and outer (perhaps secondary) chambers, the inner still retaining its large capstone. The entrance is flanked by tall and leaning portal stones, one 2.9m high, the other possibly broken; like Cairnholy I, it had a large closing stone, now recumbent. Excavated finds from the outer compartment included a leaf-shaped arrowhead, a flint knife and Beaker pottery, thus showing a similar range of users to that of the neighbouring tomb.”

You really have to see them to appreciate the significance of Cairnholy I and II, and the same goes for the Giants’ Graves on Arran which are also two burial chambers designated Giant’s Graves North and Giant Graves South.

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Arran has more Clyde-Carlingford cairns than any other island off the west coast which is yet another reason to visit one of my favourite islands. Overlooking Whiting Bay, the Graves are easily found but do not expect any major construction remaining on site as most of the stones have been removed over the millennia.

Here’s what Historic Environment Scotland states about the North grave: “This cairn has been much robbed and is now covered with turf and bracken. The surface is irregular, mainly 2-3ft high, but rising to 5ft on the W.

“The edges are well-defined. The main axis of the cairn is N-S, the N end being wider with a concave facade. The width at the N end has been about 70ft, but the exact measurement cannot be given as the N half of the E side has been disturbed. The sides of the cairn are straight, converging gently to a width of 46ft at 90ft from the N end, at which point there seems to have been a straight facade.

“In its present form, the cairn extends for a further 23ft into a rounded end. The forecourt has been about 41ft across and 20ft deep. The NW horn is clearly visible, square-ended and 15 ft wide; the NE horn is defined by a large upright stone, 5ft wide and 4ft high, and a similar stone, now fallen forwards, stood at the inner corner of the NW horn. The forecourt area is partly filled with cairn material.

“The chamber is 22ft long from inside the outer portal stones, it varies from 5ft to 2ft 7ins wide. At the time of excavation in 1902, the septal stones and end-stone were missing. The chamber was found to have been previously disturbed but a layer of charcoal was found along the bottom.”

I always write with the intention of encouraging readers to find out about Scottish history for themselves, so why not discover the Clyde-Carlingford cairns?