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Observations placeholder

Sacred geography – Picts – Barrows 04 - Camster



Type of Spiritual Experience


A description of the experience


The Grey Cairns of Camster are classified by archeologists as ‘ two large Neolithic chambered cairns’ located about 8.5 miles (13.7 km) south of Watten and 5 miles (8.0 km) north of Lybster in Caithness, in the Highland region of Scotland.  They consist of two structures standing 180 m (590 ft) apart, known as Camster Round and Camster Long. a third cairn, located about 120 metres (390 ft) away from Camster Round, has not been given a name.

As we have seen there are two problems with this classification.  In the first place the cairns are hollow and thus more correctly barrows, the central chambers are accessed through narrow passages from the outside, as in all barrows.  In the second place classifying the structures as Neolithic or Iron or Bronze age denies the Pictish people a continuous line of descent. 


In other words Camster is a site containing Pictish barrows that are among the oldest structures in Scotland, dating to about 5,000 years ago.  Furthermore they are part of a larger sacred geography – their siting is not an accident - Camster Burn runs in a north-south direction about 100 metres (330 ft) to the west of the cairns, while the Loch of Camster is located a short distance to the east.  This is a water site.

They are now to be found in a desolate stretch of boggy peat-covered moorland in the Flow Country of Caithness.  As we have seen from main section on the Picts, at the time they were built the climate may have been nothing like this.  As Wikipedia says “Although the surrounding countryside is now inhospitable and sparsely inhabited, during the Stone Age it was fertile farming land and only became covered in peat during the Bronze Age.”

Camster Long

Camster Long is a 60 m (200 ft) long cairn with "horns" at each end, aligned in a NE-SW direction. It is twice as wide at one end than the other; the width of the horns differs from 20 m (66 ft) at the north-east end to 10 m (33 ft) at the south-west end. It reaches a maximum height of 4.6 m (15 ft) at over its two chambers about 15 m (49 ft) apart, which are respectively situated about two-thirds of the way along the cairn (starting at the south-west end) and adjoining the north-east end. The two chambers appear to have originally been constructed within separate round cairns, which were only later incorporated into a single long cairn [for unknown reasons].


The chambers are both entered via passages leading from the south-east side of the cairn. The west chamber consists of two compartments, each delineated by upright portal stones standing 2 m (6.6 ft) high. The first compartment has a maximum width of 1 m (3.3 ft), while the second is 2 metres (6.6 ft) by 1.5 m (4.9 ft). When the tomb was excavated, both compartments were found to contain human bones mingled with broken and unburnt animal bones from horses, oxen, pigs and deer.  On a purely speculative note, this could have been food for the initiate incarcerated in the chamber. 

The entrance to the east chamber is located 9 m (30 ft) from the north-east end of the cairn and consists of a passage 0.6 metres (2.0 ft) high by 7.5 m (25 ft) long. The first 5 m (16 ft) is straight and mostly intact, though the inner end is roofless and broken down. At the point where it reaches the chamber, the passageway turns through 45° through a portal made from two upright slabs. The chamber is in the shape of an irregular pentagon 2 m (6.6 ft) in diameter, rising to a roof closed by a single square stone set 2 m (6.6 ft) above the floor. There may be a third as yet undiscovered chamber at the south-west end, suggested by the presence of exposed upright stones which may indicate the presence of a portal.

Camster Round


Camster Round is, as the name suggests, a circular barrow; it measures 18 metres (59 ft) in diameter by 3.7 metres (12 ft) high. Its form may be similar to that of the original separate round cairns that were later amalgamated into Camster Long. It is virtually intact with a high vaulted chamber at its centre, accessed from a passage 6 metres (20 ft) long and 0.8 metres (2 ft 7 in) high at the east-south-east side of the cairn. The passage appears to have been deliberately put out of use by blocking it up with stones piled up to the height of its roof. When it was excavated, archaeologists found that the floor of the cairn was composed of a 0.3 metres (1 ft 0 in) deep layer of black earth, ash and burnt bones.

It appears that bodies were placed there in a sitting position, though, oddly, without leg bones; the legs appear either to have been removed or to have rotted off before the bodies were deposited in the cairn.

In other words this is one barrow where it was used for burials later.  The removal of legs sometimes signifies no feet and thus spiritual people – they can ‘fly’.

The source of the experience


Concepts, symbols and science items



Activities and commonsteps