Graves where giants were buried or where giants buried their victims? Neither, it turns out, and I still haven’t discovered how these Neolithic burial cairns on Arran came to be associated with giants.
These two chambered cairns (there are over twenty others on Arran) are in a clearing on Forestry land above Whiting Bay. Built around 5,700 – 5,000 years ago they’re of the Clyde type – so called because a separate group of burial cairns found in the Firth of Clyde region were identified. They are considered to be the earliest chambered cairn tombs in Scotland, and their construction technique was probably carried from Scotland to Ireland.
The burial chamber was usually located at one end of a rectangular or trapezoidal cairn, while a roofless, semi-circular forecourt at the entrance provided access from the outside. Forecourts are typically fronted by large stones and it is thought the area in front of the cairn was used for public rituals. The chambers were created from large stones set on end, roofed with large flat stones and often sub-divided by slabs into small compartments. They were intended for the community’s ancestors and not for individuals – and it would have taken considerable community effort to construct them.
Before being placed in the cairn, bodies would be left outside for ravens to strip away the flesh from the bones and different parts of the skeleton may have been placed in different parts of the chamber. The chambers were not permanently sealed and were used again and again over many years.
It all looks a bit of a jumble and quite hard to picture how they would have looked over six thousand years ago. Many of the stones have been removed and incorporated into local buildings and dry stane dykes and many other stones lie below the turf. The Giant’s Grave (North) is the larger with the main axis north-south while the smaller grave (South) is at right angles to the northern cairn with its east-west axis. As I don’t know my right from my left never mind east west, I took these details from the information board on the site.
Excavations in 1902 recovered pottery shards, flint knives, and leaf-shaped arrowheads in the larger cairn but only soil and stones in the smaller. During a later excavation in1961-2 nine shards of a round-based vessel and fragments of burnt bone were found.
Much more information about Arran’s Neolithic chambered tombs can be found here which is also where I found this image of how the chambered cairn would have looked.