Galloway’s history extends back many thousands of years with much evidence of Iron Age forts, crannogs (man-made habitations over water), and early Christian sites.
However, perhaps one of the region’s finest ancient monuments has survived for more than 4,000 years. Cairnholy sits unobtrusively within the lonely Kirkdale Glen, in between the villages of Gatehouse of Fleet and Creetown, on the Galloway coast. It is easily accessed from the A75 and contains not one but two separate burial chambers.
Surrounded by higher hills, with gorgeous views towards Wigtown Bay, and above, buzzards floating on thermals and kestrels hovering for prey, it is an apposite spot for such an important monument.
The two chambers (simply designated Cairnholy I and II) are positioned a couple of hundred metres apart, with Cairnholy I sitting beside a small car park at the head of a narrow road. Both chambers date from the Neolithic period and are Clyde chambered cairns (thought to be the earliest type of cairn), which were prevalent in south-west Scotland.
Eight remarkable, ragged stone pillars, shaped like a mythological creature’s giant fangs, form the arresting sight of Cairnholy I. When built it measured 43 by 10m (141 by 32ft), with the forecourt used for ritual ceremonies, while the chamber contained an inner and outer tomb (both still visible). This site gives some weight to the idea that Neolithic hunter-gatherers were intelligent designers, engineers and crafters with their own distinct thoughts about life and death.
No bones about it
Unfortunately, due to the acidic characteristics of the soil at Cairnholy, no bone material has been recovered during many excavations, which first took place in 1949. But what has been found includes a leaf-shaped arrowhead, cup-and-ring carved stones and an axe containing jadeite, a rare green stone from the Alps.
The axe can today be seen in the Royal Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh.
It is a simple stroll along the track to Cairnholy II. Although not as eye-catching as its larger neighbour, this monument is still a haunting spectacle.
Two stone pillars rest against each other, beside which sit a number of smaller stones, adorned by the perfectly balanced flat capstone, which formed the roof of the inner burial chamber. The remains of the outer chamber can still be seen within the cairn, and it seems Cairnholy II was used simply as a place of burial rather than the more extravagant rituals that took place at Cairnholy I. Again, excavations have unearthed flint knives, arrowheads and Beaker pots.
Regrettably, over the last few centuries, much of the stonework from both cairns has been used for local buildings and walls, but what remains is still deeply impressive, both in terms of engineering and history.
It’s easy to while away several hours here at one of the finest ancient monuments, not just in Galloway, but in the UK.
HOW TO GET THERE
Cairnholy sits within Kirkdale Glen, approximately six miles east of Creetown and seven miles west of Gatehouse of Fleet. Follow the A75 from either direction, turning off on to a minor road signposted ‘Cairnholy Chambered Cairn’. Continue along this narrow road for half a mile to reach the small car park at Cairnholy.
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