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Caen Burn, Strath of Kildonan

Long Cairn


Although there is nothing here - where the Caen Burn flows down from the rolling hills to subsume itself within the voluminous River Helmsdale's procession to the sea - in the same jaw-dropping league as the Kinbrace Hill monuments, this quartet of differing long cairns (count 'em) nevertheless accord my final day exploring the wondrous environs of Strath of Kildonan a fitting climax. Indeed, the view of the more-or-less intact southern monument from high ground to the north-west is way beyond all expectations. And to be fair I can imagine an awful lot... as Han Solo once said in that somewhat obscure film.

My arrival is significantly delayed, the small matter of checking out preceding cairns at Carn Liath, Torrish Burn, Kilphedir and Salscraggie, in linear progression from the west, ensuring it is late afternoon before I finally park opposite an islet within the aforementioned River Helmsdale, a short distance prior to where the water course veers sharply to the south. The first of the long cairns (the western at ND00781783) lies upon a terrace to the immediate north. Sadly this is very much a case of what might have been.... or rather what once was, the monument clearly having been used as a quarry for building stone with nothing, save a trace outline of stone, defining what must have been a truly massive monument. Audrey Henshall [1963] has it at about "135 feet long, 27 feet broad at the W end widening to 50 feet in the E...oriented ESE-WNW". Still the positioning, overlooking the river, is excellent.

I head approx north-east following a rough path across the flank of the hill, pausing to gawp at the spectacle of the superb southern long cairn lying below. I decide to leave what would appear to be the best to last and carry on to overlook the Caen Burn itself, the northern cairn (ND01251802) clearly visible above its western bank. Although disturbed, there remains a significant volume of curiously reddish/orange stone in situ, albeit with no discernible chamber visible to these eyes. According to Audrey "It lies ENE and WSW and measures about 100ft in length, some 35ft in breadth at the E end and 27ft at the W." In my opinion the view looking north along the Caen Burn into the hills is excellent - there are apparently numerous hut circles and a souterrain up there - whilst the eastern long cairn can be seen to the north-east upon the lower, near flank of Caen Hill rising above the burn. Guess I'll have to haul my aching body up there, then? Afraid so. Let's call it a labour of love.

The Caen Burn is easily forded - or at least was at the time of my visit in late May - whereupon a (thankfully) short climb alongside a dry stone wall brings me to an unlocked gate accessing the long cairn at ND01481815. Like its lower neighbour, the monument hasn't survived into our age unscathed. Nevertheless it remains a substantial stone pile "oriented NE-SW measuring about 166 feet in length and 25 feet broad at the SW end, widening to about 26 feet in the NE". Speaking of orientation, both the northern and southern long cairns are visible from here, the angles of attack of the surrounding hills suggestive of riding upon a billowing green seascape. Or at least that might be the case if not for the luxuriant carpet of blue bells.

So... finally... I descend for an audience with the southern long cairn at ND01231776. As mentioned the monument appears almost intact and "orientated E-W appears to be 168ft long, 27ft wide at the W end and 46ft at the E." The profile is not uniform, the cairn rising gradually from the west to "a height of 7ft" at the eastern extremity. Here some large displaced stones suggest the presence/former presence of a chamber. Well, Audrey Henshall certainly thought so way back in 1963. Hey, to think that was before I was born? A true pioneer lady. The cairn is covered in a thick mantle of moss, this a little puzzling since there is no indication of recent forestry here? Whatever, the happy effect only serves to heighten the sense of a location being somehow frozen in time. Someone call Stephen Hawking. He'll know what's what. Top man. Sadly my watch refuses to co-operate with my 'theory of everything' (in retrospect perhaps 'everything' was a little too ambitious) and I have to move on to once again find somewhere to crash out for the night. But not before determining that a nearby 'hump' is actually a Bronze Age round cairn. What a place......
19th July 2015ce
Edited 20th July 2015ce

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