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South Yarrows South

South Yarrows South chambered cairn (ND 304 431) is located some 260 m south and 10 m higher than South Yarrows North and is similarly oriented.  Like South Yarrows North it is a horned at both ends and is 73 m long overall.  Joseph Anderson and R. I. Shearer, the factor of the Thrumster estate, excavated the cairn in 1865 (1).


The most striking difference between the two cairns is the much larger amount of stone in South Yarrows South in comparison to the north cairn. The entrance passage and chamber are much better preserved and the cairn is largely free of vegetation. A number of pits can be seen along the spine of the cairn. Davidson and Henshall suggest that Anderson may have dug these looking for further chambers. There is another interpretation however, suggested by John Barber's excavation of The Point of Cott cairn, Westray, Orkney (2). If Barber is correct and South Yarrows South was built in the same way as The Point of Cott then the pits may be due to the collapse of, what Barber called, space filling structures (2).


Barber's work suggested that the building technique, adopted at The Point of Cott was to build the cairn in two sections separated by a gap similar to that of South Yarrows North. The gap was interpreted as a purely practical expedient to permit access so that both sections could be built simultaneously. One section, a well-built core cairn housed the corbelled chamber; the second section, a much less substantial, space-filling egg-box like structure, was constructed on the same axis as the core cairn to add length to the monument. This section was built largely from slab and short sections of walling. It contained many voids, filled with turf and rubble, to minimise the amount of stone and building effort required. Barber speculated that a small team of skilled workers probably built the core cairn while the less skilled populous built the rest. Finally both sections were enclosed by ‘onion-skin' walls built to link the two structures. These walls also formed the visible architectural elements of the cairn, the horns and the facade giving them a stepped profile.


Barber estimates that ten people could have constructed the cairn within a week, reducing existing estimates by 40 percent, and suggests that consequent ease of removal could have skewed perceived cairn distribution patterns. He also observed that the heavily voided nature of the two-tier structure and onionskin walls greatly influenced both the collapse and the deposit formation processes such that absolute dating of similarly constructed monuments may be compromised (2).


Later walled features probably added in the late 19th or early 20th century embellish the forecourt of the cairn. This Edwardian embellishment is a common feature of a number of sites in Caithness excavated by antiquarians.


The axis of the entrance passage and chamber are skewed in relation to each other and also to that of the cairn. Modern walling has narrowed the anti-chamber but the main chamber is substantially intact. The tri-partite (three part) chamber differs from that of South Yarrows North in that the main chamber is flat ended, being terminated by a large orthostat (slab set on edge). It also differs in that a large slab roofed the distal division of the main chamber


John Nicolson, an employee of Sir Francis Tress Barry MP and local landowner, found a second chamber in 1900. The entrance passage was located about half way down the south side of the cairn. The passage was lintelled over and opened into an offset, wedge shaped chamber. Three orthostats bisected the chamber along its long axis; these slabs also supported the lintels that roofed the chamber (1).


Anderson found the distal (furthest from the entrance) cell had been filled by small stones and had been closed off by a slab of stone in the manner of a door. The main chamber floor was covered by ca. 130 mm thick layer of dark clay, charcoal, ash, bone and flat stones that he interpreted as roughly laid paving. Fragmentary burnt and un-burnt human bone was present in great quantity including teeth, jaw fragments and finger bones.


The finds from the cairn chamber amounted to two sherds (fragments) of a black well-made large vessel, about twelve small un-burnt flint chips, and a small faceted conical flint core less than 13 mm long


Funerary deposits, from these and many other chambered cairns, have indicated a range of burial practices, including whole body entombment, cremation and excarnation, (exposure of the body to allow the decay of the soft tissues prior to skeletal interment). The evidence from individual cairns varies greatly, some containing the remains of hundreds of individuals, suggesting communal burial perhaps associated with ancestor worship, while others contain only a few individuals or even none at all.


It is thought that individual cairns remained in use for many centuries and that the chambered cairns, as a phenomenon, were in use from the early fourth millennium to the mid third millennium BC.



(1) Davidson J L and Henshall A S; 1991 ' The Chambered Cairns of Caithness' p142.


(2) Barber J 1997 The Excavation of a Stalled Cairn at Point of Cott, Westray, Orkney.

Leaving South Yarrows South, the trail ascends towards a supposed Hill Fort, the highest point of the trail.

Elaborated entrance passage

Yarrows type chamber

Secondary chamber entrance

Cairn tail

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