Cairnpapple

John Wells – Kite Photo
Cairnpapple Summer Solstice 2022 - photograph by Peter Baird

First, a few facts - from the official record

According to Canmore, the online catalogue of Scotland’s archaeology sites, Cairnpapple is the most important mainland archaeological site in Scotland, Cairnpapple was a centre of worship and burial for over 3000 years. First a ceremonial ground, then a henge, and then an enormous cairn; five phases of ritual burial and cremations, with concentric rings of pits, ditching and banking.

The site is around 5520 year old, located south east of Torphichen, situated in the Bathgate Hills. To put it into perspective about how old Cairnpapple is, the first pyramd in Egypt was built circa 4720 years ago, and Cairnpapple is circa 5520 years old.

Set upon the one thousand feet summit of the Bathgate Hills, the view on a clear day extends to Goat Fell on the isle of Arran in the west and Bass Rock in the Firth of Forth in the east. The central belt of Scotland is a narrow isthmus of land bound by the Firths of Clyde and Forth, and Cairnpapple affords one of the best view of it all. 

The site is cared for by Historic Environment Scotland and is open for visits. You can find details here.

As Cairnpapple and the prehistoric world become better understood and investigated the archaeological story will change. We are sharing what we understand today. 

One of the aims of the Bathgate Hills Venture is to gather and drive research into the history of the Cairnpapple and Bathgate Hills.

The views from the henge are spectacular!

Cairnpapple Views of the Bridges 2022 - photograph by Peter Baird

Let's look at how we think Cairnpapple developed over time ...

Explore side by side maps of the site

National Library of Scotland hold a range of maps of the area that you can compare side by side. Some are old maps of the area and some more recent radar – a fascinating way to see and try to read the hidden landscape. Bet we all have different views of what we think we can see!  Click on the image below to head to their site and explore.

Enjoy a video from Bruce Fummey

HES - Cairnpapple Hill Statement of Significance

Historic Environment Scotland Statements of Significance are documents outlining the history and development of Scotland’s Properties in Care. They highlight the key features that make the properties special. You can find and download the Cairnpapple summary here.

Enjoy stunning photos from very talented local photographers

Cairnpapple Summer Solstice 2022 - photograph by Peter Baird
Summer solstice atop Cairnpapple Hill - June 20th 2020 - photograph by Keith Barclay
Photograph by Waldemar Matusik
Sunset at Cairnpapple - photograph by Waldemar Matusik
Stunning Sunset - photograph by Waldemar Matusik
Photograph by Sean McGraw
Early Christian Graves - Kite photo by John Wells
© Jeremy Atherton, 2002.

The stuff of legend ...

As with Avebury, Glastonbury Tor and other sites of antiquity, there are many theories, myths and legends about the origins and functions of Cairnpapple. 

The Romans when they came by on a reconnaissance trip in the early Christian era recorded the ancient cairn of Cairnpapple as “medio nemeton”, meaning “central sanctuary” of the highest order of Druids. Renowned as a wisdom school, Cairnpapple was considered one of Scotland’s foremost centres for learning.

Some believe the face mask and beaker that were found mark the grave of a very important person in the community at that time. Some believe Cairnpapple was aligned to particular phases of the moon, some believe a Silver Man has been seen running across the Bathgate Hills near Cairnpapple.

Regardless of what you choose to believe or not, one thing is certain; the mystery of this extraordinary sacred place will be captivating our imaginations for many years to come.

Historic Scotland, Rural Connect and Torphichen Primary explore Cairnpapple in this video made a few years ago

Scroll through Cairnpapple phases on our timeline

We'd love to get your thoughts, stories and photographs

We would love to hear from you if you have thoughts, stories or photographs you would like to share. 

You can contact us here. 

We’ll credit photographs we add to the website, and are happy to include links to your own photo pages if you have them. Thank you.

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Want to know more ...

There is so much information out there about Cairnpapple. Here is a list of information resources that have been used to help put this page together. There is so much to cover so if you are interested it is worth going through these websites for more information.