Cairnpapple Hill is a hill with a dominating position in central lowland Scotland with views from coast to coast. It was used and re-used as a major ritual site over about 4000 years, and in its day would have been comparable to better known sites like the Standing Stones of Stenness. The summit lies 312 metres above sea level, and is about 2 miles (3 km) north of Bathgate. In the 19th century the site was completely concealed by trees, then in 1947–1948 excavations by Stuart Piggott found a series of ritual monuments from successive prehistoric periods.
The earliest traces of activity are six hearths dating from about 5,500 years ago. In these were found potsherds and, significantly, two stone-axe fragments from axe factories in Wales and Cumbria. Clearly the early Neolithic farmers of West Lothian didn’t lead isolated lives. The hearths are no longer visible, as they were covered by the henge monument – a great oval earthwork enclosure – built in the later Neolithic period. The Ring of Brodgar, in Orkney, is Scotland’s best example of a henge monument.
The henge at Cairnpapple had a bank 60 metres across, surrounded by a broad ditch, which enclosed a ring of 24 upright timber posts. The timber hasn’t survived, but the post holes are clearly visible. There were two entrances to the henge, almost directly opposite each other. Sadly, we know nothing of the nature of the ceremonies that must surely have taken place within henge monuments.
The henge ceased to be used for ceremonial purposes about 4,000 years ago, during the early Bronze Age. But the local people clearly still revered it, as they buried an important member of the community there. This first burial place was marked by an oval setting of stones, with a single large standing stone at its head. The body had been buried with a wooden mask covering the face. Two Beaker pots left alongside had probably been filled with food and drink to sustain the dead person on the journey to the afterlife.
Two burial cists were added later. These were stone-lined pits with a single massive capstone on top. A food vessel was found in one and a single human cremation in the other. One cist bore three cup-marks pecked into the surface. These burials were covered by a stone cairn, which was neatly edged with 21 kerb stones. Finally, a much larger burial cairn was built. With a diameter of 30 metres, it completely covered the two earlier cairns. Pits were cut into the west and south sides of the cairn: each contained a cremation burial placed in an upturned, collared cinerary urn. Unusually, there was no central burial placed in the middle of the mound.
Old maps show the land around Cairnpapple Hill as moorland with scattered trees. Agriculture has tamed the landscape, which is now grass pasture. The heather by the monument is a remnant of the wild plants once found throughout the Bathgate Hills but which are now rare locally. The 1940s excavations have been partly covered by a concrete dome replicating the second cairn (although the dome is much higher than the cairn) so that visitors can go inside what was once a solid cairn and see the reconstructed graves, and outside this the surrounding post holes and graves are marked by being filled with colour-coded gravel like an archaeological plan, with the red gravel indicating upright pits, and the white gravel denoting the alleged Christian burials. The current display attempts to show all the main phases of the site at the same time.
The lay-by parking is surfaced with rough tarmac. Access to the site is over about 500m of rough uphill ground. The path is reached from the lay-by up 6 narrow and uneven stone steps (with handrail) to a narrow kissing gate. The route continues up a steep slope with 51 steps cut into the ground (with handrail). An uneven path then cuts across a field to another kissing gate. The field is used for grazing cattle and can be very muddy in wet weather. The final stretch to the visitor centre is a loose gravel path. There are two steep steps into the visitor centre. Inside is a graphic interpretation of the site. The surface around the cairn is rough stone. The top of the cairn is reached via 14 stone steps (no handrail). Access to the cairn’s interior is down a metal ladder of 11 rungs. A large grassed area surrounds the monument. There are no toilets on site. Nearest adapted toilet is at Beecraigs Country Park, Linlithgow, West Lothian, EH49 6PL. Assistance dogs are welcome.
Location : Cairnpapple Hill (No postal address – 2km from Torphichen, 5km from Bathgate)
Transport: Bathgate (National Rail) then bus (31) and 30 minutes. Bus Routes : 31 and 449 stop at Torphichen then 30 minutes.
Opening Times: Friday to Monday, 1st April - 30th September 09:30 to 17:30
Tickets : Adults £4.50; Concessions £3.60; Children £2.70
Tel. : 01506 634 622