Cairn K, the highest point on Carrowkeel Mountain. This photo is from 1911 when the cairn had just been opened. The 8 meter long passage opens into a beautiful cruciform chamber which is orented to Queen Maeve's cairn on Knocknarea.
Cairn K is located on the highest part of Carrowkeel mountain, about 300 meters south of Cairns H and G. Cairn K is an excellent early example of a classic cruciform corbelled chamber. The stones in the chamber are badly cracked, so please don't climb on the cairn when you visit. The monument, like the other cairns, is built from a substantial mound of locally quarried stone. It has a diameter of about 21 meters, is some 6 meters high, and is surrounded by a thick layer of bog, which has covered any kerbstones which might surround the base of the cairn.
Macalister & Praeger's plan and section of Cairn K from 1911.
Up until a few years ago there was a lot of white quartz around the north face and entrance to Cairn K, but most has mostly been removed by visitors for souviners. This quartz may have been used to cover all of the cairns - Newgrange is a good example. And this is probably how the mountains got their name - for Breac Sliabh means Speckled Mountain, and anyone standing on Knocknarea or any of the peaks of the Ox Mountains would have seen the cairns in Carrowkeel glittering in the light of the sun or moon. This quartz was quarried in the Ox Mountains, probably in the area around Croghan Cairn, and would have been transported by river and boat. The Ox Mountains are said to be among of the oldest mountain ranges in Europe.
Looking out through the passage of Cairn K
To enter requires crawling through the small square entrance. The passage is 7 meters long and leads into a cruciform chamber with a beautiful corbelled ceiling over 3 meters high. Although the lintels over the three recesses are cracked, the structure is sound and the interior dry if somewhat damp - the stones sweat when it is very warm outside. There are three spacious recesses off the chamber, with the one on the right larger than the others.
The corbelled ceiling of Cairn K, which still keeps the rain out after more than 5,000 years. The OM is drawn in candle grease.
In the back of the right-hand recess is a triangular shaped stone with a pointed top which is known as the Croagh Patrick Stone, due to its profile which is shaped like the Reek. Croagh Patrick is clearly visible on a good day, about 75 km away to the est southwest, and on two days of the year, Samhain and Imbolc, the sun when viewed from Cairn K, drops behind the Reek. Cairns K, L and the stone structure mentioned below are all on this 'Croagh Patrick axis' which extends across Lough Arrow to Shee Lugh on Moytura in the other direction.
The passage and axis of the chamber is oriented directly to Queen Maeve's Cairn on the summit of Knocknarea, as are Cairns E, G and B. At about 15° west of north, the chamber is oriented much too far north for the sun or moon to have ever shone into the chamber, and may be oriented to the setting of a particular star. Interestingly enough, the summits of both Queen Maeve's Cairn and Cairn K are at the same altitude above sea level.
The items found during the excavation of Cairn K in 1911 were typical of the finds in the other cairns: pieces of the neolithic pottery, known as Carrowkeel Ware since that time; cremated human remains, chalk balls, antler pins and pendants.
The rectangular stone chamber close to Cairn K.
A few meters east of Cairn K is a small stone box or cist, originally covered with a large stone slab, which was smashed by 'rabbit hunters' in the last century. The long axis of the cist, and door slab are oriented to Knocknarea. It has been suggested that this structure had a ritual purpose - to prepare candidates for initiation or spending time in the cairn alone, by interring them in the box for a night, perhaps over a solstice or full moon. This type of seclusion ritual was practised by many ancient cultures.
Cairn L is an unexcavated structure a few meters to the west of Cairn K, with no visible remains of a passage or chamber. K and L are a pair, like G and H, C and D, E and F, M and N and O and P. Macalister and company looked at the site in 1911, but decided it wouldn't repay the effort of opening the cairn.
There are a few slabs of limestone visible in the cairn which suggest the presence of of some form of chamber or cist. The cairn is covered with peat, so the actual size is difficult to make out, but a diameter of 19 meters and height of 5 meters has been recorded, which makes it nearly as big as Cairn K. This is the natural highest point of the mountain, though the top of Cairn K is higher. In essence, the two cairns are built side by side.
Cairn K, covered with snow, gives a good idea of what the cairn would have looked like when it was covered in white quartz. The quartz chunks are long gone, for souviners, but the odd piece still shows up around the entrance.