Banner: Knocknarea sunset
Sunset from Carns Hill
A dramatic sunset over Knocknarea viewed from the summit of the west cairn 8 days after the autumn equinox, 2012.

Carns Hill

Just over 2 kilometers to the south of Sligo and an easy walk from the center of town, Cairns Hill is an mysterious and little-known neolithic landscape, despite the urban sprawl that has crept up around it. Carns Hill is a double hill, with the higher west cairn 123 meters, and the slightly lower east cairn at 112 meters above sea level. As the name suggests, the summits are capped by cairns, two huge unopened and undisturbed examples of Irish neolithic passage graves. The two monuments are known as the east cairn and the west cairn, and both are sited on the highest parts of the flat summits.

OSI map of Carns Hill
Map of Carns Hill from the OSI website.

The west cairn has an open view of the horizon and looks to Sliabh Dá Eán just south, Knocknashee, Doomore and Croghaun to the south west, Knocknarea to the west and Benbulben to the north. The east cairn is shrouded in a thick growth of trees, which make the walk to the site quite pleasant, but obscures all views views to the horizon. Lough Gill, the Lake of Brightness lies just to the east of Cairns Hill, and the river Garavogue flows around the east side of the hill and then flows into Sligo Bay. Both cairns are a short walk from the modern waterworks between the two sites.

The East cairn

Parking by the waterworks, take the forest walk path running east; after a few minutes you can take the first trail to the right to climb to the cairn, or continue through the forest to visit the cave. All the major megalithic sites in County Sligo have associated caves, and there are two in Cairns Hill, one close to each of the cairns.

Carns Hill forest walk.
Carns Hill forest walk.

The cave is well worth visiting, if only because it is the easiest cave in County Sligo to visit. Follow the forest trail for 10 minutes and the cave will appear on the right. The cave is shallow, some 5 meters deep, and big enough to stand upright in the opening. It is located in a cliff overlooking the river Garavogue below. A seam of chert runs through the roof of the cave.

Carns Hill cave
The cave close to the east cairn.

To visit the cairn, turn back the way you came, and after a few minutes take a left path and follow to the highest point. The cairn is covered with young trees and scrub - ash, sycamore and hazel, so that you might easily miss it and walk by: it is not that well known, even in Sligo town less than a mile away. The cairn is quite massive, being about 45 meters in diameter and some 10 meters high. It is composed of chunks of quarried limestone, and is most likely kerbed and strewn with quartz. The site was cleared and surveyed by archaeology students at NUI Galway in 2004, but rapidly became overgrown again. As the cairn is shrouded in forestry, there is no view to the horizon or Knocknarea just 8 km to the west, but using maps and Google Earth we can get some idea of the alignments.

View from Carns Hill.
A panoramic shot of the west cairn looking west to Knocknarea 8 km away; the disturbed mound of stones to the right may mark the opening.

The west cairn

Watercolour  of the west cairn, by Wakeman, 1879.
Watercolour of the west cairn, by Wakeman, 1879.

The west cairn is slightly harder to visit, as several fields of scrub and rough, boggy pasture must be crossed to see it. Take the overgrown laneway south from the waterworks; after about 5 minutes there will be a rough trail on the right which will bring you up to the cairn. The last time I visited, it was almost impossible to get in and out through the maze of gorse bushes surrounding the monument. The cairn is about 35 meters in diameter and 6 meters high, and somewhat more delapidated than when Wakeman drew it. The stones again are limestone, probably quarried close by; there is a large scar-like gully to the west which may be the remains of a quarry.

Kerbstones at Carns Hill
A line of kerbstones is clearly visible on the southeast side of the cairn; 8 km to the west is Knocknarea and Queen Maeve's cairn.

Small round gneiss kerbstones are visible in places, especially on the southeast side, peeping out from under the cairn slip. Swedish archaeologist Stefan Bergh surveyed the site in the early 1990's and noted a large boulder which may be a fallen standing stone, and an alignment of boulders on the north side. The boulder is easy to find, but I couldn't locate the alignment. Bergh also noted a low platform running around the cairn, parts of which can be clearly seen on the south west side.

Bushdrinking shelter
Modern rummaging may have uncovered part of the hidden passage into the west cairn.

Also on the southeast side is a modern wall where someone had been bush drinking - there were plenty of cans and bottles. A small hollow had been dug on the south side near the dished platform summit, with low drystone walls thrown up to keep the wind off the drinkers. A large flat slab can now be seen, which is probably one of the covering stones of a hidden passage with a general orientation towards the winter solstice sunrise.

Looking south to the distcintive peaks of Sliabh Dá Eán from the flat summit of Carns Hill West. From here the hills make the shape of a pregnant woman lying down.