Most well walked trails will have a cairn – a stack of rocks made by hikers carefully balanced on top of each other. The name ‘cairn’ originally comes from the traditional Scottish language, Gaelic. Whilst the Scottish hills and landscapes are covered in cairns, they are only one of many places. Cairns can be found all throughout Europe, North America and other parts of the world.
In modern times, cairns are used as landmarks or navigation markers. Often, trails can be hard to follow or unclear. Cairns mark the path and give a clear direction as to where the hikers should be heading; and so comes the expression ‘follow the cairns’. Cairns are also used to mark the highest peak of a mountain, otherwise known as the summit.
To some people, these stacks of rocks are simply a visual beauty, however to others, they are almost as useful as a compass. Their design allows them to be seen in low visibility, giving them the power to navigate outdoor enthusiasts and assist discombobulated hikers.
What Is a Stack of Rocks Called?
As previously stated, a stack of rocks is called a ‘cairn’, however, here is a slightly more detailed version.
The word ‘cairn’ is derived from the Scottish Gaelic word ‘carn’, which means ‘heap of rocks’. ‘Cairn’ is a fluid word which means it has a much wider definition. Therefore, a ‘cairn’ is used to reference different types of rock formations that are either man-made or naturally made.
‘Carn’ or ‘Cairn’ also comes from a Scottish surname, and can be given to someone as a topographic name if they lived near a cairn.
Cairns are ancient markers with roots leading back to Scotland, however now they can be found all over the globe. In February 2020, it was found that some cairns in Scotland have been around for more than 4,500 years.
What Does a Cairn Symbolize?
It has become a long-standing Scottish tradition to carry a stone from the bottom of the hill, and then place it on the cairn at the summit. This tradition shows a sign of respect.
There is an old Scottish saying that goes, ‘Cuiridh mi clach air do charn’, meaning ‘I will put a stone on your cairn’. This respect can be given in different forms; either to the land on which you’re walking, or any loved ones left behind.
Getting away from the Scottish tradition, a cairn can also symbolise balance. These stacks of rocks have carried a spiritual meaning throughout different cultures for centuries. The act of placing a stone on a rock pile signifies the art of practicing patience. Each rock can be given out of thankfulness, or as a thought to someone else who is in need.
Cairns – Ancient Uses and Modern Uses
Cairns have been used since ancient times and over the years, their usage has changed. Some religious traditions have been known to use cairns as a place to meditate or perform rituals, however, there are four main purposes for cairns;
- As a form of navigation
- As a memorial for loved ones
- To guide mariners
- To signify the top of a mountain
Cairns are used for hikers to help them navigate their way across the terrain. They are especially used on land that is barren, stony, or on glaciers. On occasion, this can prove a problem when inexperienced hikers who do not understand their meaning, build mini cairns of their own accord. This action could confuse the experienced hikers and even lead them astray.
In ancient times, cairns were first used in Scotland, Scandinavia and even Peru as memorials for loved ones who have passed away. Some parts of the world will still use cairns as burial sites, especially if the soil is difficult to excavate. Primarily, cairns used as burials date back to the New Stone Age.
The word ‘cairn’ can sometimes be interchanged with the word ‘barrow’, meaning ‘burial mound’. However, the term is not well used.
Cairns have also been used to guide mariners in the correct direction in place of lighthouses. As well as highlighting how close they are to land, cairns also determine their location.
Another common use for cairns in the modern day is to signify the highest peak of a mountain. This works to build a hiker’s motivation, and confirm their success once they reached the top. For a more practical use, they can sometimes be used as a windbreaker.
Why Is It Bad to Stack Rocks? (Is It Bad?)
Unfortunately, there is also a downside to these beautiful stacks. The hiking sport, in general, has been criticized for causing erosion to the land, and often hikers are encouraged not to follow the exact same route as others to prevent this. Building cairns creates the same problem.
In recent times the amount of cairns has dramatically increased, with many building extra cairns next to already existing ones. Moving so many stones like this can cause land erosion, damage the wild animal’s ecosystem and disrupt the flow of rivers. Following on from this, as previously mentioned, incorrectly placed cairns can confuse hikers.
These rocks can be necessary for the ecosystem and are homes for many different organisms. If rocks are removed from streams and rivers, it will disrupt the homes of water insects and fish who solely rely on crevices to make their homes. Additionally, it will reduce the amount of algae in the water which is essential for filtering and providing oxygen.
This being said, cairns can still be put to good use. With the appropriate amount of cairn building and minimal disruption to the ecosystem, cairns can be used safely without causing irreparable damage.
Cairns are based all around the world, each with different formations and lines of history. Below are some well-known or distinguished cairns.
Clava Cairns is arguably the most famous cairn in Scotland. It is a circular tomb cairn, made in the Bronze Age and situated near the most northern city, Inverness. It is said that people used to perform black magic rituals here, and if you take a rock away from the site, you will be cursed.
Cairn of Kjerag Mountain
This cairn is particularly beautiful as it has an unusual, well-defined shape almost mirroring a long, pointed hat. It is formed of smaller rocks at the base, and one larger pointy rock on the top. The Kjerag mountain is situated in Norway with a breath-taking view.
Cairn de Barnenez
This cairn is known as one of the largest in the world, one of the oldest Egyptian pyramids and the largest megalithic mausoleum in Europe. This cairn is situated in France and was used as an ancient burial site.
These cairns form just one of the dramatic landscapes in Iceland. They were built on a lava ridge, designed to look like miniature mountains and bring luck to travellers who pass by.
Apachetas of Chivay
The Apachetas are multiple piles of small cairns, made by the Incas in Peru. They are situated on one of the highest points of land on earth, around 3 miles above sea level. The Apachetas were used to connect to higher powers on a spiritual level.
Cairns have been around for thousands of years and have many different purposes, meanings and traditions. Throughout the years, as recognition of cairns grew, so did their demand.
As with most things rooted in Scotland, cairns have a vast amount of interesting history, making them so much more than visual beauties.
Nowadays, the most frequent use of cairns is for navigation, however, as we make our cairns and use them to navigate our routes, it is also important to respect the ecosystem and the creatures living in it.