Wednesday, 27 November 2013

Why Add a Stone?

Just about every hill on West Ardnamurchan has some sort of cairn at its summit - this one is on Creag an Airgid, the silver crag.  When we come across one, each of us dutifully adds a new stone, but without really thinking about why we do it - other than that, perhaps, it will bring us good luck.  So, sometimes, we add an extra one, and think of someone in the hope that it'll bring them good luck too.

The thought that we might be wasting our time, because this might not be the purpose of placing a stone on a cairn, prompted a search on the internet - where there's surprisingly little.

The word cairn is Gaelic, from carn, which can mean anything from a pile of stones to a rocky hill.  Various sites suggest that the pile-of-stones sort of cairns may have had many uses in Scotland: boundary markers, way markers, summit markers and as grave markers, burial places and memorials.  Many of the uses here are obvious, and we have some good examples locally of cairns which are grave markers, but the idea that the cairns on the summit of hills are mere 'summit markers' leaves something to be desired.  Surely they are more than this?

On the internet, the Gaelic phrase, Cuiridh mi clach air do charn meaning, ‘I will put a stone on your cairn’, is quoted several times, as if cairns are built to the memory of someone.  This can't be so for all those on top of hills - though this one, on a low hill above Lochan Druim na Claise to the south of the lighthouse, might be a memorial, in that it's obviously not a random accumulation from many passing walkers but has been very carefully built.

The internet did provide one interesting idea which comes from the Gaelic phrase.  "Formed from the most durable of materials, they seem to have the ability to fix memories in stone and in place."  [From 'Migrant Stones and Migrant Stories in Scotland and its Diaspora', Paul Basu - here]  So, when we place a stone on a hilltop cairn, are we simply attempting to fix the memory of our brief triumph, and of our passing?


  1. I cannot resist putting a stone on a cairn when I reach one, I agree it is a little "personal triumph", and a way of showing those family members who didn't come on the climb - "See that cairn? That's where we went!"
    On the hill which overlooks Portuairk and Grigadale, there used to be a jam jar by the cairn in which was a piece of paper and a pencil. People who had climbed here would sign it - there were names and addresses from all over the world. Sadly that didn't last.
    The cairn there isn't visible from ground level in Portuairk where we stay, so my daughter and I collected some loose stones from the hillside and built our own, on the highest visible part, again as a way of showing "We were there!" -

  2. George Inglis has written to me as follows: "Recently on the TV programme BBC Alba they mentioned that the tradition behind some cairns was that, as clansmen gathered to go to battle, each would place a stone on a local hilltop. On return from battle they would remove a stone thus, after each returning clansman had removed a stone, the stones left were those of the men who died, in turn becoming a monument to those lost in battle. Today we see many small cairns on hilltops around the country the majority of which I would suggest are not related to clans going to battle but simply a thing people like to do possibly revisiting the hill years later to see how their cairn has grown and add to it."

    Many thanks to both George and Matt for their comments.