Wednesday, 25 November 2015

Cairns - More Thoughts

A recent email from Dave King, with a couple of pictures, has set me thinking again about the many cairns that are scattered around Ardnamurchan's landscape.  Dave writes, "To the east of Port Min, there is a low ridge, made up of a series of parallel rock outcrops, around about GR NM418663. On this small ridge, I came across seven, possibly eight, small cairns.

"These ranged in condition from partly peat covered, through no peat but well lichened, to one which looked fairly recent as it didn’t even have any lichen. Although mostly positioned on bare rock outcrops, they did not mark the highest points, and nor did they seem to have any positional relationship with each other.

"They're a real puzzle. The only guess I can come up with is that they were created by a youngster who was bored with their job of keeping an eye on the livestock."

In previous posts, I have suggested several reasons for a cairn being raised, such as to make boundary markers, way markers, summit markers and as grave markers, burial places and memorials. But the habit many have, of adding a stone to any cairn they see such as to this large cairn on the summit of Beinn na Seilg, suggests they have other, more difficult to explain roles. For example, is the act, "an attempt to fix the memory of our brief triumph, and of our passing?"

Following the last post about cairns, George Inglis wrote with this interesting information, for which I am very grateful. He said, "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."

There's obviously some deep significance to most of us in placing a rock on a pile in a high place - in the sense that I don't think we'd add to a pile of rocks in the middle of a meadow or by the wayside - which is why the examples Dave found are so intriguing.

This little cairn contains twelve stones. It's on a remote hilltop near the middle of the peninsula, and it contains one stone for each member of our close family. Apparently, this habit of building personal cairns is becoming so prevalent in some national parks that the rangers go around pulling them down.

Many thanks to Dave King for pictures and story, and to George Inglis.


  1. I recall reading in a history of the Ordnance Survey that in its early days they occasionally built small cairns during survey work, to mark the positions of the plane tables: the data could then be rechecked, and the survey points could be revisited. This would be particularly useful if there were few easily identifiable features in the surrounding landscape.

  2. Many thanks for this. It would explain some of the well-built cairns on prominent hilltops. Jon

  3. This was a great post.

    I'm also building my own cairn in Ardnamurchan. I've been adding a few stones every year for probably the last 10. I like to think that 300 years from now someone will enjoy walking to my cairn and then writing about it in the Kilchoan Diary!

    Definitely nothing more than "an attempt to fix the memory of our brief triumph, and of our passing".

  4. I like the explanation from one of Iain Banks' novels: Gastroliths left behind from the long decomposed remains of giant prehistoric creatures during the last iceage!