Cairns

While walking Willa in the Laura Moore Cunningham Memorial Arboretum, I saw this small cairn. 

Used by people around the globe, cairns—a human-made stack of stones—serve many different purposes:

Utilitarian: to mark a path, territory, or specific site

Spiritual: inviting passersby to stop and reflect

Ceremonial: when placed within a circle of enclosing stones

Memorial: when friends and family members voice a fond remembrance of a loved one while adding a stone

Symbolic: the uses are endless including love, prayer, and artistic expression

In Scotland, it’s traditional to carry a stone from the bottom of a hill to place on a cairn at its top. In such a fashion, cairns grow ever larger. An old Scottish Gaelic blessing is Cuiridh mi clach air do chàrn — “I’ll put a stone on your cairn.”

Have you ever built a cairn?

© lauriebuchanan.com

45 thoughts on “Cairns

  1. Laurie, such a lovely explanation about cairns. They are wonderfully evocative and when we are on holiday in Sweden there is one particular walk which is marked by cairns. I always pick a special stone by the coast to take with me to the top to leave in memory of my grandparents. It’s interesting how the Scottish and Scandinavian cultures are often so similar!

  2. Yes,it is really very interesting to learn the meaning of something in details ,perhaps I have seen cairns but I never got the opportunity to make one .Thanks for the proper explanation.🙏

  3. Hi Laurie

    Many a time. Mostly of the utilitarian variety – to mark a trail for those who follow, usually after a washout or landslide.

    And sometimes just for fun. Sometime the rocky beaches around here have hundreds of cairns on them, between big storms 😉 .

  4. The one in your picture is similar to the Inuit inukshuks or inunnguat. I built a small one for myself out of stones collected from various meaningful places over the years. It reminds me to honour the signs.

  5. That’s very interesting. I have never heard them called cairns before. In Canada, our indigenous people build them. We call them inukshuks.

  6. Learnt a lot here.
    I merely psychoanalyzed your Cairns-looked like someone pondering a takeoff to a higher plane.!

  7. I have seen a few on hiking paths.

    And, I was gifted with a very tiny one (a part of a tiny little scene). It’s now placed among gems and other small symbolic items in a small wooden bowl, on a home “altar” in my meditation space.

  8. I like posts that both entertain and educate. Like today, yours often do both. I’ve never built a cairn, but I have another blog friend who remembers her husband with such a memorial in a wooded area close to her home.

    Thank you, Laurie.

  9. Laurie, both my maternal and paternal grandparents owned farms with soil that needed work with plows and harrows, usually pulled by draft horses and mules. That stony soil was hard on both machine and beast and they needed removed to spare them bott. They both had their fair shares of rocks and used them to their advantage in most cases. There were property lines to be marked, foundations built and fireplaces cased. The soil of Newfoundland is as rocky as the Irish coast and the Scottish Isles. The stone of Georgia is different but serves the same purpose, it is an ageless, multipurpose material. The Cherokees left stone pillars as directional guides and markers, I suppose the Native Americans and the Vikings did the same in Newfoundland. I know a balanced stone arrangement like the one you have shown is not that hard to do, if you are willing to make 2,000 tries and have the patience of a rock. BTW, the old Gaelic Blessing sounds as if it comes from a frenemy and is vaguely threatening…best countered with, “Don’t count on it, Bub! I’ll put one on yours first!”.

    • Sandi — I can well imagine that the stones your grandparents owned were put to great use marking property lines, building foundations, and casing fireplaces.

      Your last sentiment, about the “frenemy” made me laugh out loud. Thank you!

  10. I have never built one, but it was interesting to learn more about them. Thank you. I’m considering it now – but I suspect my dog would think she needed to investigate and topple it over. I love the concept.

  11. I have built a cairn! Several times. Just recently I rebuild a small one I have in the apartment. to remind be to keep my balance, and it looks interesting…

  12. Nice! We always add our stone on a cairn, but have never created one. Our last one was in the West Penines, north of Manchester, UK, last autumn whilst visiting motorhoming friends. I simply love this custom. 👍❤

  13. I too love cairns, and I loved your list of ways they can help us make meaning in our lives. I have placed a stone at the huge cairn at Walden Pond commemorating the life and writings of Henry David Thoreau, and I placed a stone on the grave of Willa Cather, my favorite author. There is a stone cairn and meditation garden at Goshen College, a tradition I helped to create as president. I love being able to visit more than 20 years after it was first begun.

    • Shirley — I love what you shared about the various cairn interactions in your life. Your stone placement at Walden Pond especially speaks to my heart as I’m a tremendous fan of Henry David Thoreau.

  14. We live within a few miles from the pebbled little cove of Cwmtydu and we see beautiful cairns of all shapes and sizes regularly.The first time we saw them we were blown away . They are also a mindful pastime . Being in such a beautiful place and carefully placing the pebbles( or stones ) together in a kind of layered jigsaw is immensely therapeutic.
    I have never done one myself ,or seen one done, they just seem to appear and then disappear.
    Cherryx

  15. I am trying to use a new email address as my Patriciaswisdom blog closes down….It is like building a cairn as the balance keeps tipping me over!!!
    I get about 500 spam/junk emails a day on my PW email so this will make that pesty business go away and I can just enroll in my favorite blogs to follow on my new email…. It is making me wish I could do these kinds of things with greater ease and less frustration. SIGH I do love finding cairns – still not able to hike yet – So I have a tiny one (glued together) in my courtyard to use for meditation ! I liked reading here

    • Patricia — I just saw your subscription with your new email address come through. Thank you. I count it a greta compliment to be counted among your “favorite blogs to follow.” Thank you!

      I love the idea that you have a tiny cairn in your courtyard as a focal point for meditation 🙂

  16. Yes, even now I have stacked flat pebbles into small cairns on my fireplace mantel to remind me of their source, Block Island, R.I. Block Island has beautiful rocks on its shoreline and there are many cairns of all sizes everywhere on the island.

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