Cairns of Scotland

The definition of a cairn is a group of stones that have been placed on top of one another to form a mound. This is a man made constructed by either a singular person or a group of people. The term is derived from the Scottish Gaelic word “carn”.

This particular word has a far wider definition in that it can be used in reference to a multitude of different hills or stone piles formed by man or naturally. You can normally find a cairn or a pile of stones near waterways, mountaintops, moorlands and in uplands. This is a tradition that has existed within Scotland for many centuries. Carrying a stone from the bottom of the valley to be placed on top of an existing cairn has become part of Scottish folklore and custom. Over time, cairns have grown into large mounds and are an intriguing and curious sight. An ancient Scottish blessing, “Cuiridh mi clach air do charn” means “I will put a stone on your cairn”.

A cairn site has four main purposes. The first is the marking of a grave or in memory of a loved one in their passing. The second is its use by climbers as a symbol of their success in reaching of the summit of a mountain. Thirdly, it a cairn is used as a form of a path specifically across glaciers or barren, stony terrain. Lastly, a cairn has been used as a sea marker to help mariners determine their location.

Hikers use cairns as a form of navigation by placing loose stones in small piles and adding as time goes. This however has been of great concern as inexperienced hikers have unwittingly disrupted the cairns which confuses more experienced hikers in the Scottish back country who solely dependant on cairns for guidance back. Cairns are also used in leisure time as a type of game with the objective of challenging your opponent in the art of building the most elaborate cairn. A more significant use is the commemoration of an event such as a battle, as was done near the Culloden battlefield.

A large number of visitors to Scotland come visit a site that lies east of Inverness with a mystery that dates back to approximately 2000 BC at a cairn site is known as the “Prehistoric burial Cairns of Balnuaran of Clava” or the “Clava Cairns“. Three burial cairns exist here making up a line of seven sites which are placed along the low lying land of the River Nairn to the South.Together these sites form a massive group of some forty-five distinct cairns in the North of Inverness-shire. What is of great interest to this site is the fascinating construction that lies within a circular frame of large boulders. It is here that the Jacobites could have fled from the slaughter of the battle to where the memory lies but a few meters from Culloden.