The History of Cairns

By Rebeccca Ruger

beach glass stackThe sea glass stack, while wildly popular and pleasing to look upon when the light and colors and glass work so harmoniously together, is actually just another form of the ancient practice of stone stacking. It’s a form of a cairn. From the Gaelic "càrn," literally meaning "heap of stones," the practice has been around for centuries, as far back as prehistoric times. Keep in mind that cairns, defined as simply a heap of stones, differ from other ancient monuments, called megaliths, which incorporated large stones, or many large stones, to create a structure or monument—Stonehenge in the United Kingdom, is one of the world’s most recognizable megaliths.

The first cairns were, as all successors, human-made stacks, but these served a greater purpose than simply a delight to the artistic eye. The earliest cairns were used as burial monuments, or for the defense of a town, beach, or village, and some were used for ceremonial purposes. The ancient Norse people used cairns rather as lighthouses to help with safe navigation through their rivers, fjords, and coastal waters. These types of coastal cairn—sea marks—are common in and around Scandinavian and eastern Canadian waters, and can even sometimes be found on navigation maps. They were often painted with bright colors, or enhanced by lights for greater visibility from the sea.

In the Americas, as far back as 12,000 years ago and as recently as the 16th century, indigenous people used cairns to create ‘highways’ to steer their prey toward the buffalo jump. A buffalo jump is a natural cliff structure which Native Americans used to hunt and kill bison of the plains in large numbers. Hunters herded the bison toward the cliff, using the erected cairns to keep the animals on the right path. The bison were driven over the cliff, usually suffering injuries which rendered them immobile, allowing hunters waiting below to finish the kill with spears

Rock Cairn (Photo © Bob Embleton)While we are familiar with the ‘stack’ or tower shape of modern cairns, many ancient cairns, being still a "heap of stones," were much more significant than a single layer of stacked stone. In County Sligo, in northern Ireland, sits a large hill known as Knocknarea (Cnoc na Riabh). The hill itself is over 1000 feet high, but atop this hill, which sits almost majestically on the Cúil Irra peninsula, is a cairn measuring 180 feet wide and 33 feet high, and likely dates to 3000BC. It is believed to be the final resting place of Queen Maeve, the mythical Iron age ruler of the territory of Connaught.

Rock Cairn at Mass Burial SiteThere are cairns that mark mass graves, such as the ones that dot the landscape of the Isandlwana Mountain, 10 miles east of the Buffalo River in Zululand, South Africa, where more than 1300 British troops were slain in January 1879 during the Zulu war.

Scottish history provides that warriors of the Highland Clans, before they fought in battle, would place a stone in a pile. After the battle, those who survived would return and remove a stone. The stones that remained were built into a cairn to honor the fallen.

On the grounds of the Balmoral Estate in Aberdeenshire, Scotland, one of the royal residences of the British monarchy, there are 11 cairns, most built for, or commissioned by, Queen Victoria to celebrate life events of the royal family. The largest of these was specially made in remembrance of her husband, Prince Albert, after his death in 1861.

In the United States, the Presidential Range in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, are notorious for having severe and unpredictable weather. The highest peaks of the Whites are named for American presidents, and are said to have some of the most impressive cairns in the northeast. These cairns, some actually considered works of art, serve a great purpose in the range known for its bad weather. And there are enough of them that hikers discuss not being able to see from ‘cairn to cairn’ in the most inclement conditions. Still, "the benefit of cairns is that they can withstand the punishing above-treeline weather in the Whites, they’re visible in the heavy cloud cover that shrouds the high peaks, they’re effective in all 4 seasons, and there is no shortage of good rocks to build them with!" says Philip Werner, hiker, editor, and author at SectionHiker.com.

Beach pebble stackIt’s possible that some of today’s cairns support some form of spiritual significance, but mostly, modern cairns seem to serve little purpose other than to say, “I was here.” But did you know, that building unauthorized cairns on many public lands is actually illegal, certainly within the boundaries of national parks and national forests? Apparently, what are considered ‘pointless’ cairns—those built with only an artistic appeal, are frowned upon. Critics spout different rationales to ‘stop building rock piles!’ The very obvious reason is that any newly built cairns on public hiking lands may misdirect hikers and cause trouble for them. A less obvious reason: apparently moving only handfuls of rocks increases erosion by exposing the ground and soil beneath the disturbed area. Thus, the leave no trace ethic (suitable as a motto for beachcombers, too) is well remembered when enjoying any public lands.

*Note: this article speaks of rock cairns, and does not infer that the sea glass "stacks" and "towers" are the same as cairns, or serve any purpose other than photo opportunities, or that they have any negative consequence on the beaches, or wherever erected.

This article appeared in the Glassing Magazine September 2017 issue.

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