From Academic Kids

Missing image
A cairn to mark the way along a glacier

A cairn is a manmade pile of stones. They are nearly always in uplands, on moors or mountain tops. The term tends to be used in reference to Scotland, but is occasionally used elsewhere.


They are built for several purposes:

  • To mark a path across stony or barren terrain, and across glaciers.
  • To mark the summit of a mountain.
  • To mark a burial site, or in commemoration of the dead.
  • Some are also merely sites where a farmer has removed large amounts of stone from a field.

Additionally cairns have been used to commemorate all kinds of events from sites of battles to places where a cart has tipped over.

They vary from loose, small piles of stones to elaborate feats of engineering. In some places, games are regularly held to find out who can build the most beautiful cairn.


The word derives from the Scottish Gaelic cÓrn which has a much broader meaning, and can take in various types of hill, and natural stone piles. Naturally, due to the idea's simplicity, cairns can be found all over the world in alpine or mountainous regions.

Missing image
A cairn to mark the summit of a mountain

These present-day traditions emerged from the Bronze Age habit of putting cists into cairns, which would be situated in conspicuous positions, often on the skyline above the village of the deceased. These cairns are still to be found, but are often much bigger than modern day ones in Scotland. It is thought that the stones were placed there for a variety of reasons, including deterring grave robbers and scavengers. A more sinister explanation is that they were to stop the dead from rising! It is noteworthy that there is a still a Jewish tradition of placing small stones on a person's grave whenever you visit. Possibly this comes from a similar origin. Stupas in India and Tibet etc. probably started out in a similar fashion, although they now generally contain the ashes of a Buddhist saint or lama.

In Scotland, it is traditional to carry a stone up from the bottom of the hill to place on a cairn. In such a fashion, cairns would grow ever larger. An old Scots Gaelic blessing is Cuiridh mi clach air do chÓrn, i.e. 'I'll put a stone on your cairn'.

See also

de:Steinmann fr:Cairn nl:Steenman



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