What Are Rock Cairns and How Should They Be Used?

The summit cairn on Spidean Mialach, Scotland
The summit cairn on Spidean Mialach, Scotland | © Nick Bramhall / Flickr
Tori Chalmers

Found ascending towards the sky like Jenga blocks in all sorts of wild spaces are an assemblage of meticulously constructed stone stacks called cairns. But they are more than an artful balancing act.

To some, these perplexing rock piles look like a piece of visual art (and in many respects they are). And yet to others, they are invaluable wayfinding references and ancient burial markers. Cairns have the power to clarify and navigate, just as they can discombobulate those who see them.

What are rock cairns?

A cairn is a group of stones carefully arranged on top of each other. These man-made mounds, used since the prehistoric age, take on a number of roles and have guarded various landscapes for thousands of years, withstanding both the ferocious elements and the test of time.

Cairn Gorm Summit Cairn, Scotland

Historical significance

Since prehistoric times, cairns have served as landmarks as well as burial monuments. Some experts state that many of these ancient stone stacks were also built for astrological, ceremonial and hunting purposes. Indigenous peoples in places like Alaska and Greenland have relied on such markers for centuries. Seafarers used cairns for navigating long before lighthouses entered the equation.

Cairn looking north over entrance to Grutness, Shetland

Cairns and Scotland

Scotland, with its maze of Neolithic, Pictish and Viking sites, is overrun with a constellation of contemporary and ancient rock cairns. A testament to the longevity of the practice are the many age-old burial cairns and megaliths that pepper the landscapes. Perhaps the most famous is Clava Cairns, a series of prehistoric stone-adorned burial monuments near Inverness believed to be around 4,000 years old.

Clava Cairns, Scotland

In Scottish folklore, Highland Clan members would each place a stone on a pile before battle. The surviving warriors would subsequently remove their stone, leaving the remaining ones to transform into a memorial cairn for the fallen. The act of adding a small stone to a cairn, especially on a hilltop, is a deep-rooted Scottish tradition that signifies respect. By adding this rock, you are preserving the integrity of the monument and helping to protect it from harsh weather.

When the cairn marks a grave, the old Scots Gaelic blessing ‘Cuiridh mi clach air do chàrn’ or ‘I’ll put a stone on your cairn’ becomes relevant. The gesture is a way of saying ‘I’ll always remember you’ and ‘you will not be forgotten’.

Nether Largie South Cairn, Kilmartin Glen, Scotland

Climbing culture

Along with their ancient Celtic roots, rock cairns are a major wayfinding tool for serious alpinists, rock climbers, hikers and outdoor enthusiasts. A network of cairns punctuates the majority of mountains across the world to assist adventurers in their ascent and descent. Such cairns may have ‘beaks’ to point out the shortcuts or correct direction.

Self-explanatory summit cairns highlight the highest peak, and some even act as a wind shelter. Almost all will protect the summit register, a book for climbers to log the adventure and alert others about any route issues. Cairns also pop up on desert trails, near water and wildernesses.

Gleouraich Summit Cairn, Scotland

The problem

Sadly, cairns are frequently becoming more of a hindrance and less of a navigational aid. Somewhere along the way, their age-old purpose has been misconstrued and abused. This is partly due to inexperienced climbers building stone stacks along various routes without knowing their exact wayfinding meaning. Some even deface existing ancient cairns to construct a new uninformed version. Displaced cairns can cause even advanced adventurers to lose the way or take a wrong turn. Once more, the increasing number of cairns are an eyesore and are deemed as an environmental disruption, littering and vandalism in some national parks.

Assemblage of rock cairns

Adding fuel to the fire, places in the west have witnessed a surge of stone balancing artists and those who view the practice as holding spiritual significance. Although creative and arguably spiritual, this can disrupt adventurers and purists with pointless cairns. It can also harm the environment and disrupt ecosystems by damaging shelters for animals and insects.

Balancing stone stacks

The solution

At the end of the day, building cairns for fun can be cathartic and challenging, but as a general rule of thumb, people should practice the ‘leave no trace’ method, so as not to disturb the natural environment, distort the path or risk cultural appropriation of such an ancient and sacred art form.

Summit Cairn, Creag Garbh, Scotland
landscape with balloons floating in the air


Connect with like-minded people on our premium trips curated by local insiders and with care for the world

Since you are here, we would like to share our vision for the future of travel - and the direction Culture Trip is moving in.

Culture Trip launched in 2011 with a simple yet passionate mission: to inspire people to go beyond their boundaries and experience what makes a place, its people and its culture special and meaningful — and this is still in our DNA today. We are proud that, for more than a decade, millions like you have trusted our award-winning recommendations by people who deeply understand what makes certain places and communities so special.

Increasingly we believe the world needs more meaningful, real-life connections between curious travellers keen to explore the world in a more responsible way. That is why we have intensively curated a collection of premium small-group trips as an invitation to meet and connect with new, like-minded people for once-in-a-lifetime experiences in three categories: Culture Trips, Rail Trips and Private Trips. Our Trips are suitable for both solo travelers, couples and friends who want to explore the world together.

Culture Trips are deeply immersive 5 to 16 days itineraries, that combine authentic local experiences, exciting activities and 4-5* accommodation to look forward to at the end of each day. Our Rail Trips are our most planet-friendly itineraries that invite you to take the scenic route, relax whilst getting under the skin of a destination. Our Private Trips are fully tailored itineraries, curated by our Travel Experts specifically for you, your friends or your family.

We know that many of you worry about the environmental impact of travel and are looking for ways of expanding horizons in ways that do minimal harm - and may even bring benefits. We are committed to go as far as possible in curating our trips with care for the planet. That is why all of our trips are flightless in destination, fully carbon offset - and we have ambitious plans to be net zero in the very near future.

Winter Sale Offers on Our Trips

Incredible Savings

Edit article