There are piles of stones and then there are piles of stones. Anyone can place one rock upon another, but it takes a special endeavour to get the Ordnance Survey to take notice. Once a clutch of cartographers formally recognise a cairn, it will stay mapped for centuries, if not millennia. Wander around Britain’s fells, moors and coastline and you’ll find all manner of rock piles punctuating the landscape. Often some 5,000 years old, these are our island’s most ancient standing constructions.
Although they might look similar, cairns are not all the same. Summit cairns, for instance, indicate the precise pinnacles of hills. Many originate from the tradition, still known in Scotland and the West Country, of carrying a stone from foot to brow and depositing it as a pious relic. An anonymous workforce has produced some remarkable engineering: the cairn on Thornthwaite Crag in Cumbria, for instance, is 14 feet high. But sometimes people get carried away: the summit plinth of Snowdon is a monument of misplaced enthusiasm.
There are also route-marking cairns, designed to guide walkers in driving rain or in fog. Where there’s mostly turf and soil underfoot, the signal is clear, but when the path and landscape themselves are rocky, it can take a keen eye to identify the manmade pile. One thing you wouldn’t want to do is mix up a route-marking cairn with a warning cairn — a rock heap that alerts you to the fact that you’re about to saunter off a cliff or roll into a ravine. It’s good to be told about where there is or is not solid ground.
The last type of cairn is the memorial one. Many of those on Dartmoor are Neolithic burial markers. They are not always sombre: Showery Tor, a three-metre ring cairn overlooking Bodmin Moor, looks like the creation of a giant toddler. Cornwall has so many rock piles that it may even be named after them. Several memorials to Britain’s war dead take the form of mountain cairns.
No less pointed is the nation’s newest cairn. At Gretna Green, just across the Scottish border, more than 100,000 stones have been added to a rock pile that has been established since 2014. Inspired by the Scottish referendum, this striking communal monument celebrates the ‘Auld Acquaintance’ between England and Scotland.
So every official cairn has a purpose, how-ever modest, and there are many who guard them by dismantling other randomly erected piles. Social media, of course, has other ideas, and the pebble beaches of Britain play host to a new phenomenon: stone-stacking. In case you missed it, this fad caused an environmental stir last summer as far north as Orkney. These stacks caused real upset because of their lack of meaning — beyond Instagram likes.
But properly preserved, cairns are more than the sum of their parts. Consider the Ecuadorian artist Oscar Santillan, who in 2015 exhibited a one-inch stone allegedly taken from the summit cairn of Scafell Pike, England’s highest point. This met national outrage, and threats to burn down the London gallery which housed the stone were issued. Despite the fury, the stone has not been returned and is now exhibited at the Castlefield Gallery in Manchester.