Sex, Severed Heads, And 5 Other Things You Don’t Know About Cairns


Cairns are piles of rocks that show travelers the way, something that’s only exciting when you’re lost and it’s getting dark, right? Wrong. David B. Williams’ new book, Cairns ($16, LINK), uncovers the history of cairns throughout the world, telling plenty of colorful stories beyond their use as trail markers. We asked him for seven of his favorites:

1. The Mile-High Cairn
At the end of the Appalachian Trail in Maine is the long sought summit of Katahdin and a 13-foot-high cairn. Why that exact height, you may ask? Turns out that in 1927 surveyor Floyd Neary determined the peak’s elevation was 5,267 feet. Someone then decided that making Katahdin a mile-high gave the mountain an air of distinction.

2. Viking Cairns
The Vikings liked to leave their mark. In the 12th century they broke into a large burial cairn in Scotland and graffitied the walls. “The man who is most skilled in runes west of the ocean carved these runes.” “Thorny f*&%ed. Helgi carved.” Vikings also placed a rune-covered piece of basalt about the size of a Hershey Bar in a cairn on Greenland. Found in 1824 by an Inuit hunter, the runes told of three men who had visited the spot in the 13th century. None of them boasted of any skills.

3. Severed Heads
The Scots have a way with names. On the Orkney Island of Rousay is the cairn known as Cubbie Roo’s Burden, traditionally held to be a pile of stones dropped by the giant Cubbie Roo while on his way to build a bridge. Near Inverness is Clochan Gorach, which translates as foolish stones, a reference to impious rabblerousers turned to stone for dancing on the Sabbath. But the most notorious pile is the King’s Head Cairn, long said to be the final resting place of the severed head of a king and the bodies, and heads, of those who died with him.

4. Animal Sacrifice
Builders of Mongolian cairns known as oboo had an unusual method of honoring the deities believed to inhabit the rock piles. In Shamanist tradition, offerings of sheep, yak, camel, bull, oxen, or horse — sometimes only specific parts, such as the head and shoulder-blades — were placed in front of the oboo. They were known as bayasgakhiin takhil, or delighting offerings. The variety of animal sacrifices developed because each deity apparently favored a particular animal.

5. Traveling Cairn
Eight months after Robert Falcon Scott, Edward Wilson, and Henry Bowers died on their return from their fateful race to the South Pole, the men who found them built a cairn of ice to commemorate the spot. That cairn is now buried under 53 feet of ice. It has also traveled an estimated 37 miles, due to movement of the polar ice sheet. The men and the cairn should reach the edge of the ice sheet in another 248 years or so.

6. Million-Stone Cairns
Along the 25,000 miles of the ancient Inca Trail are thousands of cairns known as apacheta, a word derived from the Quechua for “carrying or having something carried.” They were often built to commemorate a monumental ascent or descent. The highest were found at more than 16,000 feet at Argentina’s Abra del Acay, and the biggest, they contained millions of stones, each one an offering for a blessing.

7. Sex
Anyone who travels in Iceland quickly learns that it is an ideal landscape for cairns with plenty of rock and few trees. What they probably won’t realize is that Icelanders used to refer to certain cairns as beinakerling, or “bone crone.” Turns out that in earlier days, travelers would leave a message in cow bones embedded in the cairn. Originally the cairns served as a post office for people to pass along messages, but over time a tradition evolved to leave poetry. These were not flowery prose but bawdy poems, written as if from the cairn in the guise of an old woman. Only a few have survived but they serve to indicate her randy nature. “Though he’d never get his way with me/The miserable man/I will take pity on you/If you are quick.” “If you, sir, want to grace my old age/and find me alone in secret/then send away the lads.”

Photo by Shutterstock

{ 3 comments…read them below or write one }

  • Lost

    I never thought about cairns much until I met someone who loathes them… For the simple fact that they are an eyesore… And knocks them over whenever she feels like. Then I noticed that children tend to do this too. Now I think I am on their side. Who needs a cairn? Go ahead and tell me how it saved you from a miserable night in the cold, a near death experience. But I would bet dollars to donuts that cairns lead more people into trouble than out.

  • Marie

    I really like the photo of the cairn that you used. Actually, I think cairns are kind of cool. They’ve always made me wonder about the people who traveled the area before me. I’ve never been silly enough to think it was a something I should follow. Now after reading Lost’s comment, when I see a pile of rocks I will assume some child or childish adult intentionally destroyed a cairn. Looking forward to reading Mr. Williams’ book

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