Martok
October 21, 2011
Cairn (rock tower) sitting in the grass
Photo by Sue Weaver
Mom likes to build little rock towers, called cairns.

Another neat thing Mom found last week when she cleaned out her dinosaur Mac computer was an old journal she wrote while she lived in Minnesota. She smiled when she read about building a cairn atop the towering cliffs of Lake Superior on a brisk autumn day like today. Have you ever built a cairn? You should!

Cairns are basically piles of rocks. There are small, simple ones like the little cairn in this picture and there are huge, ancient ones like the cairn atop Brown Willy, the highest point in Cornwall, England. It’s 79 feet high! For fun, take a look at how a master cairn builder built a fancy cairn for Cornell University at Sapsucker Ridge Park in Ithaca, New York. That’s an intricate project!

Cairns date back to prehistoric times when they were used to mark inland trails and sea routes when built on bluffs above the sea. They’re still used to mark routes in places around the world as diverse as Scandinavia, Mongolia, India and South Africa.

Cairn is from the Scottish Gaelic word càrn, meaning “a pile of rocks.” It’s also carn in old Welsh, Irish, and Cornish. In German, a cairn is called a steinmann and in Dutch a steenman, both meaning “stone man.” Inuit people in Alaska, Greenland, Siberia and the arctic regions of Canada call them inunguak or “imitation person.” In the Alps a cairn is an ometto or “little man”.

Some people, like Mom, build little cairns just because they like their looks. Mom also builds a memorial cairn over our graves when one of us animals dies. People build cairns to commemorate human deaths, too. A popular Scottish blessing, Cuiridh mi clach air do chàrn, means “I’ll put a stone on your cairn” or “I’ll remember you.”

Mom likes to start with flat rocks to support the cairn, then puts fancier rocks like oval-shaped stones or geodes, nearer the top. The one in the picture is very plain because Mom has been sick with chronic bronchitis and forgot to take her inhaler when she walked down the ridge to build it. So, she couldn’t scout around for nicer rocks.

This fall, why not do like my Mom did in Minnesota and celebrate a glorious autumn day by building a cairn or two on your farm. Think of me and my Mom when you do!

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