Cairns and stacked rocks

Potential power quest cairns (

Potential power quest cairns (

Cairns and Stacked Rocks
By Thomas Baurley

The stacking of stones is a widespread cultural practice all around the world. You know it is a remnant of modern, historical, or prehistoric cultural manufacture because they were not placed there by nature. Most likely a “human” moved one stone atop another. They vary in size from one or two rocks or more stacked on top of each other in simplicity to complexity of mounds, cairns, pyramids, tombs, and massive megalithic complexes.

The meaning behind the practice varies between cultures and time periods throughout history. Archaeologists however, are only interested in those that are at least 50 years old (historical archaeology in America), 100 years old (Europe and other parts of the world), or prehistoric (hundreds to thousands of years in age). They can be field clearing piles, fence piles, burial mounds, markers, signifiers, monuments, spiritual tools, graves, food stores, game drives, rock alignments, power quest markers, altars, shrines, prayer seats, hearths, circles, and/or memorials. Their uses can vary from remnants of field clearing for plowing, stabilizing fences, make walls, clearing or road construction, markers of a road trail or path, survey markers, memorial, burial, vision quest marker, or part of something bigger like a structure, burial, tomb, underground chamber, prayer seat, tipi ring, or offering to Gods, spirits, entities.

These commonly can be found along streams, creeks, lakes, springs, rivers, waterways, sea cliffs, beaches, in the desert, tundra, in uplands, on mountaintops, ridges, peaks, and hill tops. In underpopulated areas they can represent emergency location points. North American trail markers are often called “ducks” or “duckies” because they have a “beak” that points in the direction of the route. Coastal cairns or “sea markers” are common in the northern latitudes can indicate navigation marking and sometimes are notated on navigation charts. Sometimes these are painted and are visible from off shore. This is a common practice in Iceland, Greenland, Canada, and Scandinavia.

Cairns / stacked rocks (

Cairns / stacked rocks (


Often the practice of stacking rocks is used to mark a trail, path, or road. Many say without these markings, it is often hard to follow a laid out trail, especially in areas that receive deep snowfall. When modern cairn builders place their “art” or message of ego along a trail they can be causing harm, hiding the true trail markers and if placed in a wrong place can lead a hiker astray or get them lost. Original use is often as a route marker and it’s important to preserve that integrity. Modern application of this practice can not only lead people astray but disrupt cultural studies, archaeology, geology, and the environment. Moving stones can upset plant life, insect habitats, as well as homes of lizards, rats, mice, and other creatures.

Other times these rock stacks have spiritual or religious purpose. These are sometimes offerings to the little people, fairies, faeries, nature spirits, Saints, entities, or God/desses. Sometimes these are arranged for a vision quest, other times as a prayer seat, or part of a stone circle. Many times if found around rivers, streams, creeks, or springs – they are offerings to the nature spirits, water spirits, nymphs, naiads, and/or dryads. Sometimes these are markers for portals, vortexes, gateways between worlds, lei lines, or places of spiritual importance. They honor spirits, Deities, Ancestors, or the Dead.

Sometimes these stacked rocks are considered “art”, a meditative exercise, or something someone does out of boredom.

Prince Cian making Cairns (

Prince Cian making Cairns

In spiritual “new age” hotspots, modern creations of these “cairns” or “rock stacks” are actually quite problematic because they have become invasive upon the landscape, blocking access or movement. In addition, modern creations of them destroy, hide, or change importance of historical or prehistoric ones that existed before. This is a similar impact between modern graffiti and rock art. This has become a major problem in places like Sedona Arizona; Telluride, Colorado; Arches National Park, Utah.

Prehistoric use

Aborigines, Natives, Tribes, and Original Peoples have utilized cairns and rock stacks all over the world. Mostly the intent was as a “marker”. In the Americas, various tribes such as the Paiutes as well as early Pioneers left them to mark important trails or historic roads. The Inuksuk practice used by the Inuit, Inupiat, Kalaallit, Yupik, and other Arctic aborigines in North America ranging from Alaska to Greenland to Iceland are markers for “way finding” and to locate caches of food, supplies, and other goods.

Cairns and rock stacks have been used prehistorically for hunting, defense, burials, ceremonial structures, astronomical structures or markers. (more…)

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Ossian’s Grave (Cloghbrack/Cushendall, Northern Ireland)

Ossian’s Grave
* Cloghbrack * Cushendall * Northern Ireland *

The fabled site of where the wandering poet, bard, and seer “Oisin” is believed to be buried. Atop a hill overlooking the valley and down into the Glen as well as over the Channel to be able to see Scotland on a clear day, the location for this small megalithic tomb is spectacular. The Tomb faces East, South-east next to an oval cairn dedicated to poet John Hewitt. Oisin’s Grave / Ossian’s tomb is a small megalithic semi-circular court opening into a two-chambered burial gallery. The back chamber is composed of two sidestones at the southwest, a back or sidestone at the northeast, with a pair of transverse jambs higher than the other stones as if they may have been originally designed as portals. The Forechamber is in very poor shape with only 2 sidestones intact with a pair of portal stones. Within the chamber lies a fallen stone that may have been the displaced roof-stone. The large court dominates the tomb, but additional stones suggest that the court may have belonged to two periods, relating to a back chamber and subsequent fore-portals.

A great irish poet, John Hewitt was very impressed with Ossian’s grave and the megalithic tomb that exists on this hill. So much that he wrote a poem about the site called “Oisin’s Grave: the horned cairn at Lubitavish, Co. Antrim”. Because of this, a stone cairn in Hewitt’s memory was constructed here in 1989 commemorating him as the “Poet of the Glens”.

    We stood and pondered on the stones
    whose plan displays their pattern still;
    the small blunt arc, and, sill by sill,
    the pockets stripped of shards and bones.
    The legend has it, Ossian lies

    beneath this landmark on the hill,
    asleep till Fionn and Oscar rise
    to summon his old bardic skill
    in hosting their last enterprise.

    This, stricter scholarship denies,
    declares this megalithic form
    millennia older than his time –
    if such lived ever, out of rime –
    was shaped beneath Sardinian skies,
    was coasted round the capes of Spain,
    brought here through black Biscayan storm,
    to keep men’s hearts in mind of home
    and its tall Sun God, wise and warm,
    across the walls of toppling foam,
    against this twilight and the rain.

    I cannot tell; would ask no proof;
    let either story stand for true,
    as heart or head shall rule. Enough
    that, our long meditation done,
    as we paced down the broken lane
    by the dark hillside’s holly trees,
    a great white horse with lifted knees
    came stepping past us, and we knew
    his rider was no tinker’s son.

Nearby in Glenariff Park, there is a myth that Oisin had once tried to outrun a band of Vikings in this forest. When they closed in on him, he climbed down a steep gully, as just as he was about to plunge to his death, a mysterious grey rope-like column appeared, he grabbed on to it, and climbed up to safety. When he reached the top he found it to be the tail of a white horse grazing in the field above. He thanked the horse and asked for its help. She turned into a mountain mist, falling to the ground as water, thereby washing away the Norsemen who pursued him. This is now the waterfall in the park known as the “Grey Mare’s Tail”. (myth as told from Causeway Coast and Glens Myths Tour).

Official information:

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SMR Number ANT 019:006                                   Additional Information…
Council MOYLE
County ANT
Grid Ref D2129028460
Protection State Care and Scheduled
Parish LAYD
General Periods  [description of Periods]Opens in new window
Specific Type Specific Period
BORLASE,W. 1897, I, 262-3
GRAY,W. JRSAI 16, 1883-4, 360
GRAY,W. P.B.N.F.C., 1883-4, APP.236 NO.6
O’LAVERTY,J. 1887, VOL.IV, 542
PSAMNI 1940, 9
UJA 13, 1907, 84, PLAN & PHOTO