The dictionary defines a cairn as a "conical heap of stones". Many of the mountains in Scotland have a cairn on the summit but not all. Some also have "trig points" which are usually concrete posts with a metal disc inset on the top for a theodolite. Trig points were a tool to give surveyors a reference in a time before GPS use. There are approximately 6282 trig points in Britain and if you have any information on them you should log on to www.jeremyp.net and go into the trig point database. Many walking clubs adopt trig points and pay an annual visit to maintain them.
So back to cairns. To us Munro Baggers, touching a cairn usually means another tick in the Munro Log. I will just remind you that Munros are mountains over 3,000 feet in Scotland and there are presently 284. That does not mean that the mountains change height but there could have been an error in measurement on the original list compiled by Mr Munro. Do we ever consider the summit cairn, who built it or would we be better off without it? Certain well known mountaineers believe that cairns are an intrusion on the mountain and so they are as they were not invited. I firmly believe they are a welcome intrusion. I have regularly slogged up a Munro and heard those wonderful words ?the cairn is just over there?.
The word cairn derives from the Gaelic carn meaning a heap. Cairns come in many sizes and shapes and I assume this is largely dependent on how many stones were handy at the time of building and whether they have stood up to the elements, especially the wind. The most memorable cairns for me have been Spidean Coire Nan Clach, the new Munro on Beinn Eighe where the cairn comprised a few stones on a large rock and looked very vulnerable in the wind, the very large cairn on Beinn Sgulaird and the built cairn on Sgurr a'Bhealaich Dheirg which should not qualify as a cairn as it could not be classed as a heap being more of a construction in a beehive shape.
In winter, cairns are not often visible being buried under the snow so we can't add another stone to them which some walkers do as a ritual on reaching the summit. The saddest cairn of all was the one built on Beinn an Lochain in the Arrochar Alps to raise the height by about 25 feet and so avoid demotion from a Munro to a Corbett (these are Scottish Mountains between 2,500 and 3,000 feet). Unfortunately, the cairn did not endure and the mountain has remained a Corbett which is a good thing as not so many walkers are attracted to it. Then there was the plan to build a cairn in excess of 120 feet on Ben Macdui in late Victorian times to make it the highest mountain in Scotland and attract tourists. It was never built.
There are Munros deprived of a cairn such as the Inaccessible Pinnacle in the Cuillins of Skye and those in the Cairngorms topped by a tor such as Beinn Mheadhoin. Before you all write to me, I know that it is not only Munros that have summit cairns. Corbetts, Grahams et al also have them. Some hills even have marker cairns along paths for safety but these can not be relied on for navigation as they may not be seen in winter when the snow covers them. Let's not forget the coffin cairns which lie along the route to a burial ground such as Corpach and were used in times gone by to rest the coffin on while the bearers had a break.
Cairns provide the most common back drop for photographs of Munro baggers. However, this usually comprises a group of people wrapped up well in Goretex jackets and warm clothing smiling at the camera or "couried in" a circular gallery cairn to lunch out of the wind. We do not usually look at our best when the weather is wet and windy on exposed summits so perhaps it is as well that we are not clear in the photographs.
When I was researching this article, I came across a website dedicated to cairns at www.btinternet.com/-htmletry/stones where there are many photographs of cairns. See cairns, you just can't get enough of them! Please send me any interesting anecdotes or facts about cairns and I will incorporate them into this article for the definitive guide on Scottish cairns.
Coming Attractions Lairigh Ghru, Braemar2 and Glencoe weekend
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Thanks to Frances Rickus for the photos