It was 2014 and as we were hiking through the highlands of Scotland, I took notice of a stack of rocks on the trail. They were so perfectly balanced that it had appeared the universe itself had placed them there.
I had asked our local friend what it was and he spouted out in a Scottish tongue, /ke-hrn/. Now, as a visual learner, I needed this word spelled out.
“A trail marker,” he simply added.
But something about this stack of rocks with a large base on the bottom and thoughtfully chosen sequentially smaller rocks placed on top, made me feel comfort. More comfort than the traditional slab of paint on a tree I had been used to as trail markers.
This /ke-hrn/ was built by someone’s hands. Thoughtfully placed to lead other travelers on their journey. I suddenly felt a strong appreciation for a stack of rocks, and as a knowledge seeker, I sought to learn more.
Cairns Throughout Time
Throughout history, cairns have been used as trail markers that were built and left by other travelers to help guide them, often through uncertain areas along the trail. The word cairn is of Gaelic origin and literally translates to “a heap of rocks.”
The word is believed to have first been used by the Scots as they built cairns over the grassy hills of their land as route indicators.
But cairns were not one individual’s idea. They were in fact used all over the world, from the Andes Mountains to the Gobi Desert. All with the same purpose - to guide safely.
Cairns in Our Travels
Over the years since that highlands hike, I began to take more careful notice of cairns on the trails we trekked and grew to have an even deeper appreciation for their use throughout history.
Whenever I came across one, my mind began to envision stories of the past. Individuals with all their belongings on their backs and moving only by foot from one place to another. People of the Andes knowing their mountains' beauty, power, and greatness and possibly believing that was the extent of the world. Knowing no more or no less.
But there were certainly those trailblazers. Those cairn builders who continuously sought what was behind that next ridge, leaving those stacks of rocks behind with the intent to be followed and to ensure others could do so safely.
In a sense, when I see a cairn, I am overcome with a great appreciation of our world’s connectivity, even hundreds and possibly thousands of years ago. Human’s natural desire to explore and learn, and a natural instinct to care for those who come next.
My Cairn for You
Though our world has certainly changed since the use of cairns began, the truths of their purpose remain the same.
And as I trek through my own trails of life, I see the beauty of our world through a unique lens that melds the past with the present. That appreciation and gratitude for those who came before, and respect and empathy for those who currently endure life’s trials and tribulations.
But a cairn is also a symbol of the future. The sprinkling of hope in a balanced symbol of strength for those who follow.
Life, as burdening as it can get and as often into the unknown we must go, is magical and we only have this one chance to leave behind a cairn for others to follow through their own time safely.
So this is my cairn for you. A symbol of hope, a reminder of unity, and a guidepost to help lead you safely on your own life’s journeys.