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A cairn (carn in Irish, carnedd in Welsh, càrn in Scots Gaelic) is a man-made pile of stones, often in conical form. They are usually found in uplands, on moorland, on mountaintops, or near waterways.



In modern times cairns are often erected as landmarks. In ancient times they were erected as sepulchral monuments, or used for practical and astronomical uses.

They are built for several purposes:

  • Used on Mountain Bike Trails, usually placed on junctions or places where the trail direction is not obvious, see Trail blazing
  • They may mark a burial site, and may memorialize the dead.
  • They may mark the summit of a mountain.
  • Placed at regular intervals, they indicate a path across stony or barren terrain or across glaciers.
  • The Inuit erect human-shaped cairns, or inunnguaq, as milestones or directional markers in the Canadian Arctic.
  • In North America, cairns may mark buffalo jumps or "drive lanes."[citation needed]
  • In North America, cairns may be used for astronomy.[citation needed]
  • In Norse Greenland, cairns were used as a hunting implement to direct reindeer towards cliffs.[1]
  • In the Canadian Maritimes cairns were used as lighthouse-like holders for fires that guided boats, as in the novel The Shipping News.
  • In North America, cairns are often petroforms in the shapes of turtles or other animals.[citation needed]
  • In the United Kingdom, they are often large Bronze Age structures which frequently contain burial cists.
  • In parks exhibiting fantastic rock formations, such as the Grand Canyon, tourists often construct simple cairns in reverence of the larger counterparts.[citation needed]
  • They may have a strong aesthetic purpose, for example in the art of Andy Goldsworthy.
  • They may be used to commemorate events: anything from a battle site, to the place where a cart tipped over.
  • Some are merely places where farmers have collected stones removed from a field. These can be seen in the Catskill Mountains, North America where there is a strong Scottish heritage, and may also represent places where livestock were lost.
  • They can mark a historical location such as the Matthew Flinders Cairn on the side of Arthur's Seat, a small mountain on the shores of Port Phillip Bay, Australia.

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