Ardnamurchan, Morvern, Sunart and the Rough Bounds are some of the most remote and least populated parts of this country.
A combination of distance, limited access and the absence of Munro’s or well-known hills keeps many visitors away. Nevertheless, the area has a lot to offer and - at least during the summer - is busy with tourists sharing the environment with locals.
What the hills lack in stature they more than make up for in wildlife and wonderful views.
Parts of this land were shaped by fire and ice, volcanoes and glaciers. If you look carefully you can still see the telltale signs in the shapes of the hills, the striations in the rock, the erratics and the protruding rocky dykes.
There is something vaguely reassuring that, despite the rush and bustle of the modern world, these panoramas have remained largely unchanged for thousands of years 1.
So why do some people feel the need to build small piles of rocks everywhere?
A cairn is a man-made pile of rocks or stones. The word is derived from the Scottish Gaelic càrn.
Historically - even prehistorically - cairns were used for a variety of purposes; to mark burial sites, for ceremonial purposes or to indicate caches of food or objects..
In addition, and most obviously 2, cairns have been used to indicate a route, particularly across featureless terrain. I’ve done a lot of walking on the high rocky mountains in Mallorca. This is a barren featureless area where, if the cloud descends, route finding is tricky. A subtle cairn indicating the correct gully to descend to the coast - and a welcome beer or ice cream - can be a real help.
Under these circumstances a cairn can, literally, be a life-saver.
Cairns are also regularly used to mark significant summits or headlands. I doubt there’s a hill or mountain in the UK which doesn’t have a cairn at the highest point.
But compare the summit of a hill with the second picture in this post.
That picture was taken in the relatively remote hinterland between Acharacle and Laga on Ardnamurchan. There’s an old hill track joining these two places, used by stalkers going up on the hill, by fishermen visiting Loch Laga and by walkers enjoying the largely unspoilt views.
There are no pylons marching across the hill, no mobile phone masts on the summits, no wind turbines decorating the ridges.
Half a mile or more from the track … surely that pile of rocks doesn’t mark a significant peak? It’s on the skyline and very prominent, but the curve of the hill behind it - and a quick look at the map confirms this - suggests there are higher points nearby.
It’s off the track across tussocky bog and cotton grass. Other than sheep and deer tracks there are no routes that way.
I make my way up across the moor, skirting the boggiest bits.
Not only are there higher points within a few hundred metres of the cairn, there is also higher land within 20 metres. From these the Acharacle to Laga track is invisible due to a lessening of the slope.
The photo was taken from one of these nearby higher points looking slightly down on the cairn.
From that angle the only thing that distinguished the rock on which the cairn was built was the cairn.
A sort of self-referential “look at me”.
Take nothing but pictures. Leave nothing but footprints. Kill nothing but time.
… which is both succinct and good advice for anyone visiting the countryside (or disappearing down a cave). There’s evidence that some or all of the motto originated much earlier (though ‘pictures’ perhaps started as ‘memories’) and there are similar sentiments identifiable in our Countryside Code.
You’ll note that the Baltimore Grotto didn’t choose a motto which included the words :
Leave nothing but footprints and ugly piles of rocks in otherwise unspoilt places.
I wonder why not?
A pile of rocks that does nothing but draw attention to itself isn’t a cairn, it’s an eyesore.
There has been an increase in this sort of desecration of the countryside over the last couple of decades.
These rock piles don’t indicate a significant summit or viewpoint.
They don’t mark a route across barren terrain 5.
In fact, they do nothing except leave an obvious sign that someone who doesn’t really care for the wild and remote places once built a pile of rocks there.
If it was a pile of beer cans, or if the underlying boulder had been painted fluorescent yellow, there might be some sort of outcry.
But rocks and stones are ’natural’, so it’s OK.
A rocky ’Kilroy was here’
The geology of Ardnamurchan is rightly famous. There are signs of geological and glacial activity all around. The igneous rocks at the end of the peninsula are ~60 million years old and result from about 2 million years of volcanic activity.
Periodically a glacier will visit and grind them down. In between the glaciers the wind and the rain very slowly contribute to the weathering and erosion.
However, there are lot of both wind and rain and the rocks are still here.
And that little pile of rocks and stones on an unassuming and insignificant exposed outcrop provides indelible evidence that someone else has been there and enjoyed the view.
And then spoiled it.
Perhaps I’m wrong to assume they enjoyed the view in the first place?
It is environmental graffiti.
I was here!
A sort of geological version of tagging trains.
However, it turns out these little piles of rocks aren’t really indelible evidence that others have visited the spot before 6.
With a little bit of effort it is possible to remove the evidence and scatter it around in the tussocky bog where it will rapidly disappear from sight.
Leaving the hillside just as nature intended 7.
I think the sun disappearing at the same time the pile of rocks did is entirely coincidental …
I went to Fascadale at the weekend. A cluster of three or four houses on the North coast of Ardnamurchan. A bustling metropolis in comparison to the nearby hamlet of Ockle which Heritage Ardnamurchan reports has a population of 1.
Fascadale has a small beach with a stream running across it making fantastic abstract patterns in the sand.
Above the beach, on a low promontory, is the inevitable cairn jumbled pile of rocks.
Unlike some of the ’natural’ stone arrangements by Andy Goldsworthy these haphazard piles of rocks have no artistic merit. They are man-made but detract from the scene rather than adding to it.
This is compounded by their permanence.
If you’re going to build stone sculptures or cairns on the coast do so below the high water mark.
You’ll have several hours to construct and appreciate them … and then the tide will wash them away so that the spot can be appreciated by others the following day.
Or used to build another one.
You can put as much effort into your cairn as you want but don’t be upset it’s so ephemeral.
And remember …
I don’t cair(n) …
Except for the lack of trees … ↩︎
If you’ll excuse the pun. ↩︎
From trigonometric point or triangulation station. ↩︎
Read their history, it’s entertaining. ↩︎
Though they do mark barren terrain. ↩︎
I should add that I simply don’t care whether others have been there before or not. I don’t mind if I’m the first or the thousandth to sit there and take in the view. I simply prefer to appreciate the environment without it being spoiled by previous visitors. ↩︎