From what I know cairns have been built by peoples all over the world for probably hundreds of thousands of years, perhaps as long as humans have been on Planet Earth, after all their not rocket science to build. They are getting well known through the apacheta South American shamanism which is currently popular and the Tibetan cairns which are also well known … but who knows about the cairns all over our own country, Britain, or considers them anything more than modern memorials?
I was born on Dartmoor and brought up on Exmoor from age eight. My dad and relations were country folk and followed our old ways so I learned with mother’s milk too. One of the things I learned about was cairns. Dad and my uncles would take me walking on the moors. You often come to cairns as you’re walking and always they would remind me to pick up a stone as we were coming up to a cairn and must leave a stone, so we did.
But what for, what did we leave a stone for?
Cairns, in Britain, are often on ancient tracks, on hilltops, along ridgeway paths, paths that have been walked by our ancestors for as long as we have been here and current archaeology has found that we ‘ve been here for at least one million years. Those paths may well have been walked all those years. The high tops and the tracks along the ridges are places where the lady, the goddess walks, where she sits, where she is, where you can sense and feel her very strongly if you open yourself up to her.
Britain is well known for stone circles and standing stones but these are Neolithic and that means of the New Stone Age. Neolithic times are very recent even in human history, they run from about 4000 to about 2,500 years ago, a mere spit in time, the time when we began to give up our old hunter-gatherer ways and become farmers. Before the Neolithic we walked the land, travelling from place to place, usually within a terroir (to use the French word for the land) which means region and that takes us to the spirits of place, the guardian spirits of the land who each have their own terroir or region which they are guardian to. The cairns are far older than the stone circles although some have been knocked down and then built up again. Often those knockings-down were done by farmers who felt they were in the way of their “ownership”, they had forgotten the old ways, forgotten the lady … they knocked down her places believing them to be no more than superstition. But they’re not.
So dad taught me to add a stone to the cairns as we passed them, and I still do. And I teach the students who come with me to add a stone too. It’s a form of acknowledgement. You can’t really call it a gift because you take a piece of the goddess’ body, a stone, and give it back to her but, in a way, it is. We take a piece of her and recognise it in our heart and then we put it as part of a cairn that reminds the folk who pass by there that she is there … that She is there. She is our lady, our mother, our teacher, and she is our ancestor too, both body and spirit.
Our bodies, the spacesuits our spirits need to live on Planet Earth, are made from her body. Every atom that makes up us comes from her and it has been all things – raindrop, worm, tree, cat, stone, chicken, fish, ant, butterfly, cloud and river and sea. So those atoms have the knowing of all things and will share that knowing with us if we ask them to – they are our ancestors. When we give a stone to a cairn we are acknowledging all this.
The same goes for spirit too. Every atom, as we know in the old ways, has spirit as well as matter and will share its spirit-knowing with us too. As we add a stone to the cairn we give thanks for this too.
One of our ancient shaman-teachers is called Taliesin (Amergin amongst the Gaels). His song begins, “I am a stag of seven tines” and goes on to sing how he is everything, every rock, tree, animal, drop of water and breath of air. We have many ways of reminding ourselves of this and adding a stone to the cairn as we pass it is one of them.
Cairns on Exmoor & Dartmoor