An old favourite — Great Ayton Moor Bronze Age round cairn

I’ve photographed it many times before: —

The last time was on this blog post in July, 2020, on a sunny day.
And before that, in September 2019, pre-Covid. Those were the days.
This one is going back 15 years. Notice the forestry on Black Bank hasn’t yet been felled.

It’s tempting to think of cairns as permanent, but there has been some noticeable movement in this pile of stones since 2007. I saw today the gamekeepers have buried an animal trap in a metal box amongst the stones so this may have contributed.

This is a ‘round cairn‘, a prehistoric funerary monument dating to the Bronze Age — c.2000-700 BC. It may have been constructed as a stone mound covering single or multiple burials, but a central depression suggests there has been some previous excavation1Heritagegateway.org.uk. (2012). Heritage Gateway – Results. Monument Number 27717. [online] Available at: https://www.heritagegateway.org.uk/Gateway/Results_Single.aspx?uid=27717&resourceID=19191 [Accessed 13 Dec. 2021].. It has been used as a post-medieval boundary marker2Historicengland.org.uk. (2012). PAIR OF BOUNDARY STONES, APPROXIMATELY 1850 METRES TO SOUTH OF HOME FARMHOUSE, HUTTON LOWCROSS AT NGRN2596 125, Guisborough – 1159609 | Historic England. [online] Available at: https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1159609?section=official-listing [Accessed 13 Dec. 2021]..

Elsewhere cairns have been used to mark trails, dangerous spots, view points, or even buried caches. The word itself comes from the Gaelic ‘chàrn‘ for a heap of stones or rocky hill, and in the Highlands, a tradition was for each man to put a stone in a pile before a battle. Those who survived each removed a stone and all remaining were built into a memorial cairn.

Cairns have also marked coffin routes or corpse roads, which were used by funeral corteges, each bearer putting a stone on the pile as they proceeded to the graveyard.

Today, walkers often think it is traditional to carry a stone from the bottom of a hill or mountain to place it on a cairn at its top. This is a custom which is frowned upon by archaeologists and park rangers, and much effort goes into removing these ‘modern’ cairns.

There is a traditional Scots blessing ‘Cuiridh mi clach air do chàrn’ — literally ‘I will add a stone to your cairn‘ — meaning ‘I will honour your memory after you are gone‘.

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