What is a cairn?

*An excerpt from my new upcoming book, Thank Your Lucky Stones (Mary Loretta McGillis)

A Cairn at Trent University and Cairns of Scotland

A cairn is a human-made pile or stack of stones. The word cairn comes from the Scottish Gaelic word càrn (heap of stones).

There is a centuries old Scottish tradition of carrying a stone from the bottom of the valley and placing on top of an existing cairn, or adding a stone each time you visit a burial place. Over time, cairns have grown into large mounds and are an intriguing and curious sight. An ancient Scottish blessing, “Cuiridh mi clach air do charn” means “I will put a stone on your cairn”.

A cairn site has different purposes: to mark a grave, to mark a successful reaching of a summit, to mark a path or as a sea marker to help mariners.

I happened upon the cairn at Trent University in Peterborough, Canada when walking up the drumlin one day. Driving into Trent, I had seen dozens of deer walking through the forest, peeking out at the busy road running up to Bata Library. I was shocked, because on the other side of the ‘forest’ (a treed drumlin) was the highway. What could have drawn them so close to humans?

sign at the entrance path to the trail
a sign to welcome you to the walking trails at Trent

The first sign you see welcomes you to the Lady Eaton Drumlin Nature Area.

blue trail sign at Trent
Trent University Blue Trail: trail follows a path through the forest on the drumlin to the cairn

The trail from the road to the cairn is only a few minute walk; yet the forest hushes the noise of the day and the air turns icy cold near the cairn. Some days (for me, on more than one occasion) hundreds of crows sit watching in the trees above.


the blue trail to the cairn
Through the forest on the drumlin, up the trail, almost there

Don’t go too deep into the woods, he had said, but it’s okay if it is up a drumlin to see a cairn at Trent University, Canada!


what is a cairn?
Taking the blue trail path up the drumlin to see a cairn at Trent University, Canada

Only moments away now …

the cairn reveals itself
I see the cairn! What is a cairn?

I see the cairn in the distance! I feel the woods as I get closer; the temperature drops every time and the trees are wondering where my rock is hidden. Chills (truth bumps) go through me. I always wonder who is being honoured at this cairn; maybe someone will know the story of the Trent University cairn and share … until then, I choose to honour all the brave souls that have ever lived on this beautiful planet we call home.


The cairn on the drumlin at Trent University, Canada
The inukshuks were not there until recent years; and neither was the little makeshift hut

The first time I visited the cairn, as soon as the thought came into my mind  ‘what is this place’ ‘what are these rocks’ I heard a word, ‘cairn’, … I heard the word and knew the spelling somehow but the meaning was not there. I wondered if it were a First Nation honouring their own, not knowing anything about the cairns in my father’s homeland of Scotland until I went to research.


Back down to the real world.
Back down the drumlin; easy to see roadway and some of Julian Blackburn Hall and the road.

I feel the eyes follow me as I walk away from the cairn, everytime, out of the forest, into the clearing where I see Julian Blackburn Hall and the road into the campus. (One of my fav memories is Margaret Laurence handing me my diploma from Trent a million years ago!)

My great grandpa and grandma would have known of the cairns in Scotland: Donald Daniel McGillis married Catherine MacDonald here in Canada, but their families all came from the highlands of Scotland. It did not take long to lose the language, the understandings and the history of these people. I wonder if my Irish great grandparents, JJ (James Jeremiah) Donnelly and Julia Catherine McNab, also born here, ever had similar customs? Going back in time has helped me on my journey and I hope these stories will inspire you to look back and or share your stories!

The Clava Cairns of the Scottish Highlands

The Clava Cairns of the Scottish Highlands are about 4,000 years old and were built to house the dead along the east side of the River Nairn, not far from Culloden Battlefield. The cemetery has remained a sacred place in the landscape for millennia.

Cairngorm Smoky Quartz
Smoky Quartz cairngorms are set into the hilts of dirks and the sgian-dubhs and ornament kilt pins that are worn with traditional Highland dress.
The stone is named for the mountain range in the eastern Scottish Highlands called the Cairngorm mountain range. The Cairngorm crystals were also commonly used to decorate Scottish snuff boxes and mulls from the 17th through the 19th centuries.