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Cairns – they mark the journey. They have been used since pre history to mark significant places, for both the living and the dead. In Highland folklore it is thought that before the Clans fought a battle each man would place a stone in a pile, those who survived would return and remove a stone, those left forming a cairn to honour the dead. An ancient Gaelic word, it features in the traditional Scottish blessing “I’ll put a stone on your cairn” and it is still a traditional act there to carry a stone from the bottom of a hill to place it on the cairn at its summit.

The use of cairns has changed over time and now they generally mark trails as well as summits, their simple literal form. Showing us the way ahead and where we have been. They mean something – they should mean something. But now cairns are scattered everywhere. They have become a fad, a stone age tool for the facebook generation, a whole lot of talking with very little being said. Now they are no more than tags, casual likes, I was heres – shallow and meaningless. Stones are added to cairns because they are there, because someone else has done it and we don’t want to feel left out, missing out.  ……. but maybe that’s the thing ….. maybe the use of cairns has changed. Maybe now, leaving a stone on a cairn is a way to maintain our presence once we have left. In this age of mass communication do we feel the need to make our presence felt so that someone out there, somewhere, knows that we too were there? (I liked the elderly couple in the middle here!) Personally – I prefer to hold a little piece of the place in me, rather than me in the place. After all, who really cares that I was there.

For those joining me on my travels this is the top of the Timmelsjoch Pass (2509m/8232ft), one of the highest alpine roads and the border between Austria and Italy. One of the lesser used passes, it is also known as the ‘Secret Pass’ but is increasingly popular as a destination in its own right – and no wonder, it is truly spectacular!


(All images are copyright to Noeline Smith)