cairn, Isbister, monuments, Mainland, Orkney, Scotland

Cairns are traditionally markers to define distance or warn foolhardy sailors of the rocks beneath the ocean’s waves. This one – near the neolithic Tomb of the Eagles in Orkney – is quite possible modern. Its anonymous maker has sought a balance between order and the chaos of broken shards of stone, much like the work of the artists Andy Goldworthy and Richard Long. For me photographically, chaos is all around; order is how I try to make it sing.

Location: Isbister, South Ronaldsay, Orkney, Scotland


Cairns are human-made piles (or stacks) of stones. The word cairn comes from the Scottish Gaeliccàrn (plural càirn). Cairns have been and are used for a broad variety of purposes, from prehistoric times to the present.

In modern times, cairns are often erected as landmarks, a use they have had since ancient times. However, since prehistory, they have also been built and used as burial monuments; for defense and hunting; for ceremonial purposes, sometimes relating to astronomy; to locate buried items, such as caches of food or objects; and to mark trails, among other purposes.

Cairns are used as trail markers in many parts of the world, in uplands, on moorland, on mountaintops, near waterways and on sea cliffs, as well as in barren deserts and tundra. They vary in size from small stone markers to entire artificial hills, and in complexity from loose conical rock piles to delicately balanced sculptures and elaborate feats of megalithic engineering. Cairns may be painted or otherwise decorated, whether for increased visibility or for religious reasons. An ancient example is the inuksuk(plural inuksuit), used by the InuitInupiatKalaallitYupik, and other peoples of the Arctic region of North America. These structures are found from Alaska to Greenland. This region, above the Arctic Circle, is dominated by the tundra biome and has areas with few natural landmarks.

Andy Goldsworthy

Richard Long