Cairns, rock stacks and memorials

Scotland’s mountains, lochs, glens, woodlands and coastline are a major draw for visitors and those enjoying recreation. We should protect the wild qualities of these areas from man-made intrusions, which include new cairns, rock stacks and memorials, and consider how to mitigate the ecological consequences of the scattering of ashes in a fragile environment.

Background
Our wild landscapes are one of the main reasons that people come to visit Scotland, and they are vitally important as a setting for outdoor recreation.  While we realise that these areas have been heavily shaped by land use practices over the past centuries, Ramblers Scotland works to protect the wild qualities of our landscapes from further degradation and man-made intrusions, so that they retain as natural a feel to them as possible.

Yet some historic and cultural man-made constructions are of intrinsic value to the landscape, and can enhance the quality of our outdoor experience too, reminders that many people lived and worked in these places which are now empty. These may include Trig points, shielings, bothies, bridges and ruined limekilns, as well as old cairns, monuments and boundary markers.

However, we have become aware of a growing number of new cairns appearing in upland areas, that serve no clear purpose, and also of a trend for people to build rock stacks on beaches and in popular beauty spots. In addition, we are seeing memorials placed in mountain areas, often in remembrance of a family member or friend who has died. 

These constructions can detract from the wild quality of the landscape and we have a number of concerns regarding their use. In addition, while we recognise the comfort people may feel by scattering the ashes of a loved one in an area which was special to that person, there are ecological considerations to take account of.

A trig point

Our position
Cairns may be used to mark the summit of a hill, an ancient burial site or as a navigation aid across a plateau, and we have no wish to see historic cairns removed.

Nevertheless, we believe there should be a general presumption against new cairns being built randomly, and we discourage walkers from adding to existing cairns.  

In difficult conditions, it can be too easy to depend on a line of cairns for navigation rather than using a compass and map, or GPS, and observation of the terrain.

Cairns and paths do not always go to the destination they appear to lead to, and walkers may find themselves inadvertently taking the wrong route by simply following the cairns. Even in good weather, a reliance on following cairns can lead to a missed opportunity to learn map-reading skills and reading the terrain to find the most appropriate route.

While building stone or rock stacks may seem like a fun activity, moving rocks can cause damage to local wildlife and ecology. People may inadvertently disturb foraging and nesting areas for coastal birds, and also disturb any reptiles and invertebrates which shelter under the stones. This practice may increase erosion too, as it can expose soil to the wind and rain. And for people arriving at a beautiful wild place only to find a row of rock stacks, there’s an impact to the landscape quality in that area.

It is also not unknown for path builders to find that a pile of stones previously deposited on a hillside for their use has disappeared, ending up dispersed by walkers among surrounding cairns or rock stacks.    

Memorial 

In terms of memorials, while we have sympathy with the bereaved relatives and friends who may wish to commemorate the life of their loved ones, we do not condone the construction of a memorial, plaque or other artefact unless in designated memorial garden areas.  As the deceased may have taken great pleasure in the surrounding landscape, we believe that other people enjoying the outdoors do not wish to have the quality of their experience spoiled by a man-made memorial on a mountain top or ridge, which detracts from the wildness of that place.  

We would suggest that such commemorations should take the form of, for example, the planting of a tree, or contribution to a fund which invests in work to enhance the protection of the countryside, perhaps by supporting path maintenance. We support those land managers who are removing such memorials, or transferring them to designated areas of remembrance.

Finally, we recognise that people may wish to scatter ashes of their loved ones in a place which was special to that person. When choosing a place to scatter ashes in the mountains, people should bear in mind that popular mountain tops, such as Ben Nevis, may be regularly chosen by relatives and repeated scatterings of ash can lead to ecological changes in the vegetation in that area. We suggest this can be avoided by choosing another place on the mountain, such as a point lower down the mountain or away from the summit and any paths. You might also choose to bury rather than scatter the ashes as this may have less of an impact on the area.

Page last updated May 2020