CairnCairn, a word of Celtic origin, literally a crag, a rock, a pile of stones; but applied by anthropologists to any memorial or sepulchral heap of stones, identical with the barrow (q.v.) in all but the material. Frequent mention is made in the Hebrew Scriptures of "heaps of stones," and they seem generally to have been of the former kind. But when Joab slew Absalom, we read that they buried him in a "great pit in the wood, and cast a great heap of stones upon him" (2 Sam. xviii. 7). Johnson (Tour in the Western Islands) defined a cairn as a "heap of stones thrown upon the grave of one eminent for dignity of birth or splendour of achievements;" and no doubt this was generally the case. But possibly in the burial of Absalom under a cairn there may have been some note of hatred or contempt. When Ophelia received Christian burial, though with "maimed rites" (Hamlet v. 1), one of the priests declared that
"For charitable prayers
Shards, flints, and pebbles should be thrown on her."
This, however, is exceptional, though memorial cairns occasionally marked the scene of a murder (Heart of Midlothian, ch. xi. and note). But the sepulchral cairn is chiefly Celtic; numerous examples occur in Scotland, Ireland, and Wales, and they are far from uncommon in Cornwall. Cairns possessing chambers are generally assigned to the Stone Age; those having cistvaens (or cists, as the word is often written) to the Bronze Age and still later times. The former are much the larger; one near Drogheda being more than 300 ft. in diameter, and 70 ft. high, with a passage 63 ft. long leading to a chamber with several recesses. This cairn, with two others close by, was plundered by the Norse pirates early in the 9th century. The Cornish cairns appear to belong to the latter class, for the Rev. S. Baring-Gould says that they cover "stone coffins or cistvaens that have been for the most part rifled by treasure-seekers. One has a somewhat pathetic interest, for, beside the large stone chest just outside the ring of upright stones that enclosed it is a child's cist, formed of four blocks of granite, 2 ft. 7 in. long, the covering stone removed, and the contents scattered to the winds." Evans (British Barrows) says that the very natural mode of interring in cists of greater or less size, and of different shapes, has prevailed in almost all parts of the Old World, where suitable stone was to be procured, and that a similar method has been observed in the grave-mounds of America.
Click for more about Midlothian