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What are cairns and why shouldn't you make one?

Cairns are man-made piles of stones, and you´ll probably notice them when you drive around Iceland. They vary in size and shape, ranging from a few small rocks piled up randomly, up to very tall and well put together structures. They’re usually made from lava rocks.

Cairns are man-made piles of stones, and you´ll probably notice them when you drive around Iceland. They vary in size and shape, ranging from a few small rocks piled up randomly, up to very tall and well put together structures. They’re usually made from lava rocks.

Why are there cairns all over Iceland?

Sprengisandur cairn

Back in the day, Icelandic people travelled on foot or horses between places. There weren’t any roads, and there were few paths apart from the ones trodden down from roaming sheep. So, when settlers arrived, they built cairns to help people navigate through the harsh landscape. Of course, people didn’t have maps or compasses, and they’d often have to find their way in the thick fog, snow or rain. So, the cairns were extremely helpful.

When people travelled, they simply followed the cairns to their destination. Some of the cairns were even large enough to provide people and their horses with shelter during storms. So, it’s safe to say they were lifesavers in those times.

You don’t want to mess with the cairns

Not only is it illegal to disturb the large, old cairns, but you’re also not allowed to make new ones. Because, even though they are mostly historical artefacts today, they are still used by hikers. If you build new ones, the could confuse the hikers and lead them astray. The Icelandic highlands are formidable, and no one wants to be stranded and lost there.

Beinakerlingar – Bone-cairns

One type of cairn is called beinakerling or a Bone-cairn, they are so named because of the small pieces of paper with stanzas or limericks people left in them. The poems were called “beinakerlingavísur” or the bone cairns stanzas.

Travellers used to leave these stanzas behind for others to enjoy on their travels. The name of these cairns come from the tradition of leaving the stanzas inside a sheep bone which then was stored inside the cairn.

The stanzas were often pornographic or ambiguous. It was not uncommon for the authors to write about specific people, especially if they knew the person was going to travel past the cairn in the next few days. Some were written like a woman was describing their desires for the men who were travelling by.

One such poem was written to the bishop of Hólar, and is from the 18th century:

My dear lord from Hólar

You will have plenty to do

In bed with me

As it should be.

I’ve lost both strength and will,

Denied many friends,

I lie awake

Waiting for the bishop.

National park staff tries to protect ancient cairns in Þingvellir

In an interview with Iceland Review, members of Þingvellir’s staff raised concerns about the disturbance of ancient cairns in the national park. According to them, it’s a problem when travellers build on top of ancient cairns or take other pieces from them. The cairns are a part of the park’s landscape and should not be disturbed. However, making new cairns is also strictly prohibited, and the staff regularly spends time knocking down freshly built cairns inside the park. The staff says that they realise park visitors mean no harm by building cairns but wish to spread the word that it’s not allowed.

Please don’t take home rocks as souvenirs

We know, some of them look very cool, and you’d like to keep some of them as free souvenirs. But please don’t! It’s actually against the law. Icelandic nature is very fragile, and the smallest disturbances can have a great effect. Just think of it as a small-scale butterfly effect.