Published on: Author: Callum Brown 4 Comments
On the A87 overlooking Loch Loyne on the road to the Isle of Skye
On the A87 overlooking Loch Loyne on the road to the Isle of Skye

Is this the capital of the cairn? If you set off north from Fort William in the West Highlands of Scotland, steering for the bridge over the sea to Skye, you will come across a layby on the left hand side where there are hundreds, very possibly thousands, of stone cairns. Most of them are small, admittedly but they have really covered the landscape for several hundred yards along the road. How it started I know not, but passers-by quickly get the hang of this. Just find some small stones and stick them on a pile. Or start a new one. Hey presto, we have a booming ritual, a new invented tradition. There is no “meaning” to this land of cairns, but it certainly is popular. An explanation of what is going might seem to come from Linda Woodhead (University of Lancaster), who suggest that in the face of declining organised religion, including conventional rituals like religious marriage and baptism (which have been fading fast in popularity in Britain), there is a “re-ritualization” of our culture going on. She argues that in the late 1980s and 1990s, a new style or “mode of religion” has taken over from a “Reformation” mode that had dominated Europe since the 16th century. Though a sociologist, she is making a big claim to an historic transformation in religion. Now, her argument seems confined to Christianity – especially that in Britain. But it has wide claims. She suggests the de-unification of ritual but its multiplication, based on “life path” religions, where there is a personalised interweaving of the sacred with the religionist’s own life. For Linda’s talk on this, go to

A critic might say that what Linda is describing is merely the fracturing of traditional religions – not something entirely new, but taking new forms. Such schism and re-union has been going on for centuries – notably in Scotland where Presbyterians became well practised in this art form in the late 18th and 19th centuries. What is new, perhaps, is the impact of the rapid decline of religion, the product of clear dissatisfaction both with churches and with belief itself. And in this context, re-ritualization could be an interesting concept if worked on a little. Are secular rituals rising? The humanist wedding is certainly one candidate in Scotland (where it has overtaken all church weddings except those of the Church of Scotland). Baby-naming seems less numerically popular, but perhaps there are hidden family rituals here to be explored to see if the offset the decline of the baptism in the last 60 years. And this is where re-ritualization – if developed as a concept – may be a handy notion in studying secularisation. Are the cairns the products of new secular rituals, hidden deep in the consciousness of each individual who participates in this? Is the de-coding of what people are doing in laying stone upon stone really, really obscure? How do we find out what they mean by this, and by tying ribbons to trees in various popular sites across the world? I think there is no other way than asking them.

4 Responses to Re-ritualisation? Comments (RSS) Comments (RSS)

  1. The picture looks like the silhouette of churches against the haze of an old mill town sky. Maybe people who build them miss the old churches and so they build these piles in memory of them. After all, they all point to heaven don’t they?

  2. As you say Callum: ‘a big claim.’ Is it the secularisation of rituals or the ritualisation of the secular? I would be reluctant to locate cairnopolis as a secular ritual but could accept a folk ritual of spontaneity, a modern ‘lay-by’ opportunity to impulsively join in the game. It’s this notion of folk fun that rather deflates any secular colonising of what is merely a diversion for the bored motorist and kids. The converse of this spontaneity are the Marian crossroad grottoes displaying BVM
    statuary found on the Continent and Ireland, as well as Neolithic stones and circles as well as formal war memorials, all community investments in locations of ritual. The rather curious modern phenomenon of attaching ribbons to trees along with personal memento of crash fatalities at roadside spots is an instance of ritualisation that could be classified as something similar to spontaneity of grief and location possibly even of spirits of the dead ‘haunting’ that site.
    The Lithuanian philosopher Arvardy Sliogeris has described the prevailing secularism of capitalism as ‘hominism’. Perhaps humanists will want to explore this concept when speculating about re-ritualisation and the secular understanding of such a claim.

  3. When I read this, I thought of my experience of visiting Krakow and Birkenau Extermination Camp last year when I noticed small stones had been laid at a Jewish memorial in Krakow and at the end of the rail line in Birkenau. At the time, I thought that this must be some sort of Jewish custom. Since returning, I now realise that many cairns can be found around our country which have nothing to do with Jewish religion.

  4. People love stones – there is something permanent about them. They are from the past before we were born and will be there well after we are a distant memory. If you hold one in your hand then you can feel the weight of history in your grasp. Visit the Great Orme this summer by Bishops Quarry and you will see a mountain full of fossil stones. You will also see the names of visitors using the stones all over the mountaintop. We left ours there forty years ago. It will not be there now – it will be someone else’s – but that is human spirit for you – just to leave your mark. Then these stones have become a moving memory of the people who pass by allowing that fleeting feeling of permanence. It has become a ritual just like the cairns, but it is human spirit that placed the stones and that is permanent.

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