Monday, July 12, 2021

As Above, So Below – Cairns & Constellations


Shot of my OS map -
showing a 3 cairn triangle in Auchencairn forest

More thoughts on the ancient Cairns I’ve been trekking to. These are marked on OS maps around the Ae and Auchencairn forests. Although the cairns in these groupings are situated are in prominent locations, they’re not always on the highest hills. Some are visible from other mounds. 

Again I find there’s a propensity to groupings of three (sometimes aligned in a row, sometimes triangular). However this doesn’t mean there are others that have been lost, either beneath the foresters’ machinery or buried under heather.

It’s supposed that ancient peoples viewed the heavens as a great dome, upon whose surface the stars moved. Whether or not this is true, the stars played an important role in the lives of our ancestors. After thousands of years as hunter-gatherers, navigating by the stars, stories grew around the constellations. These myths involved fabulous creatures, and superhuman beings. 

Back then all the earth was ‘dark sky’: there were no cities or electric lights to dim the night’s panorama. The heavens have always been the domain of the divinities and most cultures break up the cosmological schema into three: Underworld, middle world and the realm of the gods. 

I wondered if the groupings of cairns, mounds and possible ‘sacred’ enclosures, might have been purposely orchestrated in their positing. This isn’t a wild assumption by any stretch of the imagination. Let’s face it, if the stars are your go-to, then mirroring that which adorns the heavens makes sense. As above, so below. The idea was to create powerful locations on Earth that related directly to the myths told about the heavens. 

More and more evidence is coming out now that proves that stone circles, henges and other megalithic sites were used to observe, and honour, certain constellations and planets. However, there seems little research available as regards the positioning of other sites, such as cairns. There are suggestions that certain stars and constellations bear relevance to later Celtic deities, themselves possible derivatives of earlier deities.

One of the triangle -
the green mound in the distance is a cairn on Gawin Moor

Having been wandering the hills, tracking lost cairns through heather and forestry plantations, I decided that it was time to lay out a map and plot the places I’d been to. But when I looked at this map, and compared it with the snap shots of the night sky, my heart sank. The paucity of cairns and enclosures is pretty evident (especially in relation to constellations). Also there’s no guarantee that the enclosures were in existence at the same period. So going on cairns alone, then the results are pretty fragmentary, and although there no doubt exist archaeological remains of that era, they remain to be found (for example, a wooden platform for inhumation would hardly leave a trace). 

The cairn on Queensberry Hill, looking toward Criffel.

Perhaps the cairns were not positioned as part of some overarching schema, but were localised, focusing on sections of the night sky, which were prevalent in the night’s diaspora 4,000 years ago when these things were being made.


It might be that the cairns were positioned as the living passed away, or that the intent was set, like we mark graves in a plot. Again, nothing can be said with certainty, but I wanted to entertain the idea. To me it seems logical that, out in the liminal spaces, closer to the realm of the gods, there might have been some effort to locate burials in relation to the patterns that shone from the heavens.