The old Tradition of creating Stone Cairns in Iceland - a big NO NO today

We have an old tradition in Iceland of creating stone cairns to show the way. These old stone cairns acted as beacons for people travelling in Iceland. Nowadays visitors to my country seem to think that it is allowed to make a stone pile everywhere and this has become a huge problem here in Iceland :(

I don't think that our foreign visitors, who make these stone piles, realise how much damage they are doing and that Iceland is getting inundated with small stone piles all over the country. This is a universal problem as I have seen these stacks of stones in so many places on my travels abroad.

From where did this custom originate - stacking stones on top of one another? Is this a statement of some sort? Like "I was here"? If that is the case then it is very shortsighted and must stop now, as this is very damaging to our nature.

The old Tradition of creating Stone Cairns in Iceland - a big NO NO today

We Icelanders have made stone cairns since the settlement of my country in the 9th century when the Viking settlers made cairns as landmarks on their expeditions.  You can see such cairns in different locations all around Iceland.  

These old cairns are protected and are never to be tampered with. We don't know the age of many of these cairns, but one of the cairns in the Westfjords is even considered to be the oldest structure in Iceland and is believed to have been erected in 871 by Hrafna-Flóki or Raven-Flóki. Hrafna-Flóki was the first Norwegian to sail to Iceland and he was the one who gave Iceland its name when he saw drift ice floating around. 

This custom of erecting cairns could have come with the Irish slaves, which the Vikings brought with them when they settled Iceland, as such cairns can also be seen in Celtic areas. But that is just a guess on my behalf.

The old Tradition of creating Stone Cairns in Iceland - a big NO NO today

The original cairns were made by the Vikings when they went on their explorations of Iceland. They had to be able to find their way back and to lead the way for others through the highlands and over heaths. Iceland was new to them and they had no idea what to expect on their expeditions.  

These cairns can still be used as landmarks and guardians, so adding new ones could be very harmful and could make somebody lose his way and lead him into trouble. And I know that nobody wants to be responsible for making a person lose his way in fog or bad weather on a heath in Iceland.  

The old Tradition of creating Stone Cairns in Iceland - a big NO NO today

As time went by people started travelling more on the highland routes and in the year 1831, some 100 new cairns were erected on Holtavörðuheiði heath. At the turn of the century, more and more trails were marked with cairns. In my photo above you can see how many old cairns there are on Hellisheiði heath in South-Iceland. I apologise for the bad quality of the photo, but it was taken out of the window of a moving car when I was driving on the heath the other day.

The cairns can be both big and small, as you can see in my two photos above of some of the cairns I saw on Þorskafjarðarheiði heath (Route 608) in the Westfjords of Iceland. The cairn in the first photo above is one of the largest ones I have seen on my travels in my country. Opposite the big cairn was this small cairn in my other photo above.

The old Tradition of creating Stone Cairns in Iceland - a big NO NO today

Most of the cairns were used as the GPS of our time through the heaths and wilderness, but you will see other cairns in Iceland which were erected to show boundaries and signs of some sort and some were stacked on top of burial mounds, like I have told you about in my travel-blog on the grave of Hjörleifur on top of Hjörleifshöfði - see my photo above. And others were erected in remembrance of people or incidences. 

In the historical Vatnsfjörður on the northern side of the Westfjords of Iceland, you will find a huge cairn called Grettisvarða cairn. In the Saga of Grettir is written that the Viking outlaw, Grettir Ásmundarsonar, a.k.a Grettir the Strong, built this cairn. The rocks in it are huge, so a real strong man or men have built it. It can also have been a watch-tower as it is hollow from the middle up. So maybe a fire was lit to warn the neighbouring area of enemies approaching. 

The old Tradition of creating Stone Cairns in Iceland - a big NO NO today

Then there is another type of cairns, the so-called beinakerling or Bone crone, where travellers were to compose a verse and leave it in a leg bone of a sheep or a cow and leave it for the next traveller to read.

These cairns were made to be the personification of women or maybe it is better to say courtesans and the verses were supposed to be a message from the Bone crone to the next traveller. Some of these verses were of a lewd and naughty nature - I guess that men of all times have been the same ;)  

The old Tradition of creating Stone Cairns in Iceland - a big NO NO today

I have seen heaps of stones in some places, f.ex. on the Kaldidalur route and Kjölur route. This pile of rock in my photo above is located on the highest point on the Kaldidalur route, on Langahryggur, which is 727 m above sea level. One of the best-known verses related to the Bone crone at Kaldidalur (which is in another location - I add the photo above as I don't have a photo of the Bone crone) goes like this:  

"Sækir að mér sveina val
sem þeir væri óðir,
kúri ég ein á Kaldadal,
komi þið, piltar góðir

Which translated into English goes something like this:

"I am inundated with a selection of boys
who seek me like they were mad
I am cuddled up alone in Kaldidalur
you are welcome to join me, dear boys"

These piles of rock or cairns are getting bigger and bigger now that more and more travellers are visiting the heaths.

The old Tradition of creating Stone Cairns in Iceland - a big NO NO today

Now let's get back to the new pointless cairns or stone piles. I gather that not many people travelling in Iceland want to see mementoes from other travellers, which they have left behind as an "I was here" sign. I get so sad and irritated when I see these stone piles - I travel around my country to enjoy the unspoiled nature and to replenish my body and spirit - and then I encounter a pointless stone pile - it has the same effect on me as coming across pointless graffiti or litter in my country.

This has mushroomed and now I don't seem to be able to go anywhere without encountering these pointless stone piles. I even encountered this "work of art" on my travels on the Snæfellsnes peninsula - see my photo above. I dismantled it.

The worst case of stone stacks I have seen is when we were driving through a lava field in South-Iceland by ring-road 1 and stopped to enjoy the view - only to see that somebody had made a pile out of lava rocks, leaving behind big scars in the moss - I was reduced to tears and tried my best in putting the lava rocks in its original place, but the damage had already been done :(  

The old Tradition of creating Stone Cairns in Iceland - a big NO NO today

Where ever I see these stone stacks I dismantle them, or if they are small enough I kick them and all tour guides have been advised to do the same. Please, let's end this and keep the nature untouched for us all to enjoy!  

The only thing these stone stacks do is degrade the landscape - let's think about the long-term effects this is going to have on Iceland. Let's remember the leave-no-trace ethics.  Only take photos and leave nothing behind but footsteps in nature. 

The old Tradition of creating Stone Cairns in Iceland - a big NO NO today

I caught one of the cairn builders red-handed - this is the stand-up comedian, Will Mars, defying me by building a cairn right in front of my eyes. Look what happens, Will, when you pull my leg - your photo ends up in my travel-blog ;)

Code number four on the Environmental Agency of Iceland’s Traveller’s Code reads: “Never dislodge stones or build cairns.” Let's respect this rule so that my country won't be full of scars. 


The old Tradition of creating Stone Cairns in Iceland - a big NO NO today

One of the locations where cairns were erected in Iceland for good luck was at Laufskálavarða in South-Iceland. Almost at the very end of Mýrdalssandur vast glacial outwash driving east, you will notice a sudden change in the landscape - a field of countless small stone cairns opens up - this is Laufskálavarða - the Cairn of Laufskálar. 

In the old days traditionally everybody passing by Laufskálavarða for the first time added a stone to a cairn at Laufskálavarða for good fortune on their journey through this dangerous area. These stone cairns have piled up for the past millennia.

The Icelandic Road Administration saw to it that there was always a good supply of rocks so that first-time travellers could build their own small cairn for luck. This old tradition no longer applies. An information sign by the car park tells you about this area and the dreaded Katla volcano. If you look further up north then you will see Mýrdalsjökull and Kötlujökull glaciers. 

The old Tradition of creating Stone Cairns in Iceland - a big NO NO today

The name Laufskálavarða derives from the big Viking farm Laufskálar, which was located in the vicinity but was destroyed in a Katla eruption in 894, which is the first recorded eruption in Katla after the Settlement of Iceland in ca 874. 

The story goes that there were 24 doors on iron hinges on the Laufskálar farm, so just imagine how big this Viking farm must have been! A lava ridge was formed in the volcanic eruption and got this name Laufskálavarða or the Cairn of Laufskálar.

On the neighbouring farm to Laufskálar farm, Dynskógar, the great Viking settler Hrafn hafnarlykill lived. Landnámabók - the Book of Settlement of Iceland - tells us that Hrafn moved his farm to Lágey because of the volcano. When the Vikings settled Iceland they did not know about the dangers lurking in this area. The same happened at Hjörleifshöfði promontory further south where the old farm was moved up on the cape for safety.

The old Tradition of creating Stone Cairns in Iceland - a big NO NO today

North of Laufskálavarða cairn Katla is lurking beneath the 560 ice cap of Mýrdalsjökull glacier, waiting to spew out its lava and ash clouds. The volcano Katla is one of Iceland's most notorious and dangerous volcanoes and the one we are all scared of. We Icelanders are brought up to fear this volcano as the Katla eruptions are among the biggest cataclysms in Iceland.  

There are several recorded eruptions in Katla from 1580, 1612, 1625, 1660, 1721, 1755, 1823, 1860 and 1918...  we also know of 11 Katla eruptions since the Settlement of Iceland until 1580. Tephrochronology proves that there were Katla eruptions in the period of 894-934 and there are some records from the Katla eruption in the year 1000 and again in 1179 when Katla erupted followed by a massive glacial flood. There were other eruptions in 1245 and 1262 etc. So you can see that there is no pattern to the eruptions in this volcano.

The old Tradition of creating Stone Cairns in Iceland - a big NO NO today

When Katla erupts there is a massive glacial outburst with immense glacial floods carrying huge icebergs, which then end up in the sea south of Katla. These floods are so massive that the shoreline can extend for some kilometres! Kötlutangi - the Katla spit was created in the Katla eruption in 1918, when the shoreline extended for some 3 kilometres, making Kötlutangi spit the southernmost point of the mainland of Iceland.

The ice that melts in Mýrdalsjökull glacier due to the volcanic eruptions in Katla collects in the middle of the glacier like in a huge bowl - this caldera is ca 100! The volcanic eruption heats up the glacial water until it starts to boil and creates enough pressure for it to burst through the 400-600 metre's thick Mýrdalsjökull glacier, which covers the caldera, and a roaring glacial flood rushes at a great speed in the direction of the sea. 

You can read about the Sturluhlaup glacial flood, which followed the Katla eruption in the year 1311 in my travel-blog on Katla and the Kötlutangi spit. There were several other eruptions in the following centuries so you can see that the notorious Katla has erupted quite a few times since the Settlement of Iceland until 1918 when it last erupted.

The old Tradition of creating Stone Cairns in Iceland - a big NO NO today

The major part of the huge Mýrdalssandur sand plains was created when the notorious Katla erupted.

These black sands plains - which are glacial outwash, were, and still are in some places, a great hindrance and in heavy wind one could expect dreadful sandstorms in this area. These sandstorms would be so thick that we could not pass through them and had to stop the car in the middle of ring-road 1. Several times ring-road 1 was impassable because of these sandstorms. Just imagine being caught in a sandstorm in the olden times while travelling on a horse or on foot!

I was once caught in a sandstorm in this area at Sólheimasandur and it was really scary. It ruins the paint on the car and that is why a special car insurance (SADW - Sand & Ash Damage Waiver) is offered when you drive through the sand plains in South-Iceland.  It covers damages caused by ash, sand, gravel and pumice.  

I was caught in the sandstorm back in 1990 and since then the sand plains in this area have been revegetated with lupine to restrain these sandstorms.

The old Tradition of creating Stone Cairns in Iceland - a big NO NO today

This area looks totally different now after the State Soil Conservation Service and the Icelandic Road Administration joined hands and started planting lupine to prevent sandstorms in this area. Now we have stretches of thick violet lupine in places where there was only black lava sand. I love this change as I was always afraid while driving through the vast sand plains.

The lupine then turns green and it looks so thick, like a beautiful thick blanket covering the black sand beneath.  What a change this made and I am no longer afraid of being caught in a sandstorm here - now I am only afraid of Katla erupting!

We are waiting for Katla to erupt again as it hasn't erupted since 1918 - the glacial floods will then totally ruin the revegetation and play havoc in this area.

The old Tradition of creating Stone Cairns in Iceland - a big NO NO today

Here you can see the location of Laufskálavarða on the map. You can rent a car in Reykjavík and drive to the south coast and visit all the interesting sights. South of Laufskálavarða you will find the historic place Álftaver, which I will be writing about in another travel-blog.

Also check out some of the tours to the south-coast of Iceland: South-coast and Waterfalls, South-Coast Waterfalls and Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon and the Top 100 South-coast Tours!

Again I must reiterate that the reason for me to write this travel-blog is to both tell you about our old cairns and to kindly ask that the making of new stone piles stop ASAP.

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