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


On the A87 overlooking Loch Loyne on the road to the Isle of Skye

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.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s