Scottish National Dictionary (1700–)

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CAIRN, Carn(e), Cyarn, Kairn, n.1 and v. [kern, kɛrn Sc., but ne.Sc. + k(j)ɑrn]

I. n. Originally Sc., but now generally accepted as St.Eng. in senses 1 and 2.

1. A pyramid of stones specially built in memory of the dead. Gen.Sc. Sc. 1791 T. Newte Tour in Eng. and Scot. 175:
Similar cairns of stones, heaped up above layers of flat stone-coffins, replete with human bones, are to be found all over the shores of Scotland.
Abd.(D) 1917 C. Murray Sough o' War 15:
The cairns o' the Covenanters whaur the martyrs' banes are laid.
Rxb. 1802–1803 J. Leyden Cout of Keeldar xxxi. in Minstr. Sc. Border (ed. Scott) II. 363:
The grave is green, and round is spread The curling lady fern; That fatal day the mould was red, No moss was on the cairn.

2. A similar pyramid built on the summit of a mountain or “set up at intervals on a mountain path to mark the way” (Abd.19 1938). Gen.Sc. Sc. 1795 Stat. Acc.1 XIV. 4:
The vestige of a cairn . . . is observable on the eastern, and highest summit of the hill.

3. A stony hill. n.Sc. c.1730 E. Burt Letters North Scot. (1754) II., Letter xvii.:
At the End of about a Mile there was a steep Ascent, which they call a Carne; — that is, an exceedingly stony Hill.
Bnff.2 1938:
His placie lay at the fit o' the cairn o' the Ord, an' wiz maistly gey peer grun.

4. “A loose heap of stones” (Uls.2 1929). Known to Cai.7, Bnff.2, Abd.19, Ags.17, Lnk.3, Kcb.1 1938. Dim. kairny. For particular application, see second quot. Sc. 1724–1727 Ramsay T. T. Misc. (1733) 194:
I met ayont the kairny, Jenny Nettles, Jenny Nettles, Singing till her bairny.
Sc. 1847 T. T. Stoddart Angler's Companion xvi.:
River cairns, or heaps of stone raised by the tacksmen of salmon fishings for the purpose of inveigling running fish into a certain description of net attached to them.
Ayr. 1787 Burns Brigs of Ayr ll.109–110:
And tho' wi' crazy eild I'm sair forfairn, I'll be a brig when ye're a shapeless cairn!

5. “A heap or quantity of anything” (Cai.8 1934); a jam of timber on a river; a crowd. Known to Bnff.2, Abd.9, Ags.1 1938. n.Sc. 1904 W. M. Smith Romance Poaching in Highlands 162:
The floating trees . . . jammed in huge “cairns,” as the floaters called a big jam.
Nai. 1828 W. Gordon Poems 215:
Cheese in a cairn, — and Scotch Bannocks heap'd in creels.
Bnff. 1924 “Knoweheid” in Swatches o' Hamespun 81:
“Oh birst them,” quo he, an' a glower an' a froon He ceest on a cyarn o' humans that wammlet . . . On the fleer o' that dungeon sae deep an' awesome.
Ags. 1776 C. Keith Farmer's Ha' xxiv.:
The gauger's scarcely frae the door Whan beggars they come in gelore, Wi' wallops flappin in great store, Raised up in cairns.

II. v. To pile, heap (up). Known to Abd. correspondents only. Bnff. 1902 J. Grant Agric. in Bnffsh. 150 Years Ago 15:
Augh, min. It's been some confounit idiot like you 'its cairn't up the hill o' Dunnydeer there.
Bnff. 1924 Burnie's Jeannie in Swatches o' Hamesun 23:
They sanna come muckle speed at cyarnin siller wi' the like o' you te deal wi'.
Abd.(D) 1871 W. Alexander Johnny Gibb xxxiv.:
Fat can he mean cairnin' on the tapdressin' that gate?

III. Combs.: 1. cairn-net, “a small net for catching fish lying behind cairns or stone-piles in rivers” (Rxb. 1923 Watson W.-B.); 2. cairn tangle, carn —, “the large long fucus, with roots not unlike those of a tree, cast ashore on the beach after a storm at sea” (Abd. 1825 Jam.2); “fingered Fucus, Sea-Girdle, Hangers, Fucus digitatus, Linn.” (Abd., Mearns Ib.); known to Mry.2 1938 for Bnff. 1. Sc. (Borders) 1939 W. M'Callum in Scotsman (25 Feb.) 17:
Until 1857 Borderers set cairn nets for salmon during the upward run, or speared them by day and night when the Tweed and its tributaries were clear and low.
Rxb. a.1860 J. Younger Autobiog. (1881) 375:
John has just got himsel' woven into the meshes o' law, like a fish into a cairn net.

[O.Sc. carn(e), cairn, a pile or small pyramid of loose stones, esp. one serving as a boundary- or land-mark, or marking a grave; first found in designations of persons, 1362, carne; first appearance of form cairn, 1530; v., to furnish with cairns, 1537 (D.O.S.T.); Gael. carn.]

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"Cairn n.1, v.". Dictionary of the Scots Language. 2004. Scottish Language Dictionaries Ltd. Accessed 6 Dec 2021 <>



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