Terminal Cairns

Kerbed cairn at the upper end of Hart Tor, North stone row.

Visitors to Dartmoor may be forgiven for believing that stone rows usually have a cairn at one end or the other.  Many of the rows seem to lead away from or towards a cairn.  The presence of a cairn seems to give the row a purpose, but of course even on Dartmoor there are many rows with no cairn. In reality 65% of the Dartmoor rows have terminal cairns. 44 of these are at the upper end of the row whilst 10 are at the lower end. The Upper Erme stone row has cairns at both ends.

Map showing the distribution of stone rows with terminal cairns

Elsewhere in Great Britain terminal cairns are rarer and in no other region do rows have a preponderance of terminal cairns. On Bodmin Moor just two of the rows have terminal cairns whilst on Exmoor the figure is only six. In the whole of Wales only six of the rows have terminal cairns. There is a small cluster in the North Yorkshire Moors and another in Northern Scotland.  In Great Britain as whole 82 stone rows have terminal cairns at their upper end, 23 at their lower end and three have cairns at both ends. Most rows do not have terminal cairns, but around half of those that do are on Dartmoor. The presence or absence of a terminal cairn may be important and imply that the two types of row had a different function or at least meant something different to those who built them.  Clearly stone rows could and often did exist without an attached cairn and it is generally not possible to establish whether the row and cairn were built at the same time, or the cairn was added at a later date to an existing row or even whether the row was added to an existing cairn.  In a small number of instances there is evidence to suggest that the cairn was added to the row.  At Lakehead Hill, East and Merrivale 3 the cairns appear to have built over the row but elsewhere the precise chronology is simply not known. Many of the cairns such as those at Assycombe and Spurrell’s Cross are however situated slightly off centre from the row and in other instances (e.g. Tolborough Tor and Simon Howe) a long way off centre. This situation seems incongruous to modern ideas of symmetry, but may ultimately provide an insight into how the rows were used. If every row terminated at a cairn their function would probably cause little debate and there would be broad consensus that they represented a “sacred way” leading from the land of the living to the place of the dead. But they don’t and for this reason their purpose is clearly much more complicated, probably multi-faceted and varied. So very human.

Plans of the stone rows with terminal cairns are shown below and illustrate the variety in form. Further information on individual sites can be found by clicking on the site name.

Cairns and barrows at Upper End

Bodmin Moor

Tolborough Tor


Assycombe (After Butler and Google Earth)

Black Tor (Avon) after Butler

Brent Fore Hill (After Butler)

Burford Down (After Butler)

Cantrell (After Butler)

Cholwichtown (After Butler)

Collard Tor, East and West (After Butler)

Cosdon (After Butler)

Drizzlecombe 1, 2, 3 and 4

Fernworthy 2 and 3 (After Butler)

Glasscombe Ball (After Butler)


Hart Tor, North and South

Holne Ridge (After Butler)

Hook Lake (after Butler)

Hurston Ridge

Lakehead Hill, East (After Butler)

Langstone Moor (After Butler)

Laughter Tor 1 (After Butler)

Laughter Tor 2

Leeden Tor (After Butler)

Merrivale 1 and 3

Penn Beacon, SW (After Butler)

Ringmoor Down (After Butler)

Sharpitor, NE (After Butler)

Sharpitor NW 1 and 2 (After Butler)

Sharpitor, West (After Butler)

Shaugh Moor (After Butler)

Shoveldown 2 and 4 (After Butler)

Spurrell’s Cross (After Butler)

Trendlebere Down (After Butler)

Trowlesworthy 1 

Trowlesworthy 2 (After Butler)

Upper Erme

White Ridge 

Yar Tor


Yellowmead Down (After Butler)


Bray Common ( After Chanter & Worth)

Kittuck Hill


Mattocks Down (After Chanter and Worth)

North Yorkshire Moors

Simon Howe

Swarth Howe

Rest of England

Askham Fell Cairn


Northern Scotland

Borgie Bridge (After Myatt, L.J.)

Broughwhin 1

Broughwhin 2 (After Mercer, R.J.)

Creag Bhreac Mhor (After Myatt, L.J.)

Dirlot, North (After OS Antiquity Card)

Garrywhin (After I.R. Freer and L.J. Myatt)

Learable Hill 2 and 4 (After Royal Commission)

Loch Rimsdale (After Gourlay, R.A.)

Torrish Burn (After Royal Commission)

Watenan, East (Cairn on the skyline)

Rest Of Scotland

Auldearn (After V.G. Childe and A. Graham )

Sgealtrabhal (Skeal Traval)

Western Isles

Callanish, North, East and West


Brecon Beacons


Mid Wales

Cefn Gwernffrwd Row I (After Dyfed Archaeological Trust)

Cefn Gwernffrwd Row II (After Royal Commission)

Tryfel Stones

Rest of Wales


Cairns and Barrows at Lower End

Bodmin Moor

Searle’s Down


Black Tor (Stanlake)

Butterbrook 1 (After Butler)

Butterdon Hill

Corringdon Ball, North and South (After Butler)

Fernworthy 1 (After Google Earth and Butler)

Glasscombe Corner (After Butler)

Hingston Hill 

Merrivale 6

Shell Top, SW


Upper Erme


Furzehill Common 3

Lanacombe 3


North Yorkshire Moors

Swarth Howe

Rest of England

Askham Fell

The Kirk


Western Isles

Callanish, South


Mid Wales

Mynydd Dyfnant

Rest of Wales

Arthog Standing Stones (After John Hoyle)

Cairns and barrows at both ends


Upper Erme



North Yorkshire Moors


Swarth Howe

FIRST PUBLISHED: 9th July 2020

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