Q: During my travels in Iceland last August I sometimes saw heaps of stones in the countryside, for example in a field near Þingvellir or near Dyrhólaey.
What are they?
Stefano Galeazzi, Italy
A: The heaps of stones you refer to are called steinvarða (or simply varða, vörður plural), or cairns in English. Cairns are often built as landmarks, for example along hiking paths, and were important for people to find the way before the age of GPS.
The making of cairns goes back centuries; the Icelandic settlers of the 9th and 10th centuries AD used cairns to mark their way on expeditions.
Some place names in Iceland indicate the presence of cairns, such as Fimmvörðuháls (‘five cairn hill’).
Nowadays, people sometimes make cairns just for fun or add stones to cairns on mountaintops to leave something behind.
While they are common, the building of cairns is not encouraged.
Item number four on the Environmental Agency of Iceland’s Traveller’s Code reads: “Never dislodge stones or build cairns.”
As Guðbjörg Gunnarsdóttir, national park ranger at the Environmental Agency of Iceland, told Iceland Review Street Edition (see page 12 of issue 4), a campaign is needed to bring awareness about the impacts of building cairns; the removal of rocks from the terrain to build cairns leaves scars in the land.