On a recent visit to Lindisfarne I walked beyond the priory and castle to the beach beyond the limekilns. Here, at the top of the beach so that they can be seen from the beach and from inland, I discovered a modern obsession with raising inukshuk. These carefully balanced piles of beach stones are seemingly a modern craze for visitors. In the short duration of my visit I noticed numerous families, groups and individuals participating in raising these temporary miniature megaliths. I don’t know how old this practice is; I would be interested to learn whether it has early roots but I presume it only relates to recent decades and heritage tourism with the purchase and opening of Lindisfarne Castle by the National Trust.
The location seems important. Situated at the end of a walk and at a point on the beach looking out towards the Farne Islands and out away from land into the North Sea. Hence, this stretch of beach affords a sense of isolation and embodies the island aesthetic and yet it is an extremely well-visited location for tourists.
The activity is distinctive too; this is not simply the addition of stones to a pre-existing cairn, but acts of constant and perpetual building and rebuilding, constantly reinventing rather than cumulative. Yet it is simultaneously citational, as each stack responds to, and tries to out-do its neighbours in size and/or design. In this regard, it is a stone equivalent of sand castles, without the logistical requirement that walkers come prepared with a bucket and spade.
So is this simply a distinctive activity that has gathered pace by emulation and experimentation and as a distinctive response to a particular locale: not just any beach, not just any shoreline, but here, beyond the castle, between land, islands and the open sea. Are there spiritual dimensions: part of the pilgrimmage experience and the broader visitor engagement with an historical maritime landscape? Might families and individuals raise these to mourn loved ones? Both are possibilities that need exploring. Most likely it is not primarily anything of the sort; they reflect an activity in which existing stacks inspired the creation of others.
What is important here is to recognise that a singular meaning and a precise origin need not explain and account for the mutable character of raising rock stacks. This is not, however, the same as arguing that this practice is a meaningless and prosaic practice. As a form of personal and group place-making, serving as a sonvenir through its construction and by offering a form of participatory and fun activity, the rock-stacks on Holy Island reveal many dimensions of modern miniature megaliths and cairn-construction.
As an archaeologist interested in cemeteries and the various modest memorials over graves of the dead in later prehistory and early historic societies, these kind of phenomena, for being prosaic, are more revealing than instances of deeply-felt spiritual acts of devotion motivating ephemeral monumentality. This is because we need not identify a single meaning to discuss their recognise their significance as a place-making practice. Furthermore, we can identify how, while individually modest in proportions, together they serve to create an ever-changing and ever-perpetuated tradition of activity. In these regards, I find these rock-stacks a fascinating inspiration for thinking about ephemeral monuments in the human past.
Addition: in summer 2018, the widespread practice has led to discussions of serious damage to ancient monuments and also ‘ruining’ beaches: