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Family Cairns

Kathy Dingus




Do these gravestones look a bit unfamiliar to you? I like to think of them as a way of merging a little bit of the old ways with the new. My father, James Hoyt Mullins, was an avid genealogist and had traced his family roots into Scotland and Ireland, (among other locales), and was particularly fascinated by his Celtic culture. One particular aspect of that culture was the tradition of building a "cairn."

King Orry’s Grave, Laxley
All Photographs © David Ratcliffe

My research on cairns however, proves to go back further into history than my father knew. Cairn graves were built on the Finnish coastline during the Bronze Age. Amazing isn't it?

A cairn by Webster's Dictionary definition is a conical heap of stones built as a monument or a landmark. Similarly, Ireland and Scotland's landscape is dotted with many cairns such as the one at Laxley, all erected for a particular reason. One such cairn that still exists today is King Orry's Grave, in Laxley.

We knew my father cared enough to build his father a unique monument so we felt that he would also want something just as unique for himself. My brothers have told me that this was a special time for them, working and laboring over Dad's grave, erecting a monument for him. It gave them time to come to terms with his death and his life. It also gave them a chance to build something to honor the life that he lived.

It was the best and yet the most difficult task they have ever had to finish. We have often wondered how Dad felt while he and his brothers built their father's cairn. Probably the thoughts that came to their minds while laboring over their father's cairn were similar to my brothers as they did the same. This is just one more link in the chain of life.

We also had a bronze plaque fashioned with my father's name, birth and death date and a quote placed on the front. The quote states "A man of the mountains, A man for God." We also had our favorite picture of him, engraved, by laser, on the side. This picture was a charcoal drawing of my father in his mountain man attire; a linsey-woolsey shirt, fringed pants, powder horn, tri-corn hat, and holding a Kentucky Mountain Long Rifle, or more commonly known as a muzzle loader.

My father often traveled to various places and spoke to groups about these mountains, and the people who settled here and made them home. He wore an eye-patch, which made him look like the "mountain-man" he so often portrayed. While at the young age of 21, a muzzle loader he owned, blew up in his face, causing irreparable damage to his eye. The eye-patch was just one more fascinating aspect of my father's life. Although blind in one eye, he never considered that he was disabled in any way.

Back view of Dad's Tombstone

He often played his guitar and sang songs of the mountain people, and the hardships they endured while settling this strange land called America. Children were especially fascinated by his mountain songs and tales and often begged for particular favorites when he went to visit. This charcoal drawing of him was done in Asheville, North Carolina by a well-known artist, VanRensselaer. Mr. VanRensselaer happened to be in the audience during one of my father's recitation/dramas of mountain life. He drew this picture of my father during the drama and presented it to him after his performance.

When my time for "planting" in this Appalachian soil comes, I want one of these cairns built as a monument for me. And so it goes…

If you would like more information on cairns or how to build one like those shown above, contact


In memory of James Hoyt Mullins