Sunday 31 January 2016

Rhynie Symbol Stones

Below the slopes of Tap o' Noth and its summit hillfort lies the village of Rhynie.  A quiet and unassuming place, archaeologists believe that at one time Rhynie was a major centre of Pictish power.  A glance at the map shows the amount of standing stones and stone circles in the surrounding area, most of which pre-date the Picts, but in 2011 a dig near to the spot where the "Rhynie Man" was found revealed the traces of a substantial fortified settlement.  Some of the artefacts recovered were of Roman origin and alongside other research has led to the suggestion that Rhynie was a royal Pictish site.

The Picts have proved elusive for historians; the word most often used when referring to them is "enigmatic".  Believed to have been both ethnically and linguistically a Celtic people, they controlled much of the north and east of what is now Scotland for at least 600 years.  Despite this prominence, comparatively little is known about them. They left no chronicles or written records and much of what is known of them comes from Roman, Gaelic and Norse sources; peoples they were in conflict with.  The Pictish language remains only in echoes down the centuries, in personal names such as Kenneth and Alpin, and in identifiably Pictish place name roots such as "Pit" or "Peth" (as in Pitmedden and Perth), "Aber" (as in Aberdeen) and "Lhan" (as in Lhanbryde).

The most tangible remains aside from fortified sites such as Tap o' Noth and Burghead are undoubtedly the several hundred Symbol Stones discovered across what was once Pictland.  Carved with great skill and artistry, most feature a range of uniquely Pictish motifs, often abstract or animistic and sometimes with representations of domestic objects. "Enigmatic" to the modern mind, the fact that the symbols occur on stones across the whole of Pictland from Shetland to the Forth implies that they would have been understood by all Picts.  A great resource for discovering more about the stones themselves and the Picts as a people is Historic Scotland's "Pictish Stones" website.

Rhynie has a good collection of symbol stones (aside from the Rhynie Man which, incongrously, is located in Aberdeen city council's HQ).  There are three stones in a shelter near to the present day churchyard, with a fourth in a nearby field.  

The light wasn't so good for photography when I visited on a grey November afternoon. This, the  largest stone, is 1.3 metres tall and carved with a "beast" possibly representing a seal or an otter combined with two typically Pictish abstract symbols- the double disc and Z-rod and a mirror and comb.

An information board nearby has clear representations of the carvings; the one in my photograph is at the lower left.

The fact that the meanings behind the symbols are uncertain adds to the experience of visiting the stones; I find Pictish sites fascinating and hope to explore more in the coming months.

Thursday 28 January 2016

Tap o' Noth hillfort

 The initial and enduring impression as one enters the Tap o'Noth hill fort is the sheer scale of the site.  The walls enclose an area approximately 100 by 30 metres,  making the site around the size of a football pitch.  The aerial view on "Canmore", the digital archive of the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historic Sites of Scotland can be used as our guide around this impressive place.


 Although tumbled, enough remains of the walls to gain an insight into what a mighty fortress this would have been, the tumbled remains of the walls are 6 metres wide and 3 meres high  The organisation of labour to build and to occupy Tap o'Noth must indicate an advanced people with a structured society and the means to both construct sites like this and sustain themselves at the same time.  Archaeological finds here include an axe head dated around 2000BC-800BC and a piece of bronze horse harness dating to around the 1st-3rd century AD.  This would indicate that the site was probably in use from the Bronze Age and continued through to the Iron Age Picts, perhaps starting out as a small fort before being greatly expanded.  The word "Noth" is thought to have a Pictish origin and possibly has the meaning of "looking" or "seeing" - very appropriate given the wide ranging views from the summit.

 The fort site has a stone lined cistern well, clearly visible on the aerial view as a dark depression near the southern end of the enclosure.

 Parts of the wall have been vitrified by intense and prolonged heat, these vitrified sections are mostly concentrated at the north western end wall.

Debate continues amongst experts as to what vitrification represents, destruction or a deliberate strengthening of the walls.  There's some more about vitrified hillforts here, and as I visit more vitrified forts it seems to me to be logical that this represents a deliberate construction technique rather than a destructive one.

But the fort itself is just the crowning glory.  Lower down (pretty much at the divide between the grass and heather in this image) there was another stone rampart running right around the hill.  Remains of over 100 house platforms have been recorded in this area, with a definite clustering on the northern and northeastern slopes, sheltered from the prevailing wind and weather by the hill and the fort.

The line of the lower rampart can be seen in this image.  The whole site is a staggering 21 hectares in area; this is no mere defensive bolt-hole or even a status symbol built by an individual - it looks and feels more like a major centre of power; which is what it is believed to have been.

From the northern slopes of the hill a series of terraces exists in places, and occasionally the possible outline of a building.  From here the fort wall looks very impressive - how much more so must it have looked when in use?

The effort involved in the building of such walls must have been enormous.  It would be a mistake to think that these Iron Age people were in most senses of the word "primitive".  Named "Picti" (painted people - probably deriving from the habit of tattooing) when the Romans encountered them in the late 200's AD the Picts were already a force to be reckoned with.  A sophisticated and organised society who farmed, kept livestock, indulged in art and sculpture and were fearsome warriors, they dominated northern and eastern Scotland until around 900 AD when the Picts were defeated and absorbed by their Gaelic Scots neighbours.

As I stood in a raw wind at the wall of Tap o' Noth,  my  thoughts of the warriors who would once have peopled this place were interrupted by a flat roar......

....the signature noise of a modern warrior class - the crew of a Tornado fighter-bomber streaking past in a hard turn. 

Tuesday 19 January 2016

A significant view from the Tap o'Noth

One of the most distinctive hills in the north east of Scotland, Tap o' Noth with its sawn-off cone of a summit lying at the end of a ridge is one of the familiar landmarks of Aberdeenshire.  On a walk along the Correen Hills I realised that it had been more than a year since I'd climbed it despite the hill being barely fifteen minutes drive from home.

A couple of days later a dry-ish day and a few spare hours gave me the chance to revisit.  I started from the tiny car park below the highest point of the hill from where a straightforward ascent can be made.  The route climbs on a track through farmland before contouring out on a level grassy area with the summit cone straight ahead.

The village of Rhynie seems very close from just below the summit area.  The village is mainly known for  the Rhynie Chert, an early Devonian sedimentary rock deposit aged about 410 million years which contains the earliest known insect fossil, and a strong Pictish connection - of which more shortly....

To the south west there's a long view across to the Buck o' the Cabrach , itself a noted viewpoint lying between Strathdon and Glenfiddich with grandstand views to the Cairngorms.

On the subject of grandstand views, the extent of the view from Tap o'Noth is shown on an information board just below the summit area.  Each circle is a 5 kilometre extension with the outer, 50 kilometre ring showing the potential view on clear days.  From the North Sea at the city of Aberdeen to the Moray Firth, south to the Angus Hills and west to the high Cairngorms, it's a marvellous panorama from a hill which is just 563 metres/1847 feet high.

Probably the most significant elements of the view are direct sight lines to the Pictish fort at Burghead on the Moray Firth, to the hillfort summit of Bennachie and below to Rhynie itself. 

Significant because the entire summit area of Tap o'Noth consists of a huge hillfort; the second highest in Scotland and one of the largest at 21 hectares in area.  The best angle from which to get a sense of the scale and extent of the place is from above, as in this image from the Canmore archive.

I first climbed Tap o'Noth when we moved to Aberdeenshire some 15 years ago - I was blown away by the fort then and every time I return it has the same effect - let me show you around......

Tuesday 12 January 2016

Low sun and high wind on the Correen Hills

The next few posts on the blog are from a period in November 2015 when a strong northerly airflow lay over Scotland bringing cold, windy  but mainly dry conditions. The forecast was for the strong winds to continue for most of the month with persistent gale to severe gale conditions over the higher mountains and rough conditions on the sea offering little chance for sea kayaking.

 Good conditions might be expected on the lower hills though.  Since day lengths were short I decided to climb some of  hills closer to home - and where better to start than with the Correen Hills just a few minutes from the door....

I started out from the road which skirts the eastern side of the Correen Hills intending to take in the whole ridge then walk back to the house, giving me a nice starting height and a hillwalk which would have more descent than ascent.  As a bit of a bonus, the low winter sun would be at my back for most of the walk.

After following the track for a few kilometres a faint path is taken up a narrow firebreak which leads out onto the open moor near the summit of Mire of Midgates.  This point was also where I came out of the shelter of the forest and ridge into a chilling northerly wind - it would be a day better suited to fast movement than dawdling.

A trig point at 487 metres lines up with those on Tap o'Noth to the north (which I would visit a few days later) and the Buck o' the Cabrach to the west.  Visibility was very good in the cold air, hampered only by the eye-watering experience of trying to look into the teeth of the wind!

At the opposite end of the Correen Hills, Lord Arthur's Hill is the termination and also the highest point of the broad horseshoe ridge.  Each time I walk these hills the trick of perspective is the same, the distance between hills and around the whole ridge looks long, but the ground is covered in much less time than might be imagined.

High on Brux Hill (really just a faint rise in the ridge line) are three generations of boundary marker-  a modern wire fence, an older straining post for a wire fence and a Victorian boundary stone - the "D" indicating (I think) Deskrie estate.

A couple of invigorating hours later I made the final pull onto Lord Arthur's Hill, at 518 metres/1699 feet a "Marilyn" - defined a British hill with at least 150 metres ascent all round, regardless of height.  One of the features of Marilyns is that they tend to give a good view and this one is certainly no exception, this image looks past the large summit shelter cairn across the Howe of Alford to Bennachie.

The cairn is actually a circular shelter and I was glad to be able to hunker down out of the wind to take a brief stop.  Luncheon was a spartan affair of fruit, nuts and a drink of water; enough to keep me moving towards a bowl of home made soup back at home a couple of kilometres away at the base of the hill :o)

As soon as I began my descent down the long spur of the Fouchie Shank I dropped out of the worst of the wind and into much calmer conditions.  It pays to move quietly on this part of the walk, there are often close views of Roe Deer and on this occasion I was treated to the sight and sound of a flock of Bullfinches moving through the trees.

The track reaches the road near the small and inhabited castle of Terpersie and Dubston farm.  If doing this walk as a circular route there's space for a couple of cars to park at the road-end where the farm access track starts. 

The route described above is 14 kilometres and takes about 4-5 hours.  The starting point has plenty of parking at the Gordon Way car park.  I think that the Correen Hills are underrated, but since they're virtually on my doorstep, I may be a little biased!

Monday 4 January 2016

Before the flood

Craigendarroch is Ballater's hill, it sits right above the town on the banks of the River Dee.  The images in this post were taken on a walk in mid November 2015, well before the floods which poured into the town in late December 2015. 

This image is taken from the road bridge over the River Dee at the end of the main street - a street which was inundated by a metre of floodwater in the torrential rains accompanying storm "Frank".  Subsequent prolonged heavy rain in the early part of 2016 has brought further flood risk with the River Dee reaching its highest recorded level since 1928 and in places altering the landscape completely.

The name "Craigendarroch" means Crag of the Oak Wood and that's a very accurate name; Oaks predominate on the lower slopes of a cone of granite mixed with pines higher up.

The modest summit at 402 metres/1319 feet is marked by a trig point, a view indicator and a large pink granite memorial cairn.  The climb from Ballater takes around an hour on a clear though sometime rough path and is well worth the effort......

...for the view down to the Dee and to Ballater itself.  It's sobering to note that the river flooded to nearly half the extent of the view in this image.

The town of Ballater is resilient - it will recover from the flooding.  Help will be needed from the Scottish Government, from Aberdeenshire Council and from continued visits by tourists and outdoor enthusiasts - the lifeblood of a town which prides itself on its Royal patronage and the proximity of Balmoral a few miles along the road.

The village of Braemar is in a much more difficult position.  Flooding here wasn't as newsworthy but the destruction of a section of the main A93 road and significant damage to the bridge at Invercauld will take some months to assess and repair.  In the meantime Braemar is completely cut off from its natural eastward line of communication along the Dee valley to Aberdeen.  The sole remaining road access to Braemar is the the A93 from the south, a long and difficult road from Perth which crosses one of the highest passes in Scotland at the Cairnwell (at the Glenshee Ski Centre).  Concerted efforts are being made by both Aberdeenshire and Perth & Kinross councils to protect this road access, but it's notorious for closures due to drifting snow in late winter.

The effects on the village will be profound - students won't be able to access their high school at Aboyne, access time to hospital will be much longer and subject to the vagaries of the winter weather, as will keeping the village shops stocked.  Many folk will be unable to travel to their work and the lifeblood of the village - tourists, skiers and walkers will be severely restricted in numbers.  Our own access to Braemar, one of our favourite places, a superb example of community and a base for so many fine adventures, normally takes 40 minutes or so - now it will take around 4 hours and a detour of around 150 miles.

I don't think I've featured a direct appeal on this blog before, but I'm going to do so here.  When the worst effects of the flooding are over and the situation has stabilised, please consider visiting Ballater and especially try to visit Braemar to support the businesses and livelihoods which have taken such a big hit.

Here are a few links to both places:

Visit Ballater

Royal Deeside

Welcome to Braemar

Shops and Businesses in Braemar

Where to Stay

Braemar Mountain Sports Facebook page (with updates on the situation)

Friday 1 January 2016

Memories of 2015

Looking back over 2015,  I've once again been blessed with some superlative days in the outdoors.  Sea kayaking trips featured heavily again and included several multi-day trips to islands and areas I'd not previously visited such as Gigha and Cara, and an introduction to the wonderful possibilities on the Solway Firth.

Despite the year being unusually windy and unsettled, there have been some outstanding conditions ranging from the shrivelling cold of a winter day on Loch Leven to the baking heat of a summer camping trip on the Firth of Clyde.

On the hill there have been some great days in a year when I made a conscious effort to explore overlooked areas close to my home in the north east of Scotland - and there's plenty to go at!  From camping trips in the high Cairngorms to moonlit walks right above the house, the hills have continued to touch me deeply. There have been wildlife encounters on both land and sea, though some wildlife was less welcome!

At the end of 2014 I couldn't select just one memory and offered two of my favourite moments.  This year I've failed to whittle it down again (which is a good thing I think!) and so here are a selection.....

Photo: Dr Douglas Wilcox

2015 was the year when I took the plunge and took up sea kayak sailing.  A purchase of a Flat Earth Sea Kayak Sail has brought a new and fun dimension to paddling.  If you try one new thing in 2016, why not make it kayak sailing?!

A hillwalk above the Angus glens on an autumn gold day when everything seemed to combine perfectly was perhaps the best hill day I've enjoyed in many years

Above all, 2015 has featured trips with good friends.  The fires we've enjoyed seem to epitomise this  simple aspect of the outdoors, a group of like-minded folk just getting out there, whether on multi-day trips or meeting up from all corners of the country to enjoy a small adventure together.  We are all conscious of how lucky we are to be able to enjoy the health and ability to undertake our adventures - and the friends with whom I share these experiences with are an outstanding part of this and every year.

I've saved this memory of 2015 for last, simply because it's etched into my mind so sharply as one of the most amazing hours I have ever spent in Scotland's outdoors.  A venture down the length of freshwater Loch Shiel to the sea and then up the coast to finish at the head of saltwater Loch Ailort would be a fine trip whatever, and add in the fact that we finished on the day of a solar eclipse added an unusual experience.

But it was the single hour of utter perfection on Loch Shiel which is my outstanding memory of not only this adventure but of the whole year.

So there you have it - a few moments from another year in Scotland's outdoors.  What's your outstanding memory of 2015?

Happy New Year, very best wishes for 2016  :o)