Bennachie

Scare Hill (NJ 683193, 280m)
Millstone Hill (NJ 676202, 409m)
Mither Tap (NJ 682223, 518m)
Oxen Craig (NJ 662226, 529m)
Watch Craig (NJ 653224, c490m)

17.4 kilometres
820 metres of ascent

Bennachie route
Click to enlarge
Contains OS OpenData © Crown copyright and database right 2018
Path data © OpenStreetMap contributors under the Open Database Licence

Bennachie is the last eastward gasp of the Cairngorms—a low ridge of moorland dotted with granite tors,  beyond which the ground descends into the flat and domesticated farmland of the Aberdeenshire coast. The name is pronounced with the emphasis on the last syllable, and a slightly fricative “h” sound: bɛnəˈxiː (If you can’t manage the fricative, say “hee” instead.) The customary Gaelic etymology seems to be from Beinn na Cìche, “hill of the breast”, which seems an odd designation for a long ridge dotted with craggy lumps. I tend to find the alternative Beinn na Cuidhe, “hill of the cattle-fold”, more plausible—especially given the presence of Oxen Craig on the ridge line.

The Bennachie massif has that mixture of wildness and domesticity that I associate with the Lake District. It’s a favoured destination for walkers from Aberdeen and the surrounding area, and it’s ringed around with car parks and criss-crossed by manicured and waymarked trails. You could, nevertheless, get into a bit of bother if you were caught up on the moorland in bad weather.

I parked at Donview, in the south, and grabbed a Forestry Commission map from the dispenser—it gave a much better impression of the potential walking routes than my Ordnance Survey map. I planned a little traverse between Bennachie’s two major tops—Mither Tap and Oxen Craig. But no Oikofuge hill report is complete without a bit of random off-piste action, so I headed across to little Scare Hill first. I got as high as I could on the path that passes between Scare Hill and Millstone Hill, and then dived into the open forest to my left. After a short distance I found myself on the old, deep track left by a forestry vehicle, which I followed up to the edge of the forest, and then I teetered through some potentially ankle-breaking debris left from felling, to arrive at the heathery summit. Fifteen minutes after leaving the car. Possibly a record for the first ascent of a hill day.

Millstone Hill from Scare Hill
Click to enlarge
Millstone Hill from Scare Hill (no, I don’t know what the two posts are for)

Scare Hill isn’t particularly scary. There’s evidence it was once called Scar Hill, and Milne’s Celtic Place-Names In Aberdeenshire (1912) suggests that this comes from Gaelic sgor, “sharp hill”. But it’s not notably sharp, either, particularly when contrasted with nearby Mither Tap.

I chose a route back down that aimed to connect with a path ascending Millstone Hill, found another (or perhaps the same) forestry vehicle rut, and burst out on to the main forest track within a few metres of where I wanted to be. Result.

Up through the trees again, and then a long ascending curve to reach the northeast ridge of Millstone Hill, and a motorway track to the large cairn on its summit. Next to which a man was having some sort a conference call using the speaker on his mobile phone. Sigh.

Mither Tap from Millstone Hill
Click to enlarge
Summit of Millstone Hill

Back the way I came, for a short distance, and then down to the Heather Brig, a heathery watershed between the Birks Burn and the Clachie Burn. A watershed is, by definition, about the last place you’d find a brig (Scots, “bridge”). I’m assuming the “brig” in this case is the watershed itself, but I’m not sure.

Above the Brig, on the shoulder of Millstone Hill, sits a bench dedicated to the memory of one Duncan Fraser Reid. His relatives chose a lovely location for it, where it enjoys a fine view of my next hill of the day, Mither Tap.

Memorial bench looking towards Mither Tap
Click to enlarge

Mither Tap (“mother top”) is a striking object, a granite tor, visible for miles around, and it’s the summit that most people associate with Bennachie, even though the highest point on the ridge is actually two kilometres to the west, at the much-less-impressive Oxen Craig.

I followed one of the ubiquitous trail-marked paths, which brought me right up under the western crags of the rocky summit. It’s pretty obvious that there’s no easy way up from that point, so I carried on around the north side until I came to a likely little path diverged to the right, heading up towards a promising cleft. This worked very well, until it deposited me at the foot of an awkward lumpy scramble just short of the top. I clambered my way up in big, awkward steps, thinking that Aberdeen hill-walkers must be a tough lot if this was their routine weekend stroll … and then I popped up on the rocky summit plateau to find myself surrounded by small children wearing hi-vis jackets. Clearly, there was a better route up than the one I’d found.

Signpost below Nether Maiden, Mither Tap
Click to enlarge
Heading up Mither Tap from the north side

And so it proved to be—pretty much a staircase on the east side, which took me down to an astonishing paved path passing between two huge stone walls. This was the top end of the Maiden Causeway, passing through the tumbled dry-stone ramparts of a prehistoric fort that used to occupy the whole area around the summit.

Mither Tap hillfort ramparts
Click to enlarge
Maiden Causeway arrives at Mither Tap hillfort
Click to enlarge

A curve around the north side of the hill again, and I was on a motorway track heading for the lesser granite lump of Oxen Craig, where I settled into the commodious cairn for lunch.

Eroded granite on Oxen Craig
Click to enlarge
Eroded granite on Oxen Craig
View indicator on Oxen Craig
Click to enlarge
View indicator on Oxen Craig

Setting off for my last hill of the day, I made a navigational error—I headed north instead of south, assuming the path to Watch Craig would branch off from the network of tracks just north of Oxen Craig’s cairn. Actually, it comes off to the much-less-promising-looking south, somewhere near the view indicator. A little contouring through heather and across bouldery scree on the west side of Oxen Craig got me back on track.

Oxen Craig and Gordon Way from Watch Craig
Click to enlarge
Mither Tap peeks over the shoulder of Oxen Craig, as seen from Watch Craig; the Gordon Way is visible at right

After the slabby and unmarked summit of Watch Craig, I retraced my steps for a short distance, then dropped south on to the Gordon Way. A short distance eastward, I then picked up my route back to the car—a zig-zagging forestry track that took me almost all the way to the car-park, before mysteriously dumping me (admittedly after a moment’s inattention) on a narrow slot of a path that wove uncertainly across the hillside before emerging on another forestry track. Which took me where I wanted to go. I have no idea what happened, there—I think I went straight on at a point where I should have turned right. But all’s well that ends well.

Forest track below Bennachie
Click to enlarge

5 thoughts on “Bennachie”

  1. Looks like a nice day out. I must admit that I envy you the ability to go for a day walk in the hills and casually pass through a pre-historic fort.

  2. It was indeed a lovely trek and a nice day out, in a part of Scotland new to me.

    The fort is remarkable – very unlike the low mounds I’m used to seeing elsewhere.
    There’s a persistent idea that the battle of Mons Graupius (between the Caledonians and a Roman expeditionary force under Agricola) happened on the slopes of Bennachie, and I think this stonking great fort may have something to do with how popular that idea is. But there’s no mention of a fort in Tacitus’ description of the battle, which otherwise gives quite a lot of detail about the ground on which it took place. So the existence of the fort should probably count as a point against Bennachie as a likely site.

  3. Well, talk about synchronicity. I was watching the third episode of “Scotland from the Air” and a large portion of it was about the huge Roman marching camp at Kintore (Deeres Den). While discussing it they also went into a fair bit of detail about the battle of Mons Graupius.

  4. Simon Forder published a book this year entitled “The Romans In Scotland: And The Battle Of Mons Graupius”. He does a camp-by-camp survey of Roman remains in Scotland, trying to sort them into campaigns and match them with Tacitus’ account. Unfortunately, the only thing he can conclude is that Tacitus’ account of the Mons Graupius campaign is inconsistent with the archaeology. I’m not sure I’d recommend it – it’s too exhaustive to be an engaging read.

Leave a Reply to Neil Kirkham Cancel reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.