Saturday, 5 August 2017

Bennachie - Connections

It's funny how, even after a lifetime of exploring Scotland, you can still discover new places. New to me, at least. Bennachie was such a place. A random photo on Facebook planted a seed and the name stuck in my head.

Bennachie is what you might describe as a small massif dotted by several distinctive tops. It truly marks the end of the Grampian Mountains, as here they give way to rolling farmland. Bennachie is a short hop from Inverurie train station and that hop takes in a magical stone circle at Easter Aquhorthies.

Stone circles in the northeast of Scotland are the recumbent variety which means they have the largest stone resting horizontally, towards the southwest of the circle. The Easter Aquhorthies circle has retained all of its stones since it was built in the Neolithic period, 4000 to 5000 years ago. How incredible that we can still see the intact stone circle here today. It sits on a grassy knoll with a veiw of the surrounding farmland and with woodland behind, rustled today by the west wind. It was lovely to linger there in the warm sun, using my imagination to try to conjure up a hint of the ancient past. 

Bennachie lies west of Easter Aquhorthies and its most distinctive top, Mither Tap, forms a backdrop to the stones such that ancient people must have made a connection between them. My connection to Bennachie was a wonderful series of quiet back roads linked by offroad trails that took me around Bennachie in a circle of my own. The trails were wrapped up in green, lush woodland that dripped after the rain but every now and then they would pop out to a view of fields and farms.

On my second day, I hid the bike and camping kit in the woods and explored Bennachie on foot. A narrow path climbed up through pine woods where every stem of heather had on it a big blob of cuckoo spit so that it looked as if it had been snowing. The path circled the rocky torrs and then climbed to the top of Mither Tap through the stone walls of an ancient Pictish fort. From the top, farmland stretched eastwards while behind me the bigger tops of the Grampians disappeared into low, dense cloud.

The highest top on Bennachie is Oxen Craig. As I walked there that low cloud now engulfed my hill. In this clagged-in world all I could see was the purple heather either side of the trail and all I could hear was the buzz of thousands of bees on the heather.

The low cloud brought a day of drizzle with it as I jumped back on the bike to explore further. I cycled more back roads through avenues of tall trees that kept the worst of the rain off. I pulled in at a Pictish symbol stone by the side of the road called the Maiden Stone. It marks the start of the Maiden Causeway, an ancient pathway that connects it to the Pictish fort on top of Mither Tap.  A little further on and I pulled up at another symbol stone, the Picardy Stone, one of the earliest Pictish stones ever found. Nobody knows for sure the purpose of these stones and they may have been grave markers or boundary posts. From the Picardy Stone I connected together more quiet farm roads to take me back towards Inverurie and came across another stone circle at Daviot, just a few miles away from Easter Aquhorthies.

It would be wonderful to see this landscape through the eyes of the people who lived here thousands of years ago to understand the connections they made between all of these places.

Fact File
Start/finish: Inverurie Train Station
My route:  From the train station I crossed the centre of town heading east and took the country road signed for Burnhervie. Just more than 1km out of town the road makes sharp lefthand bend - here I took the single track road that headed straight on to Easter Aquhorthies stone circle. I retreaced my route back to the road then turned left towards to Chapel of Garioch and continued west to the Maiden Stone. Just after here there is left turn for the Rowantree car park - I took this road and where it ended cycled straight on along a forest track. This pops out at a junction and I turned left to rejoin tarmac. Made a circle of Bennachie via the back road to Auchleven and then heading south on the B992 but turning east along the road called "My Lord's Throat". At the Don View car park I picked a forest trail that took me through to Greens of Afforsk and I cycled up the road to Woodend where I took the forest track into the hills to camp and then walk up Bennachie the following day. I retraced my rouye to the road and cycled up to the Bennachie visitor centre - the Turnpike Trail connects it with the Rowantree car oark and is a lovey route cycle, albeit a bit rough in the middle. I visited the Picardy Stone and the stone circle at Daviot by linking up the many quiet back roads in the area.
Tips: Bennachie visitor centre on the east side of the hill near Woodend has coffee and cake.

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