A mysterious hillfort in Aberdeenshire.
Rural Aberdeenshire is just that: it’s rural. It’s cultivated, with woodlands and bare moorland tops above - in the hinterland. Away out in the bare knuckle of Buchan on the coastal plain, it’s just plain bleak and also cultivated intensely. It does practical and useful very well; but twee and grandly picturesque less so.
By contrast, In upper Aberdeenshire, mainly towards the valley of the Rivers Dee and Don, it’s almost Highland: bigger hills, wilder woods, higher hilltops. South of the town of Huntly, it’s transitional. It hints at the wildness to come - but the barley field and park of cattle still patch the rolling grounds - testimony to the toil of generations of farming folk. And, locally dominating, the Tap o Noth, looks both north-east to Lowland plain and west to Highland hills.
They chose well - the Iron Age folk who decided this would be a good settlement place. There were two phases of settlement, the archaeologists tell us - and the most obvious is what the walker finds after an uphill walk of an hour (or less) (or more): a hilltop ringed with a partly tumbled stone wall and enclosing a surprisingly large area. Part of the walling is vitrified - which means the stones have been fused by heat.
These Iron Age hillforts - roughly dating anywhere between the first millenium BC to the first millenium AD - ring many a Scottish hilltop but none are so arresting as the Tap o Noth with its massive tumbled stone walling enclosing an oblong area about 100 x 40 metres. It’s also the second-highest hillfort in Scotland, at 1851 ft / 563m .
Climbing the Tap o Noth
That’s easy. There is a signposted carpark off the A941 west of the wee community of Rhynie. This takes you to a neglected looking parking area, where the information panels are faded and marked with ‘Gordon District Council’ - an authority that vanished two decades ago, though by the state of the boards it may as well have been slightly after the end of the Iron Age.
There is a good path all the way. It climbs steadily round the hill - so that there is the inevitable moment when you wonder if you are heading in the wrong direction. However, an abrupt change of course takes the route on a determined assault of the final heather and blaeberry (Eng: bilberry) slopes. Sure, you could do the walk in less than an hour - though it depends on how long you take to admire the views. There is about 1300ft / 400 m of climbing to do. That’s all. Allow at least three hours for the whole excursion - though this depends on how many courses your summit picnic will have.
What is the Tap o Noth about?
So, there we are, sitting on top on a lowering, clammy, July day, glowering over the walls, inevitably thinking about who built this Iron Age 'citadel'. A warrior aristocracy, some say, though how they over-wintered in this exposed location is a mystery - perhaps they occupied instead a lower-ground enclosure recorded near the kirkyard in nearby Rhynie. (Another school of thought says the first inhabitants, early in the first millennium BC, were up there before there was a deterioration in the climate.)
Then there is the endless mystery of the process of vitrification. Fused stone is obvious in several places. Obviously, you need a lot of heat to 'melt' stonework. Great baulks of timber were built into the walls, the theory goes, then with added brushwood the whole thing was fired and the intense heat melted the stones together. Where opinions differ, however, is the point in the fort’s lifetime that this process was put into effect. Most archaeologists seem to prefer the explanation that the vitrification was some kind of battle or siege damage - ie that the wall was actually weakened by the firing - or even that it was some kind of ritual destruction at the end of the fort’s life. There's more on the deliberate act of vitrification of hilltop fortresses on that link. (And it's really interesting!)
Even more attractive, though entirely bonkers, is the theory that these hillforts were actually launching platforms for, uhmm, rockets made by extra-terrestrials. The fusing of the rocks was a result of the hot exhaust gases on take-off. Yeah, right. (I so hope I didn't just make that up...)
Here's a very short gallery from the day.
Is the Tap o Noth worth the effort?
Yes, yes, yes. It’s a special place. Choose a clear day, of course, as the North Sea and the Moray Firth can be seen, as well as the Cairngorms in the other direction. And lots more hilltops that will only mean anything to local loons and quines (Eng: boys and girls). I’m only sorry I couldn’t quite see Mormond Hill because Buchan was shrouded in cloud, away to the north-east. But Ben Rinnes, Morven, Lochnagar and Mount Keen were quite plain - as well as the central Cairngorms. And we could just make out the far coast of the Moray Firth, to the north.
That you should take a flask and a picnic goes without saying. Oh, all right, you can buy a damp packaged sandwich at Huntly Tesco or Asda on the main A96 road, less than a half-hour’s drive away - but you know you should get up earlier and make a proper one. (Wait - I’ve just had an amber ‘grumpy’ alert come up on the dashboard. Sorry.)
Anyway, it’s worth the effort because of the sense of mystery that clings to these weird and unknowably ancient fortifications. The Aberdeenshire architect, the late Ian AG Shepherd, sums this up better than I can in his Exploring Scotland’s Heritage - Grampian (HMSO) where he considers the impact of these massive, dominating skyline defences and what happened to them. ‘What we see today...tumbled blocks of fused stone or screes of slag-like rubble, tell of the wreaking of a terrible, if long postponed, vengeance on such seemingly vulnerable assertions of power. The timber-lacing in the walls allowed successful attackers to fire the wall...the Tap o Noth...would have burned for days, its flaming defeat visible to all inhabitants of the Garioch.’
Imagine: The Tap of Noth - once a terrifying symbol of a little world in conflict.
Finally, note: please excuse my idiosyncrasy but I prefer to spell Tap o Noth without the apostrophe as I consider ‘o’ to be the Scots word for ‘of’ and not a mis-spelling of the English word ‘of’. After all, it’s a place name in Scotland.