Updated: Dec 3, 2019
As you know, I love a good treasure hunt. For me, “treasure” usually translates to a stone or ruin of some sort. One of my favourite areas to explore is around Bennachie, in Aberdeenshire. After returning from a day exploring up top with my furry friend Luna, I told the woman at the visitors centre that I was wandering around researching sites for my Pictish novel. She said she was sure someone had once mentioned an Ogham inscribed stone in the woods on a nearby hill. My heart skipped a beat (literally - tracking down history gives me butterflies!) I know Bennachie pretty well and get very excited when something comes along I hadn't heard rumor of before. She went looking through some files and found a very short notation which she copied for me. It had some general location information for the stone. I thanked her profusely for the tip and returned the next day to find it. (And what luck that I spoke to her because others working on my subsequent visits were not familiar with the stone at all!)
I’ll pause for a moment because I can hear some quiet murmurings of “What is Ogham?” Digging into this would open a HUGE academic can of worms. Its really hard to give more than a very short explanation that everyone can agree upon before the conversation falls apart and hairs are split. Basically, Ogham is a written alphabet that originated in Ireland and has been found in Scotland, England, Wales and and the Isle of Man. It consists of lines and strokes, with varying styles found in different regions. Now back to the hunt!
It was a gorgeous spring day, and I enjoyed the tranquility of the walk leading up to the section of forest I needed to head into. This proved to be the hardest I had ever worked to find a site. There were deep ruts up the wooded hill from logging machines, which are harder to walk in than you might expect. But they at least provided a path for a bit that was free from hidden obstacles intent on devouring my shins. I had the location of the stone (so I thought) but I still had to get through the woods to find it. Walking through logged woods can be a bit of a challenge. The deep harvester ruts combined with mud and debris, as well as stumps that have become overgrown and hidden, made for quite an obstacle course. The coordinates did not lead me to the stone however, but to the edge of a stone wall. Because I had no context as to the size of the stone, or the condition, I put considerable effort into walking the wall, pushing through gorse and nettles to investigate. I started to think that perhaps it had become moss covered or overgrown, and I wasn’t going to start unstacking stone walls of course.
But then I remembered a notation about the stone being on a Bronze Age cairn. As my eyes slowly scanned the landscape, it occurred to me that a cairn in that area would likely be at the highest point of the hill, so I started walking uphill. Sure enough, as I got to the top of the rise in the woods, there was the stone. It was covered up by bushes until I got close. As you can see from the photos, it just looks like a bunch of shrub. At the same time I noticed it, I noticed Mither Tap peering at me through the trees straight ahead. I suddenly felt frozen in time for a moment, as I thought of the mountain, unflinching through the ages, peering over toward ancient people standing where I now stood. The various “taps” of Bennachie serve me well as I explore, because they help orient me. Countless times I’ve been out exploring, and felt one of them watching me from a new angle. The mountains, and their secrets, are always watching.
Now, finding the treasure is only part of the hunt. The other part is digging for historical clues. I enjoy that part a lot too. Theres a thrill involved in being surrounded by books and scouring the internet until you are lost in the dozens of browser tabs you have open. Not surprisingly, there isn’t a lot of information about this stone. It was found during logging operations in 1994. The account from Bailies of Bennachie states: “At the edge of the cairn there is a stone which attracted the attention of Mike Davidson, a former Clerk to the Bailies of Bennachie. It was covered with moss which he removed and was astonished to find a Pictish incised cross. Archaeologists discovered on its edge a line of Ogham symbols, a primitive form of writing.” (1)
The other limited bit of information I’ve been able to find is from Canmore (Historic Environment Scotland). The first field visit notes a “Cross-incised stone: large granite boulder 1.50m x 0.95m x 0.80m with cross, measuring 35cm x 35cm x 2cm deep incised in centre on flat side. On edge of boulder are either Roman numerals or possible oghams: five diagonal slashes and a cross (/////X). Slashes vary in length.” Subsequent notations just state that it is Ogham, and the photos are from 1999. In the 20 years since then, the forest floor has grown up quite a bit, but the stone surface is exposed and easy to see once close.
I have tracked down a few Ogham inscribed stones, but I am absolutely not an expert. These markings look different than the other stones I’ve seen, but that doesn’t mean anything definitive. I have shown my photos to some people whose opinions on these matters I highly respect. They are divided in opinion. By the naked eye it is hard to process all the lines - which is why I’ve included images from Canmore (with permission according to their usage terms for educational blogs.)
I found a brief reference (2) that said “Simple incised cross in a boulder delineating the boundary of Pictish church lands” but they did not elaborate on their evidence for this statement so I can only guess that is is their theory. I also found a reference (3) (pictured below) which shows one site's translation of the lines on the stone. My initial understanding that it was possibly Ogham turned out to be stated as fact by the all of the online sources I have found. I look forward to hearing more discussion about it in the future.
I actually found this stone this spring but am just now getting around to publishing the post! I mentioned it to one of the gentlemen at the Garioch Heritage Centre in Inverurie a few weeks ago, and he was amazed to hear of it. His brother popped in while we were chatting and he did know about it. I left happy to have piqued the interest of a lifelong resident :) I look forward to tracking down more stones and sites next year. I still have so many that I have found and I need to write about and share with you!
Note: I am intentionally a bit vague about the location. This is not to be difficult or withholding. A bit of mystery when finding something is part of the excitement of exploring, and I don't want to share exact locations to be shared far and wide. I also believe that this helps protect the sites from vandalism if their locations aren't plastered all over the internet. But if you are planning to visit please feel free to send me a message and I would be happy to help you out!