Sacred Mountain by Ian Grosz

 

In the still dark of early morning on the autumn equinox, I climb Aberdeenshire’s most prominent hill to watch the sunrise. Traditionally marking the second harvest; a time to gather in the bounty of late summer signalled by the full moon, it can also be a time of balance; of reset; a chance to take stock before the long slide into winter. I had always come to the hill at times of reflection and re-balance; times when I needed to think, but now I simply wanted to pause; to catch my breath and the sunrise on this day of equilibrium.

 

The hill is known as Bennachie, said to be derived from the Gaelic name for a mountain – beinn – and a Celtic deity Chie: a ‘god of the soil or earth,’ but the summit I am headed for is the site of a Pictish hill fort known locally as Mither Tap (from Mother’s Tap), due to its resemblance to a breast. The most popular derivation for the mountain’s name as a whole is thought to stem from beinn nan cioch: literally, the mountain of the breasts. Pictish society was a matrilineal one, so perhaps there is some truth to the hill’s sacred association: not to a god, but to a goddess protecting and nourishing her people.

 

Mountains have long been seen as sacred, their high peaks reaching symbolically toward the realm of the spirit, mirrored in the great tombs built across Egypt and Central and South America. Even Britain’s more modest Neolithic burial mounds and chambers model a ‘tiered cosmos’ according to the archaeologists David Lewis-Williams and David Pierce, linking the world of the living and the dead with a higher plane.[1] Perhaps Bennachie is Aberdeenshire’s own Mount Olympus; a realm of forgotten gods and spirits; a way to the long-lost divine.

 

I set off an hour before sunrise. It is still dark: very dark, and I can see very little beyond the dim circle of light from my head torch. The thick scent of pine fills the air as I start up the trail. The presence of trees, melting into the darkness either side of me, are felt rather than seen; the still, almost-full harvest moon having disappeared into the cover of pine branches. A nervous glance behind reveals the comfort of a slowly brightening sky, suffused with faint orange and aquamarine banding toward the rim of an unseen eastern horizon. Amidst gaps in the canopy above, bright and brittle stars vanish and reappear. The tree cover opens a little and the moon’s glow pulls me upward.

 

I decide to switch off my head torch and immediately feel more at ease. I see, perhaps not more clearly, but more easily along the trail; the dark outline of trees against the deep blue-black of the sky visible to either side; my depth of vision extending now that I am unencumbered by the close circle of light imposed by the torch. The wind washes through the tall pine with a sound like a distant shoreline washed over by the sea, and rattles the gorse that lines the forest track, their pods full with seed. Soon my thoughts melt away into the simple action of walking. I become only breath; movement; the sound of my feet crunching along the trail, vaguely aware of the dawn chasing behind me. It is as though I am leaving the familiar world behind and moving toward some lighter version of myself with each footstep. I wonder how the Picts would have felt making their way up the hill in the light of a full moon; the landscape infused with now lost spirits and stories, and the wolves and wild boar that would have haunted the tree-covered slopes.

 

The going becomes steep and hard as I approach the summit, rising up from a long, gradually climbing ridge to the sudden incline of the tor that is the rock-strewn prominence of Mither Tap, its stacked bands of granite imposing above me. I have to pause often, looking back momentarily as I catch my breath; with each breath a greater lightness filling me from within. The dawn is spreading beneath the flat, eastern horizon; the faint glimmer of the sea beyond the city of Aberdeen to the south, its lights dimming with the nascent daybreak. The Ythan estuary to the north gleams darkly amid the folds of the fields, spilling out from the land.

 

I climb the last, few, steep steps of the final ascent that takes me to the reconstructed entrance of the fort: a clearly defined, narrow corridor between tall and very thick dry-stone walls leading to the natural granite outcrop of the top. Emerging from the shadows of the predawn and the passageway toward a noctilucent sky, I finally reach the summit where I am blasted breathless by the wind as it accelerates and is deflected upward against the mountain. Leaning hard into the sudden oncoming blast of air, I fight my way to the summit trig-point, left here by the Ordnance Survey in the nineteenth-century.    Adjacent to this is a more recent cairn mounted with a stainless-steel plaque bearing radial markings pointing to the distant, surrounding summits, but the dawn is coming quickly now; the stars fading, and after taking a photograph of the two summit markers against the brightening sky, I shuffle over the eastern lip of the summit – half-controlled, half-blown – to dip out of the wind and wait for the sun’s appearance. A few moments after settling into the nook of a rock, the sun slides above the horizon to find the year’s balance.

 

 

I had lost count of the number of times I had come here to take in the view, but I had never reached the summit for the sunrise. The land is filling with a rich, honeyed glow that floods each dip and fold of the shadows. I begin to feel the faint glimmer of warmth from the steadily climbing sun, and I am filled with a kind of love; a sense of contentment and well-being that grows with each uncounted moment. It is this which now brings a sense of the sacred; a sense of balance and connection with the natural world that can take us outside of ourselves.

 

With the day getting brighter, I leave Mither Tap and descend back through the narrow passageway of the old defensive walls to visit the other tops; the wind tugging at my beanie as I follow the track that cuts through the heather-clad moor. Siskins and yellow hammers rise up into the wind as I pass, a flash of wings and sudden birdsong as they are carried briskly aloft. The moon is still visible as I make my way westward, large and ghost-like as it sinks toward Oxen Craig, the hill’s true summit.

 

At 529 metres above sea-level, Oxen Craig’s more rounded, hummocky dome belies its summit status and tops Mither Tap’s reach by eleven metres. Standing at its prominent cairn, the view is even more expansive, with the high granite domes of the Cairngorms visible to the west and the rivers Dee, Don and Deveron weaving their silver threads through the unfolding landscape. I take shelter in the cairn at the lower of the two rocky outcrops that makes up the top, suddenly entering a space of stillness as I duck down beneath the rim of the stone enclosure. I can still hear the wind rushing around the cairn, but within, I am at the eye of a storm and the sense of stillness returns to me a sense of the sacred.

 

To come to know a place intimately is to care for it, and to care for something deeply is, in a sense, to make it sacred. The hill for me – for many – is sacred in that respect alone. Climbing the hill is an act of dedication; an act of worship even; perhaps not carried out with the same devotion as the pilgrims in Ireland who walk barefoot up Croagh Patrick each last Sunday in July, but a form of pilgrimage all the same. I think of the moonlit climb up through the pines; the steep, wind-blown final ascent; the view of the sunrise above the midnight wash of the sea; the mountain tracks that criss-cross the hill’s heather-clad moor and its tors presiding over the landscape spread out beneath its long whale-back. It is a perfect mountain: wild and remote, yet tame and accessible. It is a hill one must love. It asks that of you. It  commands the love of a whole region.

 

I pull myself back up into the wind and reverse my footsteps to re-join the track taking me back through the pines. The view remains expansive: the sky doming endlessly overhead and a shimmering haze above the sea to the east. The land spread out below is now brimming with light, its newly harvested fields lush green and golden, shining numinously beneath the morning sky.

 

 

 

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Ian Grosz is a writer based in northeast Scotland. His work can be found across a range of magazines and journals both in print and online; most recently on Elsewhere: A Journal of Place and in Echtrai, a journal of writing on landscapes lost, forgotten, abandoned, mythic. He is currently working on a narrative nonfiction project through a PhD Studentship with the University of Aberdeen, exploring the ways in which landscapes help to shape a sense of who we are. Read more about Ian’s work on his website.

 

Photographs by the author.

 

[1] See David Lewis-Williams and David Pierce, Inside the Neolithic Mind, (2005, 2009, repr. London, Thames & Hudson Ltd, 2013)

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