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Clachnaben

Author: Jane Swanson

Some hills I have climbed only once. Some hills I have returned to again and again. Some hills have helped me find peace and new perspectives when life has been challenging. Clachnaben in Glen Dye in Aberdeenshire is one such hill. A familiar landmark on Lower Deeside, Clachnaben is topped with a large granite tor, a rocky outcrop that rises abruptly from the slope of the hill, and from a distance looks like a ruined fortress. The name Clachnaben comes from the Gaelic, ‘Clach na Beinne’, meaning the Stone on the Hill.

It is an overcast day in August, and after a recent bereavement I am once again drawn to Clachnaben. I park in the old quarry north of the Bridge of Dye and follow the wide path through the woods, the trees are a mix of ancient Scots pines, Douglas firs and larches. Beneath them are willowy ferns and blaeberry bushes with small, glossy leaves and dark purple berries. The trees are hushed, and my feet make no sound on a soft carpet of rust coloured pine needles. The air is warm and still, fresh with the peppery, minty scent of pine, which invites me to breathe . . . slowly . . . and deeply. And this is where the magic starts, the simple rhythm of walking, of lifting and setting down each foot in turn gently unknots the tension in my mind.

I follow the track to the bottom of the glen, cross the bridge over the river and fork right towards an expanse of open country known as Miller’s Bog. The broad swathe of heath and pasture grazed by sheep welcomes me back like a long-lost friend with wide, outstretched arms. The space, stillness, and silence, invites me to reflect and reframe the difficult experience of the past few months.

The granite tor of Clachnaben lies ahead, inky blue against the grey sky, shaped like a molar tooth with jagged, pointed cusps. In local folklore, the tor is sometimes called, ‘the devil’s bite.’ The story goes that the devil took a bite out of the hillside, but it tasted sour, so he spat it out over the top of Clachnaben and this is the origin of the tor. Other stories tell of giants hurling rocks at each other, and that the tor is a boulder hurled across the hills by Jock O’ Bennachie at his rival Jock O’ North who lived on the Tap O’ North close to Rhynie.
I think about the anger Jock must have felt as he lifted the boulder, and as I picture him hurling it across the hills, something of my anguish travels alongside the enormous piece of granite. I picture the boulder crashing down onto Clachnaben with a thundering thud, the ground quaking, the rock shattering, and clouds of dust rising into the sky. Eventually the dust and the giants’ anger would have settled, and in the moment, my anguish is stilled.

I stroll along the path and over the wooden footbridge; the ambling pace of my feet mirrors the slow, lilting rhythm of the river and for the first time in a long while I sense an ease of being in my body and in my mind. Ahead the path meanders uphill though a plantation of straggly windswept pines with low sweeping branches and feathery, fey, light green pine needles. The path keeps to the edge of the trees and follows the fast-flowing Mill burn. My mind drifts between the different sensory experiences, the lively, musicality of the water, the gentle rustle of the trees and the sight of the thick, lush grass on the banks of the burn. It is impossible not to feel enlivened and optimistic.

At the top of the plantation the path cuts left across the pink and purple heather and follows the col between Clachnaben and Mount Shade. The air vibrates with the buzz of hundreds of bees hovering in and out of the tiny bell-shaped flowers. I brush my hands over the springy, wiry heather, it has a sweet scent, woody, mossy like the smell of a hay-filled barn on a warm summer’s day.

The narrow path follows the shoulder of the hill to ease the ascent and is well-built with neat pink granite steps. Even so it is a strenuous climb, my leg muscles burn, my heart beats faster and the lumbering sound of my breath thumps in my ears. The path broadens out and cuts up to the left, it’s stony and sandy underfoot, the tor looms above me with the majesty and mystery of an enchanted castle. The granite is elephant-grey in colour, in places the vertical folds and crevices in the rocks remind me of an elephant’s rugged, wrinkled hide. The path heads round to the right, to the back of the tor which is easier to climb. I scramble to the top and sit down, it feels like being on top of the world.

The ridge of Bennachie lies to the north with the rounded summit of Oxen Craig and the conical peak of Mither Tap, in the distance there are patches of snow on Lochnagar, and to the east is the grey North Sea. The tower blocks beside Aberdeen beach look like tiny, upended Lego bricks. I feel rejuvenated, at peace with myself and the world, and energised to face the future. Clachnaben never fails me.