The day dawned clear and frosty – a balmy minus 4 Celsius at the gates of the Dunecht Estate. The sun glistened on the frosted ground. Not a breath of wind. A perfect day for walking. Twenty well-clad walkers gathered at the start point; cloud-breathing dragons, our breath freezing in the air. We were raring to set off on our first walk of 2022.
This circular walk began by following tarmac lanes and paths through Dunecht Estate, giving some views of the great country house and surrounding landscape. The estate is one of the largest private estates in Aberdeenshire, covering 53,000 acres (210 square kilometres). The main part of it lies between Banchory and Westhill, encompassing the village of Dunecht, the Loch of Skene and Dunecht House, but it also includes separate areas of land at Birse and Durris on Royal Deeside, Edinglassie in Strathdon and Dunnottar Castle. The expansive house was built in 1820 as the family home of the Earl of Crawford and Balcarres. It includes and an observatory built by James Ludovic Lindsay, the 26th Earl of Crawford. The house was owned by the Hon. Charles Anthony Pearson, the younger son of the third Viscount Cowdray, but was sold to the Scottish business entrepreneur Jamie Oag in 2012. The estate’s forestry business extends to 6,500 acres (26 square kilometres) of commercial woodland and includes scots pine, Sitka spruce, Norway spruce, larch and Douglas fir as well as areas of native, semi-natural and plantation woodland. The aftermath of Storm Arwen, whose 90mph winds battered northeast Scotland on 27 November 2021, was clear to see, fallen trees littering the ground in a number of places.
We had to cross the busy B977 before continuing up a track signposted ‘Osprey Systems’ – nothing to do with the bird of prey, but a family-run double-glazing firm! We stopped for a coffee-cum-lunch break in a lovely sunny spot before heading steadily uphill on a narrow path to the summit of Barmekin Hill. Barmekin is a typical Scottish moorland hill, without precipices or rocky ascents. It is covered with thick heather and gorse. Its summit is 274 metres (899 feet) above sea level, and it stands alone in the area it commands. The trig point provided the perfect spot to admire the extensive views in all directions. On this wonderful clear day you could see not just the local hills – the Hill of Fare and Bennachie – but snow-capped Lochnagar and Mount Keen. Ah yes. It was also group photo time.
The name ‘Barmekin’ is actually an English name of the 12th or 13th century. It is the same word as ‘barbican’, meaning ‘fort’, an expression that came to England from France, brought from the Middle East by the Crusaders. Barmekin is not the original name of the large five-ringed fort on the top of the Hill. It is a Celtic fort, going back into prehistory, and accordingly it has an earlier Gaelic name. A hill fortified in this way, with a fort or stronghold, is known in Gaelic as a ‘dun’, meaning a fortress. There were many hundreds, probably thousands, of such hill-forts in Scotland in prehistoric times, and in many cases towns grew up around them, for instance Dun-dee. Of course most of these forts are now in ruins. Returning to the original name of this ‘dun’ or fortress which we now call the Barmekin of Dunecht, the name was simply Dun-Echt – the fortress of Echt, giving its name to the district. At one time it must have been a remarkable stronghold on this commanding hill, a fortress for the whole locality. Other fortresses include the great fort on the Mither Tap of Bennachie, and the vitrified forts on Tap o’Noth and Dunnideer, near Insch. It was into these hill-forts that the earliest Christian missionaries came, no doubt entering this very fortress of Dun-Echt, and looking around on many of the same natural features that we looked upon. The Barmekin was a central point in Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s popular trilogy of novels, A Scots Quair.
We now had to make our way carefully off the summit and descend the sheltered side of the hill. Here the sun had not reached certain sections of the path, so it was a bit icy. Stepping off the path into the dense heather did help. Being ‘tail-end Charlie’, no-one spotted my fall from grace on to the icy path. However, I did witness one or two others performing ballet movements – plier (bending), étendre (stretching), relever (rising), sauter (jumping), tourner (turning) and glisser (gliding). I don’t think there is a term for falling, but I did spy the odd body disappearing from view into the heather. Fortunately we all came through unscathed.
We made our way back into the grounds of Dunecht Estate and back to the start point of the walk. We took a short diversion through the woods to view the Dunecht mansion water supply. This 300,000-gallon service reservoir is fed through a five-inch pipe from springs almost three miles away on the Hill of Fare. Today it was completely frozen over, but possibly not safe enough to hold a bonspiel!
It was great to see so many on the walk, including two guests, Hazel and John. Both have expressed their desire to join us. Many thanks to Ian Bean for leading such a lovely walk. We have had one very complimentary email about the walk and Ian’s exemplary leading.
Photographs by David Christie and Graham Denyer.