First published in: The Times Click here to view a map for this walk in a new window
Mither Tap draws the eye for many miles around. The 1,700-ft peak with its steep flanks and bare granite crown rises high over the low-rolling landscape inland of Aberdeen. It isn’t the highest point of its parent ridge of Bennachie – that honour belongs to the dome of Oxen Craig, a mile to the west and ten metres taller. But it’s the distinctive shape of Mither Tap which entices ramblers to walk the hilly circuit connecting these twin peaks.
We started up the forest path from Back o’ Bennachie on a breezy afternoon, and were soon up above the pines and mossy gullies. The tor-like peak of Craigshannoch, the Hill of the Foxes, rose on the skyline, its back against rushing grey clouds. A path of crunchy granite led up to the top of Oxen Craig through heather, bilberry and starry white flowers of chickweed wintergreen.
There was ominous howling from the stone shelter at the summit. It came from two dogs trying to blackmail biscuits from the picnickers there. The view encompassed at least 100 miles, from far out across the North Sea in the east to Lochnagar standing tall in the Cairngorm range, and the flanks of Cairngorm mountain itself, blurred and gleaming with snow some seventy miles to the west.
From Oxen Craig we turned eastward across the heathery ridge of Bennachie. Mountain hares feasting on young heather shoots had left round balls of dung among the bilberries, and foxes feasting on mountain hares had added their own pointed billets. The square grey crown of Mither Tap sank out of sight below the skyline, then rose dramatically as we drew near.
Just below the peak we found the tumbled walls of a Pictish fort 2,500 years old. Looking back to the slopes of Oxen Craig, we pictured the mighty force of 30,000 ‘Caledonians’ who opposed a Roman army of similar size at the Battle of Mons Graupius in 83AD. The Caledonians had the high ground – but the Romans wiped the floor with them, slaughtering one in three.
The north-west wind soon blasted us off the peak of Mither Tap. We followed the homeward path to the tors that crown Craigshannoch, and dropped down through Bennachie forest with ravens riding the wind above us like a cohort of ragged black witches.
Start: Back o’ Bennachie car park, near Pitcaple, Inverurie, Aberdeenshire AB52 6RH approx (OS ref NJ 662246)
Getting there: A96 from Inverurie towards Huntly; in 6 miles, left at Bridge of Carden on B9002. Half a mile beyond Oyne, left (‘Back o’ Bennachie’) to car park.
Walk (6 miles, strenuous, OS Explorer 421): From pay machine furthest from road, follow ‘Mither Tap Quarry Trail/MTQT’ signs south on steepening path. Follow MTQT for 3 miles via Little Oxen Craig (663232) and Oxen Craig (663227). Approaching Mither Tap, just beyond ‘Mither Tap’ sign immediately below crags, fork left (682224) and follow path clockwise to summit. Return through fort gateway to path junction (683225). Follow ‘Bennachie Rowan Tree’/BRT, ahead. In ½ a mile, in a hollow, left off BRT path (681231, ‘Craigshannoch’) uphill. Pass cairn on right; at next T-junction, right (MTQT, ‘Back o’ Bennachie’/BB). In 350m, fork right to summit of Craigshannoch (672232). Return to main route, turn right and follow MTQT, then BB, back to car park.
Accommodation: Meldrum House Hotel, Oldmeldrum AB51 0EA (01651-872294, meldrumhouse.com) – large, comfortable country house hotel.
The January Man – A Year of Walking Britain by Christopher Somerville (Doubleday, £14.99).