Guest writer DUNCAN HARLEY tells of a a fairy dance and a snoring giant on the hill of Bennachie in Aberdeenshire, Scotland
Victorian writer and historian Alex Inkson McConnochie penned several popular travelogues describing journeys in and around the hills and mountains of Aberdeenshire. One volume covers Ben Macdui, the second highest mountain in Britain, while another describes that Royal favourite, Lochnagar in Upper Deeside.
Even today McConnachie’s travel writings remain popular and much of the landscape he describes still exists in much the same form as it was in Victorian times. The wild places his words inhabit are largely unchanged, the history he describes is still relevant and the folk lore he records remains the stuff of legends.
In his book about the Bennachie hill range, McConnachie dutifully records the route to the hill and of course the history of both place and people before launching the reader into the realm of legend.
Bennachie has several tops the highest of which is Oxen Craig at 1733ft. The peak that stands out the most visually however is Mither Tap and from its summit there are broad views across the entire county. People have scraped a living on the slopes for thousands of years and along the way they have recalled tales and passed on legends about angry giants and bewitching Faeries.
Ploughmen meet malevolent Fairies
Amongst the folklore associated with Bennachie is the story of two ploughmen who had the misfortune to meet in with some particularly malevolent Fairies. McConnachie tells us that although “Brownies, Spunkies and Kelpies were not unknown… Faeries were to be found and their music was to be heard everywhere about the hill and, as in other places, they were spoken of with respect by the inhabitants of the district.”
Seemingly the Fairies at Hill Park were particularly fond of playing “sad tricks with the rustics”.
The two young ploughmen were on their way to the smiddy one day when they came upon a group of Fairies dancing and singing. Entranced at the sight, one of the young lads became transfixed and simply could not tear himself away. His companion however quickly left the scene assuming that his friend would follow on later. However, the transfixed ploughman failed to appear and was not seen again for an entire year and a day.
McConnachie records that “when his friend, passing by the same place, had his eyes so far opened as to see him standing, mouth open, intently watching something. On being asked to come along, he replied, as though he had only been there for a few minutes, that he would rather wait a little longer yet!”
And there, seemingly, he still stands watching a Faerie Dance which no one else can see. Indeed, legend also insists that the Bennachie of old was guarded by a giant known as Jock o’ Bennachie. Proof of the existence of this giant exists to this day in the form of the man’s enormous bed. Perhaps best known as Little John’s Length, a plot of land to the east of the Bennachie peak of Craigshannoch, Jock’s bed measures some 600ft from head to foot and indicates that he was pretty tall even for a giant.
Giants of course sometimes have enemies and Jock’s nemeses was Jock o’ Noth who controlled the lands of Strathbogie and Rhynie. Jock o’ Noth also lived on a hilltop, appropriately named Tap o’ Noth, some thirteen miles away. Petty squabbles, over the affections of a mutually admired maiden occasionally erupted into full scale war between the two giants and they sometimes resorted to chucking large boulders at each other. One such stone can be found somewhere on Tap o’ Noth and seemingly it bears the giant hand print of Jock o’ Bennachie.
When Jock o’ Noth attempted to retaliate for this near miss, his adversary is said to have kicked the rock back into touch and to this day, apparently, there is a boulder on Tap o’ Noth which bears the mark of Jock o’ Bennachie’s big toe.
Of course not all giant stories have a happy ending and Jock o’ Bennachie appears to have fallen into a long deep sleep while resting in his cave deep beneath the mountain. Legend has it that he will eventually wake up when someone finds the key to the door of his cave. Seemingly he has, by mistake, locked himself in.
There are several ballads which celebrate the legend of the giants. One, which appears to anonymous, appears in Inkson McConnachie’s 1890 Bennachie guidebook and records that:
An never sin’ that awfu’ nicht
Has Jock by mortal e’e
Been seen or heard o’ far or near
Nor ever has the key
In August 2013, a dramatic re-enactment of the battle between Jock o’ Noth and Jock o’ Bennachie was organised by the Bailies of Bennachie, a volunteer conservation group dedicated to caring for Bennachie and its landscape. Starting variously from Tap o’ Noth or Mither Tap, two rival armies walked steadily towards each other, meeting approximately half way on Suie Hill for a re-enactment titled ‘The Giant’s Throw’.
Whilst the original giant’s throw involved lobbing great lumps of rock across the thirteen mile or so gap between the hill tops, the re-enactment used safer and more manageable softball weaponry.
Participants were encouraged to keep a look out for the missing key to Jock’s cave but, despite a good turnout on the day, no key was found and Jock is presumably still snoring softly in his cave.
DUNCAN HARLEY is author of The A-Z of Curious Aberdeenshire and The Little History of Aberdeenshire, both titles are available from Amazon in both digital form and in print.