Wednesday, June 21, 2006



It was the first hill we had climbed in a few months, only a few hundred feet but that was enough for people coming from the flats where hang-gliding enthusiasts and amateur parachutists have to launch themselves from the freeway overpasses. We stopped often to catch our breaths and look at the hill, admire the golden gorse and broom, then struggle on up toward the ruin on the hill. An elderly couple, the man missing most of his teeth, sauntered down toward us, not showing any effort. “Ye’ve a long way to go!” the man said.

Like most jewels we discover, Dunnideer Hill wasn’t on any map, but rose up in front of us after we drove through Insch, a small town with a railway station halfway between Aberdeen and Huntly. The main street contains a small grocery shop, a chemist, a butcher, a shop with toys for very small children, and that’s it. In the grocery we asked a middle-aged woman stocking the shelves if there was another main street. “Well,” she huffed. “People shop in Inverrurie or Elgin. We’re being squeezed out.” She didn’t think much of the march of economic prosperity and booming oil prices.

The last fifty feet we climbed was not on a natural hill. From its regular contours, we realized that this was an earthwork piled there thousands of years ago to serve a religious or political purpose. Hundreds of people carried the soil there on their backs or dragged it up in primitive sleds. Since then fort after fort was built there and fell into ruin, the last in the thirteenth century. We stood in the shelter of the arch while the rain misted down and washed the grassy hilltop. Rimming the hill stood pieces of an older wall blackened as if by fire. The stones looked scorched and turned to glass as if by some unimaginable heat, possibly fire accompanying the sack of an ancient fortress.

It was a peaceful place, that fed the soul, and we felt sure we’d return there and feed on its mystery. The hill could tell us much of what it had seen, the joys and suffering of many generations. You might also see far away places, things not obvious to us as we scurry around the flatlands in that frenzy which we call life.

From the hill we had a clear view of Inch and realized the town contained two clusters, the old Insch --- houses made of sandstone blocks and the main street. Then there were rectangular streets of clean-looking identical houses of the oil boom. In a distant corner several bulldozers had cleared trees and leveled land for more houses. All short-term. Ten years from now most of the new folk would be gone, and Insch might recover its heart, and no longer be the in-between place.

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