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Harran Hill in Fife—A Walk Back in Time

From my home in Ballingry, I have easy access to several hillforts and old estates. I love exploring the area with my dogs.

The western end of Benarty Hill and Wood. The likely area of Benarty around which Queen Mary made her escape from Loch Leven.

The western end of Benarty Hill and Wood. The likely area of Benarty around which Queen Mary made her escape from Loch Leven.

Nature and History Rolled Into One

It has to be a lucky person who can walk outside their front door and within a few minutes step back in time. I think I am one of the fortunate. The location where I live goes back a long way both historically and geographically.

The Romans and Picts

To begin with, there are associations with the Romans and Picts. The Picts were the first Celts to inhabit Scotland which was then known as Alba. The name 'Picts' is a Roman name for the Celtic tribes and they should really be referred to as the Cruithne.

Local archaeological finds have included Celtic battle axes and drinking vessels. There is also some evidence for a Roman camp in the area and certainly a battle was fought between the Picts and the Third Legion just below Benarty Hill.

The Knights Templar and Mary Queen of Scots

There are also references to saints and to the famous Knights Templar as well as kings and queens—Mary Queen of Scots rode frantically around Benarty Hill when she escaped from Loch Leven that lies just over the ridge.

From Ballingry to Harran Hill

I'll now take you on a short tour of the area. We'll start off from Ballingry where I live and move through the area towards Harran Hill.

Harran Hill has had trees rooted here since the last ice age.

Harran Hill has had trees rooted here since the last ice age.

Ballingry cemetery to the East of Benarty Hill - seen in the background on the left of the photograph -  Some of the graves go back hundreds of years.

Ballingry cemetery to the East of Benarty Hill - seen in the background on the left of the photograph - Some of the graves go back hundreds of years.

One of the Oldest Parishes in Scotland

Ballingry is one of the oldest parishes in Scotland. The lands were once owned by the Culdees of St. Serf's Island on Loch Leven. The island and loch are just over the large hill called Benarty, which you can see in a couple of the photographs.

The Culdees travelled from Ireland in 37AD and set up Christian worship over previous Druid and other Pagan faith sites. Some historians believe that the Culdees were the Essenes escaping from the Middle East and carried with them secret knowledge and texts. The Culdees were not only teachers but also healers and practiced meditation.

Where Did the Name 'Ballingry' Come From?

The present name 'Ballingry' is believed to be a modernised version of Baile-an-Gruoch. This basically means 'the abode of Gruoch'. Gruoch was of course queen to King MacBeth—and no, they were nothing like the dark murderous pair of Shakespeare's play.

In the 11th century, it is believed that Queen Gruoch made a gift of certain lands to the Culdees of St. Serfs and the name Ballingry still bears traces of her name. There is also a well in the area called Gruoch's Well.

Interestingly another theory about Ballingry is that instead of the 'abode of Gruoch' it was instead a title such as 'the township' or 'place of the Gruoch'. The name Gruoch has strong similarities to the word Gruagach which means Cailleach or in other words the Mother Goddess. It might of course be that Queen Gruoch still had sympathies for the Great Mother, and certainly many wells and other spiritual places attributed to the goddess were given Christian Saint's names.

Scotland's Kirklands and The Knights Templar

The street where I live is just one of the many called 'Kirklands'. This shows that most of the surrounding areas were owned by the church. Indeed the famous Knights Templar had extensive lands just south of Ballingry.

The first Knights Templar in Scotland were given lands by King David I around 1127. Hugues de Payens visited his comrade in arms—the Earl of Roslin (Henri St Clair)—and was given permission to build a Templar Preceptory near Blanatrodoch; this is now called the Temple, Midlothian.

The family of Henri St. Claire were of course responsible for building the incredible and now very famous Rosslyn Chapel that also has many mysterious ties with the Knights Templar.

By 1314, however, things had turned against the warrior knights. There have been many legends that say nearly 3,000 Knights fled to Scotland under the protection of King Robert the Bruce who was at the time excommunicated from the church. Although there is no absolute proof of the Knights Templar fighting at Bannockburn for the King, historians agree that there are very interesting and tantalising hints from various sources.

The Avenue - an old country lane still cobbled and possibly haunted.

The Avenue - an old country lane still cobbled and possibly haunted.

The rocky outcrop is Dunmore Hill. In Pictish times this was also the site of a hill fort.

The rocky outcrop is Dunmore Hill. In Pictish times this was also the site of a hill fort.

Hill Forts and King Arthur

Moving out of my street and the others named Kirklands, we walk out of the village and onto a lane called 'The Avenue' (we'll hear more about this later). First, let's take a look at Benarty Hill to the north of the village and also Dunmore—a rocky outcrop that sits on top of Benarty.

The crag and tail formation of Benarty Hill was carved out in the last Ice-Age and stands approximately 1,168 feet, the summit being capped by quartz-dolerite rocks. The hill creates a ridge between two lochs. On the Ballingry side is Loch Ore and over the ridge to the north is Loch Leven.

The oldest records that refer to Benarty Hill can be found in the register of the Priory at St. Andrews. The name is believed to translate into 'Arthur's Ridge' (Ben—ridge, arty—Arthur) which is thought to commemorate King Arthur of Dark Ages Britain.

Locally it was often referred to as 'the sleeping giant'. There are of course thousands of these sites all over Britain and in Scotland itself. Perhaps we can assume then that Britain either did have a wondrous hero named Arthur or could it just be that many kings were named Arthur and memorials were set up for them on their death?

Benarty Fort

On the very western edge of the hill are the remains of a fort. According to the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland, the site is 'scheduled', meaning that under law it's protected against being built on or any other usage. According to Sir James Balfour in his book 'Annuals' (1527), the fort had been built by King Gedor of the Picts. There is indeed much evidence of a battle taking place between Romans and Picts in this area—battle axes and other items have been discovered not that far from this location.

As mentioned previously, it is around this western edge of the hill that Mary, Queen of Scots is said to have sped along on her escape from Loch Leven Castle, which lies over the other side of the hill in Kinross.

Dunmore

This steep outcrop perched on top of Benarty Hill is also the site of an ancient hill fort. The name 'Dunmore' can be traced back to Celtic-Pictish routes, 'dun' meaning 'fort' and 'more' overlooking the sea or water. Dunmore does overlook both Loch Leven and Loch Ore as well as the River Forth in the distance.

Benarty Hill, Western side with part of Benarty Wood in the foreground

Benarty Hill, Western side with part of Benarty Wood in the foreground

Old cottages now in ruins - all that's left of the Lochore House Estate.

Old cottages now in ruins - all that's left of the Lochore House Estate.

The Avenue goes off into the distance - this area is thought to be a place of strange shadows and white ladies.

The Avenue goes off into the distance - this area is thought to be a place of strange shadows and white ladies.

The Avenue, Lochore House and Ghosts

Continuing our journey up to Harran Hill, both Benarty and Dunmore will remain on our right hand side giving an added bonus to the lovely view.

We're reaching an area which I find very sad indeed. On a clearing some way up the Avenue used to stand an old house. It was first built by the Malcolm family 1654–61. The property was at that time called the Ladath Estate and the house known as Inchgall, only later becoming Lochore House.

The most famous occupant of Lochore House was Lady Scott, (Bonnie Jean Jobson of Lochore), who in 1825 married the son of the famous Scottish novelist, Sir Walter Scott, who visited the house on numerous occasions.

Eventually It did fall into some disrepair but to top it all, it was finally raised to the ground by vandals—a wonderful part of our local history gone forever. The only buildings still standing are the melancholy ruins of some cottages and I think what was once stables.

Haunted by the White Lady

This beautiful old house was of course haunted by the usual white lady. I visited a youth centre way back in 1970 when I was about 8 years of age. This youth facility was the ugliest building you have ever seen that was stuck onto the backside of this wonderful house. The house itself was very atmospheric and also sad as if longing for the days when it was a family home.

For some reason, I always did have a very strong attachment and love for this house. However, how much of that was due to my childhood dreaming and sense of magic? I never did see the white lady either then or at any time on passing the house when it was still standing. Perhaps since the house has gone the lonely lady walks the avenue? People have reported seeing odd shapes and a white figure walking this lovely, brooding lane, that was once the entrance and exit for Lochore House Estate.

We now travel some distance up this lane with its old cobbled stones and finally to the entrance of Harran Hill Wood.

Harran Hill Wood - beautiful and mysterious

Harran Hill Wood - beautiful and mysterious

There are many large stones and boulders lying all around Harran Hill Wood, possibly left by the turmoil of the last Ice Age.

There are many large stones and boulders lying all around Harran Hill Wood, possibly left by the turmoil of the last Ice Age.

The entrance to Harran Hill Wood

The entrance to Harran Hill Wood

Harran Hill Wood: A Place With Hidden Depths!

Harran Hill Wood covers about 27 hectares and is a protected nature centre. It is a mature broadleaved woodland. Fife Council report in their information guides that the area has been seeded with trees since the last Ice Age.

Stunning Biodiversity

Although one or two areas were used briefly as a plantation in the early 20th century, a lot of work has been done to ensure that the natural trees of the area, such as hazel, oak, Ash etc., have been helped to regain lost ground.

The site is also well regarded due to its immense biodiversity of animals, plants, ferns and bryophytes (mosses, liverworts etc.). Dog's Mercury is another plant that can be found in the wood and this is always a sign of an old and mature area of trees. This toxic plant was once used to make dye for cloth.

Harran also has its fair share of stinging nettles, but thankfully it does have the antidote nearby in the form of dock leaves. Many question whether the dock leaves do actually help. I can only tell you that from experience of being stung numerous times, rubbing the skin with the dock, very gently over the area where you have been stung, definitely takes the pain and burning sensation away.

The area also has a healthy abundance of wildlife. Unfortunately, since I usually have the dogs with me I never usually get near to the deer, foxes, red squirrels or any other of the numerous mammals and birds that inhabit the wood.

A Truly Magical Place

One of the interesting aspects of Harran is the landscape deep within the wood itself. On starting your journey it seems like an ordinary very pretty woodland with an interesting convoluted path running through it. Go off the beaten track just a little though and suddenly, the ground disappears downwards. You then come across heavily wooded, fern-filled dens, reinforced with tall rocky crags and huge moss-covered boulders strewn everywhere.

Even in the brightest light, these strange hidden places are often in gloom but they are so filled with energy and atmosphere that they seem magical.

Harran Hill Wood - a very old place with an extraordinary atmosphere

Harran Hill Wood - a very old place with an extraordinary atmosphere

Harran Hill Wood has many secret places filled with energy and atmosphere

Harran Hill Wood has many secret places filled with energy and atmosphere

Looking back at Benarty Hill from Harran

Looking back at Benarty Hill from Harran

I hope you've enjoyed this short journey into my small part of the world.

People often think that where they live is boring and nothing much has ever happened. I thought this at one time until I started looking, listening and learning about the area where I live. I had no idea that we had our ancestors the Picts living on our doorstep, or that the pesky Romans had a temporary camp just up the road!

Have a good look around where you live and you might be very surprised at what you find.

Looking down from the Avenue, to Lochore Meadows Country Park. The one reminder of the coal mine past - the Mary Pit - is left as a memorial. This is another stomping ground for me and the dogs and has it's own stories to tell.

Looking down from the Avenue, to Lochore Meadows Country Park. The one reminder of the coal mine past - the Mary Pit - is left as a memorial. This is another stomping ground for me and the dogs and has it's own stories to tell.

© 2012 Helen Murphy Howell