The impressive Aberdeenshire hillfort at Tap o’ Noth (GM/ES-054) - Scotland’s second-highest fort - is a popular three-mile there-and-back walk enjoyed by thousands of visitors every year, including those keen on paragliding. It is often particularly busy at weekends and at holiday times, but today was the final day of October, a Monday, and all was quiet.
There is evidence of habitation on the site back to 2,000BC but its main occupation seems to have been in Pictish times in the 5th to 6th centuries AD. Recently, archaeologists from Aberdeen University (where the subject formed part of my studies there back in the mid-1970s) discovered that the settlement had up to 4,000 inhabitants living there in more than 800 huts - pretty impressive for a hilltop site that stands 563 metres above sea level. That would make the site a city by standards of the day, rivalling in size to post-Roman settlements found across Europe.
Why it was abandoned remains something of a mystery. Perhaps residents just got tired of delivery delays in receiving milk, mail or Amazon parcels in the bitter winter weather in these parts, but it provides a fine SOTA two-pointer with great 360-degree views. On a very breezy and cool October morning, it seemed a fine place to continue my recent SOTA rehab on the hills.
Tap o’ Noth lies close to the Aberdeenshire village of Rhynie, along the Cabrach road towards Dufftown, which is often one of the first to close in Scotland during heavy snowfall. There is an excellent wee car park at the start, signposted from the road, and well-maintained paths to the summit, backed by a mixture of grant aid and support from local farmers.
It’s a steepish but short climb of about 1.5 miles to the summit but the view improves with every step and it is hard not to be impressed with the scale of the hillfort when you arrive there. We chose to nestle behind the ramparts to the north of the site to escape the southerly wind now gusting to well over 35mph.
There was an incentive to get settled quickly, however. Fraser @MM0EFI, was planning to activate four Aberdeenshire one-pointers today and so there was an opportunity for me to secure some S2S contacts on FM. Before setting up my HF kit, he came up on 2m on my wee Yaesu FT-4xe handie and its Diamond whip, just after 09.00, from Hill of Tillymorgan (GM/ES-079). One S2S completed - especially welcome as it was a Complete for me. The picture shows me during our QSO with his summit just visible to the far right in the distance.
My unfortunate unease at being back on the air and in the hills is still lingering as my road to recovery continues and so it was another day of simply trying for some S2S contacts rather than attempting to deal with a pile of enthusiastic chasers, but the next 45 minutes produced only two S2S contacts on 20metres; @SQ9BQW, Wojciech, in Poland and @DK2UW, Uwe, in Germany. I was using the KX2 with a 44ft end-fed wire with 9:1 UnUn but it was far from easy trying to keep the 6m carbon pole upright in the strengthening wind and the antenna wire drew taught like an archer’s drawstring on his longbow. No matter, signals in and out seemed relatively good, although I was unable to break through the noisy pile-ups on some other potential European S2S contacts.
Thankfully, I had time to survey the countryside while waiting, which is always a joy. In this picture, looking west, can be seen Ben Rinnes (GM/ES-021) and beside it the two smaller hills of Meikle Conval (GM/ES-051) and Little Conval (GM/ES-057).
It was not long before Fraser @MM0EFI popped up again on his second summit of the day (Hill of Foudland GM/ES-071) so I worked him on 2m FM again at 10.45 before deciding enough was enough. It is still early days for me to be back on the hills so there are no prizes for overdoing it. My 90-minute SOTA trip yielded just the four S2S contacts but with two of them being with the same callsign, the one point for the activation eluded me this time. No matter, I enjoyed it. I’ll be back.
When we emerged from behind our shelter on the hillfort ramparts it was now blowing a gale and Sula, our omnipresent SOTA dog, did a fair imitation of a kite as we peered down to the village of Rhynie below us with the prominent whaleback of Bennachie visible to the left.
On our descent, I was intrigued to see sections of disused electrical cable sticking out from the path. My theory is that they were part of a communications link to the former fire-watching station on the summit (you get a great view over Clashindarroch Forest from there) but I could well be wrong.
We were back in the car in no time and soon heading for home, pointless but pleased.
From my home QTH just 9 miles away, I was able to make contact with Fraser on 40metres on his final two summits of the day - a typically fine effort by him. I was grateful to have simply completed one, although how those ancient Picts survived on Tap o’Noth dressed only in animal skins rather than my contemporary hillwalking gear I have no idea. My eyes water just thinking about it. I’ll think twice before complaining about being unable to run the central heating too much this coming winter!
I can’t even imagine how the Picts at this amazing hillfort site survived without having access to VHF or HF. Where’s the fun in that?
Here’s to my next proper activation soon. 73 Mike