Ben Griam Beg stands alongside its partner, Ben Griam Mor, in an otherwise flat area of peat-based moorland that seems to stretch for miles. It is a long trek in from the main road to reach the foot of the hill, and then there is the 1300 foot climb to the top. But on a good day the walk is worth it. The views from the top are fantastic – from Hoy (one of the islands of Orkney) some 40 miles away, to the mouth of Sutherland’s River Halladale, before continuing anti-clockwise to pass Ben Loyal, go round by Morven, and then over the rest of the RSPB Forsinard Flows reserve that stretches into Caithness.
But it wasn’t the views that we were looking for when we visited. Around the very top of Ben Griam Beg are the remains of enclosure walls built at least 2,000 years ago. What were our prehistoric forebears doing in this remote spot that warranted the construction of drystone walls over 1m high and 1.8m thick to create what is now classified as an Iron Age hillfort? Today the hill is so far from anything that, for many visitors, it comes as a complete surprise that there is such a feature here in the middle of the peat bog. Archaeologists also have difficulty understanding and explaining its use – this, the highest hillfort in Scotland, has never been investigated by excavation.
While the fort had been the focus for our walk in, even for us there were surprises. The trig pillar marking the top of this 1903 foot peak had recently been blown apart by a lightning strike – part was lying 5m away, just over the lip of the hill.
On the far side of the hill, a little way down the very steep S slope, was further unexpected damage. A flat circular millstone, around 1m in diameter, lay split in two against a roughly constructed drystone dyke. And it wasn’t the only millstone. It was difficult to believe that this hill had once been the site of a stone quarry, specifically for millstones. During the late-1980s students from Edinburgh University did an archaeological survey here, recording such things. But since then archaeological comments have concentrated on the remote siting of a prehistoric fort. Nobody had highlighted this distant location of a post-medieval millstone quarry. How intriguing.
Further research is needed to unravel the history of this place. Millstones like these were needed for large water-powered grain mills that were in use during the 1800s. The mills at Achiemore and Forsinain, close to the river Halladale, are testament to arable farming along this fertile strath. Is this where the millstones quarried from Ben Griam Beg were bound for, or were they sent further afield?
Jill Harden is the RSPB reserves archaeologist for the North of Scotland and is giving a talk at the Flows Field Centre on Monday 10th September.