You’ve gotta hand it to the Picts – they really do choose the best views. The bones of ancient Pictish hillforts have been found up and down the length of Scotland, though aesthetics, I’m sure, were certainly a secondary motivation. The tops of hills provided the best defense against those who meant you harm, and, judging by the preponderance of these forts, Iron Age/Dark Age Scotland looked to be a pretty harmful place.
The times are different these days. We can walk freely through the hills of Perthshire, once the seat of the kings of southern Pictland, without fear of spear, axe, or arrow finding a new home in our fleshy bodies.
There are plenty of hiking options in this part of Scotland, an area I consider to be among the most beautiful (and that’s saying something), and Moncreiffe Hill is an especially attractive one. At less than an hour north of Edinburgh by car and just south of Perth, it’s an easy choice if you’re based in the city.
My dad and I stopped at Moncreiffe Hill en route to Torrdarach House in Pitlochry for what I anticipated to be a quick jaunt, but which turned into sweaty, tiring, triumphant ascent. The day was gorgeous as sun filtered through the trees’ luminescent leaves to dapple the worn dirt path that wended up and around Moncreiffe Hill.
The walk is well-signed by the Woodland Trust, and a free brochure at the start lists three different circular routes, which conjoin at a few junctures, that you can take to Moredun Top. The trees might not be ancient themselves, but they’re old and tall enough to put things in perspective. In the 1800s, this area was only sparsely wooded, all the natural forest having been cleared, but by the end of the nineteenth century the lairds of Moncreiffe Estate had reestablished the forests. Now, the woods are full of Douglas fir, Scots pine, European larch, oak, ash, birch, and sycamore trees.
If you’re lucky, you might spot red squirrels, spotted woodpeckers, sparrow hawks, roe deer, and tawny owls during your hike, which cuts along the circumference of the hill through stands of gorse and past hillsides rife with flowers.
Eventually, you will exit the forested slopes and come to the base of Moredun Top where you will find an interesting information board about the hill’s Pictish past. The hillfort here was perfectly situated between Abernethy Abbey and the Pictish palace at Forteviot, with views to Scone. The name Moncreiffe comes from the Gaelic Monad Croibhe (though Picts didn’t speak Gaelic, originally, the name would have been similar in their P-Celtic language), which means Hill of the Tree. Two Pictish armies fought a great battle here in AD 28.
Moredun Top, which surmounts Moncreiffe Hill, provides 360-degree views of Perthshire. I was lucky enough to defeat the wind and make it to the top on a clear day. Perth is obvious along the River Tay, but then there are also rolling hills and snow-capped mountains to the north which could be the southern border of the Cairngorm Mountains.
There are actually two Iron Age hillforts on Moncreiffe Hill, and their earthworks and foundations are still visible in certain places. The photo directly above looks like a small hill, but if the soil, grass, and trees were removed we’d likely see many of the old stones that made up the ancient Pictish fort.
The views to the south are just as epic, with unimpeded views across Fife and the Lomond Hills. In the British hill classification system, Moncreiffe Hill is considered a Marilyn, which is a hill with a relative height of at least 150 meters. At the very top, we’d ascended 732 feet and walked many miles uphill on the winding paths. Check out this hike on the excellent Walk Highlands site.
Almost unanimously, my exploration of the ancient Pictish hillfort sites leave me wishing the old structures were just a bit more obvious. Through various techniques, archaeologists know what lies beneath the dirt, but the matter of whether to leave it buried or excavate it is a contentious one. For the time being, conservation is the order of the day and these sites will be left to sleep beneath the earth.
I can live with that. My imagination is pretty good. And whether or not I can visualize the Picts’ ancient fortresses, I can still enjoy their magnificent taste in views.