The Mounth passes are some of the oldest trackways in Scotland, with confirmed use from at least the medieval era and presumed use from much, much earlier. Today you can follow in the footsteps of Roman soldiers and 18th century drovers by walking the surviving sections.
The Grampian mountains stretch across a considerable portion of north-eastern Scotland. The word Grampian is a corruption of the Gaelic gruaim, or gloomy, and beinn, or mountain. Thus, the Grampians are the Gloomy Mountains, so named for the clouds that frequently shroud them in mist.
In past centuries, the eastern portion of the Grampians was called the Mounth. The name ‘mounth’ is an Anglicised form of the Gaelic, monadh, which translates as moor, heath or mountains. This term is still used in mountain ranges like the Monadhliath to the west of the A9 and the Monadh Ruadh to the east, now more commonly known as the Cairngorms.
Time slowly corrupts language, however, and today ‘mounth’ usually refers to a passage through the mountains rather than the range itself. Thus, the series of passes through the eastern section of the Grampian mountains are commonly called the Mounth Passes.
They are the Cairn O’Mounth, the Capel Mounth, the Causey Mounth, the Elsick Mounth, the Firmounth, the Tolmounth, the Bulig Mounth, and the Stock Mounth.
The most easterly of all the mounth passes, the Causey Mounth originally linked Aberdeen with the vanished coastal village of Cowie, just outside present day Stonehaven. The Causey Mounth was also known in the medieval era as the Cowie Mounth on account of its southern terminus.
The Causey Mounth can be firmly dated to the 12th century, but may well have begun its life much earlier. A surprising range of ancient monuments along the road suggest early use by Iron Age dwellers. The Romans also may have marched along the route when they invaded the Highlands from their nearby camp at Raedykes. Kempstone Hill, to the south of the Causey Mounth, is one of many speculated sites for the battle of Mons Graupius.
Construction on what we would today consider to be the Causey Mounth likely began in the 12th century when three sections of the road were banked up to form the causeways, or causeys, that eventually lent their name to the pass itself. The Causey Mounth was an important route in the medieval era as it connected Aberdeen with Dunottar Castle at Stonehaven and Cowie Castle at the lost village of Cowie. The two castles effectively controlled all land and sea transport in the area.
Records of the Causey Mounth go further back than map evidence and the Mounth appears in the historical record in 1384 when an Aberdeen burgess arranged an annual payment for the maintenance of the road. It seems the causeway was in near constant need of repair as road maintenance receipts are the primary evidence of the Mounth pass in the historic record. This is unsurprising, as causeways are more exposed to the elements than standard roads and thus require more care.
The first map to show the Causey Mounth is Pont’s map of Lower Deeside, which was surveyed in the 1590s. Pont’s maps are a superb historic resource as they contain an impressive amount of detail for their age.
While they regularly feature bridges, roads are very rare. The Causey Mounth, however, is shown as a double parallel line and is even labelled ‘Causey’.
The fact that Pont chose to include the Causey Mounth when he left out many other known roads from the era, is a mark of the Causey Mounth’s significance. There is a pleasing continuity in that Pont only depicts the northern half of the pass; this is the section that is part of the modern road network and is, therefore, the busiest.
The Causey Mounth has seen more than its fair share of traffic over the centuries. One traveller we know who used the pass in the 15th century was the spy John Hardyng. Henry V of England sent Hardyng in search of any documents which might prove England’s right to rule Scotland. Hardyng’s three-year search was in vain. He refused to return home empty-handed, however, so he fabricated the documents. Hardyng is principally remembered today for an itinerary in verse he wrote about his sojourn in Scotland. The 32 stanzas include this section which specifically mentions the Causey Mounth:
Than ryde Northeast all alongest the see,
Ryght from Dunde to Arbroith as I mene,
Than to Montrosse, and to Barvye,
And so through the Meernes to Cowy as I wene,
Then xii myles of moore passe to Aberdyne,
Betwyxt Dee and Done a goodly cytee,
A marchaunt towne and universytee.
Clearly the Causey Mounth was an important road in the Renaissance era as it merited an entire line in a description of Scotland that has only 224 lines in total.
The route fell out of use in the 18th century as more direct and faster roads were built by the growing stagecoach industry. Today the Causey Mounth is roughly split into thirds where one third is in the modern road network, one third is a mixture of paths and farm tracks and the final third is lost to fields and may only exist as field boundaries.
The route starts off as an accessible path running alongside Leggart Terrace, just south of the Bridge of Dee, before being incorporated into the modern road network between Hilldowntree and Badentoy Park. Along this busy section the road passes the tellingly named Causeyport Farm. The Causey Port, or gate, was the site on which a toll was once exacted on the road.
Before you reach Badentoy Park the route passes Brodie Wood, Cairnfield, where there is a mysterious collection of 26 small cairns. Two stone circles also flank the route, one near to Badentoy Park and one at Aquhorthies. A prehistoric standing stone can also be seen at New Bourtreebush.
The rest of the pass, from Badentoy Park to St Ternan’s Church, consists of either footpath or access road for farms. This 5.5 km section is the best part for walking as it is largely free from vehicular traffic. This walk offers a pleasant day in the countryside with an interesting historical component to boot.
A little beyond Badentoy is a farm with the unusual name of Gillybrands. This was once the site of the Jeally Brans Inn, seen on Taylor & Skinner’s survey of North Britain from 1776. Like ‘Grampian mountains’ and the ‘Causey Mounth’ itself, Gillybrands farm is a victim of the gradual shifting of language over time.
Beyond St Ternan’s Church, the path of the Causey Mounth is unclear. The final third of the route – which once continued to Stonehaven by Cowie – can be approximated by walking along field boundaries, but is now mostly lost to fields.
Nate Pederson is an American freelance journalist who frequently writes about historic roads. He is also a traditional musician and a trail runner. http://natepedersen.com
Neil Ramsay is the Project Officer for the Heritage Paths of Scotland project at the Scottish Rights of Way Society and a PhD student at the University of Edinburgh. More historic routes can be found at http://www.heritagepaths.co.uk.Tweet
This is an article from the May 2011 edition of Leopard Magazine. To read much more like this every month, subscribe to Leopard Magazine.