Tormain Hill on the outskirts of Ratho offers a gentle walk through attractive woodland, with splendid views of the surrounding countryside, yet also plays host to a surprising archaeological treasure dating back thousands of years.
Parking in the lay-by at the ‘Ratho’ sign marking the western edge of the village, I begin the walk uphill, stopping at intervals to enjoy the commanding view of the Edinburgh skyline, from the gentle sweep of Corstorphine Hill to the spires of the city. The Pentland panorama opens up to my right, with the crags of Dalmahoy Hill in the foreground. Just past the Scottish Water installation I cross the road and enter the woods to join the footpath which leads me through a narrow glade of beech and sycamore.
It’s a cool, early spring morning and crystal-clear air is blowing off the hills, infused with the aroma of wild garlic which is in abundance on the woodland floor, the flowers like quivering drops of cream. There are clumps of bluebells here and there, with spears of flower buds emerging vertically before separating to hang down, delicate and demure. Further on, there are carpets of celandine, whose starry blooms of bright ochre offer early nectar to eager bumblebees. A squirrel scampers up the trunk of a tree, nut in mouth, and a chiff-chaff’s optimistic two-tone invocation of spring echoes through the wood. The liquid improvisation of a skylark, bubbling forth with all the exuberance of a mountain brook, drifts across from high above the adjacent field and with it my mood lifts and my thoughts begin to take flight, carried aloft by the beautiful lilting tones.
Reading the landscape on view tells a story of volcanoes long-extinct, their hard igneous rocks left standing proud above the surrounding land
The path skirts the eastern edge of the wood and a viewpoint display helpfully depicts the features spread out before me. Reading the landscape on view tells a story of volcanoes long-extinct, their hard igneous rocks left standing proud above the surrounding land - from the ancient magmatic cores of North Berwick Law (28 miles away), Castle Rock and Arthur’s Seat arrayed along the horizon to the characteristic dome of Black Hill on my right, formed from solidified intruded magma that never made it to the surface.
The track soon switches to the west side of the wood and affords similarly far-reaching views. From the field below, a stiff breeze carries up the sweet scent of oilseed rape, just coming into flower and arrayed in mesmerising rows. I can see right across West Lothian and the Forth Valley to the Ochils beyond and can even make out the profile of Ben Ledi and Ben Venue over 40 miles away. If the view east was all about the volcanic rocks the western vantage is a tale of the sedimentary, with the skyline being dominated by the Five Sisters Bing near West Calder and the Winchburgh Shale Bing. These man-made mountains of rust-coloured spent shale now stand monument to the world’s first oil boom, founded upon the oil-rich shales laid down in tropical coastal lagoons hundreds of millions of years ago, when what was to become West Lothian lay near the equator.
These man-made mountains of rust-coloured spent shale now stand monument to the world’s first oil boom, founded upon the oil-rich shales laid down in tropical coastal lagoons hundreds of millions of years ago, when what was to become West Lothian lay near the equator.
Towards the summit of the hill, Scots pine dominate the tree cover. I leave the main path, following a faint track to my left which leads me to the highest point. I swivel round to take in my surroundings. Ringed by these native pines, the place takes on a slightly mystical atmosphere.
It is here that I have found what I am looking for. On a few of the surrounding boulders of the outcrop are curious markings. One rock has several cup-shaped depressions each surrounded by a ring, and one of the cups has been further surrounded by three concentric arcs. The cup shape is repeated on other rocks nearby. This is ancient rock art, thought to date back to Neolithic times. These characteristic cup-and-ring markings have been found at a number of sites across the UK, but no-one is quite sure of their meaning. It is worth noting that one of the cup-marked rocks also has an arrow inscribed on it. This is not neolithic in origin but marks an ordnance survey triangulation reference point, added in the 19th century. Weathering and lichen have rendered the patterns less bold than they no doubt once were, such that they could be easily missed if you were not searching for them. However, they are best viewed in the early morning or evening when the low sun casts the patterns in contrasting light and shadow to dramatic effect.
Standing at this spot, with a hundred-mile expanse of central Scotland within my field of vision I can see why our ancient forebears might have chosen this spot to congregate, contemplate and make their mark. Gazing north through a gap in the pines I try to imagine the view as it would have been then and what might have been in their minds as they made their carvings.
A pheasant’s croak rouses me from my mental time travel and brings me back to the moment. I set off again and shortly reach the far end of the wood where, beyond the fence, sheep dotted upon rolling green pasture with the hills behind forms a picture postcard view. On the return leg of the walk the track passes through the pockmarked grounds of a rabbit warren then bears right, skirting round the edge of a wider apron of woodland on the lower east slope before re-joining the inward path.
More recent residents have recorded their presence too. ‘Sam woz ere’ announces the trunk of a large beech. By the scarring on the bark I estimate Sam passed through at least a couple of decades ago, having also selected a canvas of relative permanence, one of the largest and most imposing trees in the wood.
Thinking back to our ancient ancestors with their rock tools, then presently to my fingers on this keyboard, it occurs to me that perhaps we all strive to communicate in some way the same fundamental message - whether inscribed on rock, tree, or page….simply: “I was here”.
Published in Konect June 2022
Author: William Weir