Tapping into - and swiping - the past at the Bennachie Colony

Tapping into - and swiping - the past at the Bennachie Colony

The hill of Bennachie has a folklore of giants, magical springs and the devil who built a causeway in one night, while its archaeology includes prehistoric hut circles and the hill fort at Mither Tap. But a new digital app reveals how the history of the crofters who lived at the Bennachie Colony is just as intriguing.

The crofters made their homes on the slopes of Bennachie in the 19th century and the remains of their houses and fields can still be seen. While around 150,000 visits to Bennachie are made each year, few are aware of the stories of the Colony – the families who worked the ground, lived in the houses and, in some cases, were forced off the land as rents were imposed on them by the local laird.

The Digital Bennachie Colony Trail app, supported by the University of Aberdeen and funded by grants from the Heritage Lottery Fund and the Bailies of Bennachie, shows where their houses were and how the crofters made a living from the sparse hillsides. Included are a mix of archaeology and archival history along with stories, music, poems, a quiz and even recipes. Users can explore the inside of one of the croft houses and see digital reconstructions of the crofting landscape.

The Bennachie Colony grew up in the early 19th century south-east of Mither Tap. At its height there were 75 people sustaining a living there. Archaeological research – presented in the app – found evidence of their fertile fields and gardens.

In 1859 the Court of Session in Edinburgh approved the division of the Bennachie Commonty into nine parts. The land-owners demanded rent and many left or struggled to make payments and were eventually evicted.

The University of Aberdeen has undertaken significant work in recent years to uncover the archaeology of the Colony, record its oral and archival history, train volunteers and engage schools and the public. Much of this work, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council Connected Communities and conducted in collaboration with Forestry Commission Scotland, Aberdeenshire Council Rangers and Inverurie Youth Forum, underpins the new app.

The app project was led by the Bailies of Bennachie community group and its chairperson, Jackie Cumberbirch, said: “This is the first ever Bennachie app and it’s a testament to all the hard work of the community volunteers who took part in the research. By downloading this free app we hope that many people can see into the past seeing the homes of the Colonists in 1860 that are near to the Bennachie Visitor Centre. It is great seeing into the past!”

The Digital Bennachie Colony Trail app was developed by Smart History, a spin-out company at the University of St Andrews. Narration on the app is provided by broadcaster Mark Stephen and Aberdeenshire storyteller Grace Banks.

Dr Jo Vergunst of the University of Aberdeen’s Department of Anthropology worked closely with the Bailies of Bennachie on the app. “I’m delighted to have supported the app, which shows the real impact of the University’s interdisciplinary research in archaeology, anthropology, history and education. Working with the community has made this a showcase in Scottish heritage research and it underlines the significance of the wider Bennachie landscape,’ he said.

Dr Jeff Oliver of the University of Aberdeen’s Department of Archaeology, who led the archaeological research, added: “It is gratifying to see how the project has matured to a stage where our community collaborators have played a central role in the design of this app which will help to publicise our shared historical endeavours on the hillside.”

Dr Alan Miller of Smart History said: “Apps are a great way of engaging new audiences with the past and we’re really pleased with how the Bennachie Colony Trail app has turned out.”

Alison Sutherland, Aberdeenshire Council Ranger, said that the app should prove a hit with Bennachie visitors: “The app will enable me to show schools and groups virtual images of a Colony house and the surrounding landscape. A picture can say so much more than words, and this will enhance their visitor experience by helping them to understand how people lived on the hill in the 1800s.”

The Digital Bennachie Colony Trail app is available to download free from app stores for both Android and Apple operating systems. Users should remember to download the app before leaving home as at present the Bennachie Visitor Centre does not have wifi. 3D virtual reality viewers for smartphones are available to purchase at the Centre.