Writer Gayle Ritchie joins the volunteers helping to restore the landmark white stag of Mormond Hill to its former glory.
He is considered one of Buchan’s greatest treasures – but he was very nearly lost forever.
Created out of quarried quartz rock, the enormous white stag was carved into the Fraserburgh-facing side of Mormond Hill in 1870 to mark the wedding of the local laird.
Over the years, nature has staked its claim on the unique landmark – which is 240ft long and 220ft high – obscuring it with heather, bracken, gorse and trees.
In 2018, after more than 20 years of no maintenance, Fraserburgh man Doug Simpson decided something needed to be done.
“At that time, he was very nearly lost forever,” Doug, a retired Shell technician, laments.
“I’d been out with a friend from Mintlaw Ramblers on a mission to walk to the stag.
“Getting to him was impossible because of fallen trees. But I was determined to find a way.”
Looking online, Doug found ancient maps showed a forest road appearing to lead up to it.
However, when he returned to investigate, he found the ‘road’ was completely covered in gorse bushes.
As luck would have it, LAM Forestry, who grow commercial woodland on the hill, were happy to help.
They created a new road leading to the stag and then sprayed it with weed killer.
Doug then set up the Mormond Hill Stag restoration project, and spread the word that volunteers were needed to lend a hand.
Locals were hugely supportive, turning up with gardening implements and getting stuck in.
“It was a horrendous job,” Doug recalls. “We had to cut back huge areas of gorse, and uproot trees, bushes and heather.”
Once the work was complete, the stag looked fantastic. However, five years on and the historic landmark was at risk of disappearing into obscurity – again.
Spurred into action
Thankfully Doug, 75, was spurred into action, and rallied a fresh group of volunteers.
They’ve been heading up the hill to sweat it out and get it cleared every few days over the summer months. And now, the stag is looking mighty fine.
I joined the group for a morning, ripping out heather and weeds with a trowel and turning rocks over so they could be washed clean by the rain and regain their sparkle.
Even after just a couple of hours of grafting, I’m knackered. It’s tough physical work, and with a huge area to clear, the task is extremely daunting.
Hours of grafting
“You work away at one area and think you’re doing a great job,” volunteer Stuart Burnett tells me.
“But then you step back and look at what you’ve done, and it seems like nothing!”
Bruce Davidson has the hazardous job of cutting back gorse. He’s wisely wearing thick gloves but admits he’s been prickled a few times. Ouch!
Meanwhile, Shirley Chapman tells me she finds the work “strangely addictive”.
She helped clear the stag back in 2018 and feels a huge sense of accomplishment when she sees the results.
Irene Brebner and Susan Summers agree. “Leaving it five years was too long but when you get stuck in and see the difference, it’s worth it,” says Irene.
Best place to see the white stag?
So where’s the best place to admire the majestic beast?
Most agree he’s best seen from the Fraserburgh to Aberdeen road – you can see him for miles around.
As I drive along the road later in the day, I pull over and pause to gaze up at the icon.
And yes, I feel rather proud to have played a part, albeit a very small one, in bringing him back to life.
But if he’s to thrive and survive he really needs to be maintained annually.
And so the hunt is on to find volunteers keen to help keep him looking pristine for future generations.
“The fear is that without regular maintenance, it will soon become overgrown,” says Doug.
“We’re grateful to everyone who’s come out to help this summer – especially the Strichen Staggers.
“We’ve ripped out heather, weeds, bracken and even ome young trees that were up to 10ft high.”
Doug also made an impassioned plea to any local businesses willing to donate white chippings – which would help keep the stag free of weeds and stop seeds getting a grip.
“We’d be keen to hear from any generous and conscientious contractors,” he says.
“White chippings would look great and would help cut down maintenance periods.
“It would a terrible shame if this unique figure were just to disappear from view.”
However, the stag is not the only restoration project on Doug’s radar.
As we walk back to our cars, he points to a faint path running through the woodland. It’s completely overgrown with gorse.
The corpse road project
“That’s the old coffin, or corpse, road,” Doug tells me. “It ran from Rathen to Strichen.
“There’s a ‘resting cairn’ along the way where coffins were laid as mourners made their way to Rathen Church.
“I’d love to see the route cleared so people could enjoy walking along it. That’s my next project!
“But for now, I’m delighted with the tremendous job that’s been made of restoring the stag. He’s a fantastic sight to behold!”
- At 240ft long and 220ft high, the enormous white stag can be seen for miles around. It’s believed to be the only monument of its kind in the world. Records suggest it has only been cleaned about five times since the 1930s.
- For more information, and to enquire about future volunteering opportunities, see the Facebook page of Mormond Hill Stag.