After a morning’s dalliance with the international trail industry on the West Highland Way, the Scottish National Trail heads north on the quieter Rob Roy Way. This inspired decision makes the crossing of the legendary Highland Line feel very real on the ground and, after days of easy walking, plunges you quite dramatically into what suddenly feels like the authentic Scotland.
This is a sentimental misapprehension. Half of Scotland lives in Glasgow, a seriously large city with an extraordinarily rich culture and vibrant personality. Hence arguably ‘authentic Scotland’ is right there, not so much in microcosm but more of a demicosm. I’d personally rate Glasgow as second only to London among the essential destinations for anyone from overseas seeking an overview of Britain. I can’t understand why tourists, especially young tourists, dutifully file around Cambridge, Stratford or even Edinburgh when they could come here, have a much better time and learn more for a lot less cash.
I suppose it’s to do with how our history is manufactured, packaged and monetised. Medieval Kings and Queens, Shakespeare and of course in Scotland, ‘The Highlands’. None of these tropes communicate much about the British Empire, that all too real and recent period when one small nation (itself a colonial composite) rather bafflingly bossed half a planet. The Empire made modern Britain and still affects all our lives on this island in profound ways. If you want to learn anything relevant about us, you need to take a look at how it worked and to contemplate its built, cultural and socioeconomic legacies.
If London was the brain of the Empire, Glasgow was its heart, purposefully pumping the massive flows of goods and people that were the world-changing lifeblood of a historically unparallelled colonial enterprise. And in Glasgow we can still get a real sense of how the English colonial project in Scotland rehearsed Britain’s wider imperialism; concentration of land and wealth in the hands of a few, ethnic cleansing, relocation of the rural displaced to urban squalor. As so often, the colonised became themselves enthusiastic colonisers elsewhere.
With its still unresolved lifestyle dichotomy and consequently vibrant politics, Glasgow, the home of the Labour Party, slaps us round the face with modern history, tells us like it is about why and how the Britain we live in came about. Do you want that insight, oh visitor, or do you want to purchase a packaged, cardboard cut-out Britain of crowns, bards, sword fights and fan vaulting, not to mention kilts?
And yet Glasgow isn’t a new city – it has the fourth oldest university in the English-speaking world. It isn’t a Philistine city either, its Art School is legendary and its galleries and museums world-class. It may not have palaces and castles but, if you want to tread in the footsteps of royalty, how about revisiting one of the most dramatic and effective interventions by a British monarch in modern times, the five day visit by George V to ‘Red Clydeside’ in September 1917? While his cousin the Tsar was under house arrest in Tobolsk, the King of Scotland was shaking hands with communists in his Royal Navy’s shipyards. Stirring stuff, and still super-relevant.
A mystery of the SNT is that McNeish, who ironically is from Glasgow, encourages us to spend a night in genteel, expensive Edinburgh while keeping us well away from Scotland’s best, messiest and friendliest city along a boring route of suburbs and golf courses. Less mysterious (because he goes on about it in the book) is his decision not to take us along the very busy West Highland Way all the way to Fort William. After just a few hours of trudging in line among a crocodile of Swiss, Germans, Belgians, French and Canadians on the WHW (and they were just the nationalities I met in a single morning), SNT-ers sensibly divert due north onto the much quieter Rob Roy Way and henceforth through a series of small, interesting towns in which accommodation for non-campers is much easier to find. We also get to visit (and camp in, because there’s no alternative) the Cairngorms, what’s not to like? Erm, the Cairngorms?
Day 10, April 20th, Milngavie to Muir Park Reservoir. (Confusingly, day 9 of actual walking, and day 11 of the original plan. I wouldn’t set much store by my day numbers!)
Most walkers during their first morning on the West Highland Way stride enthusiastically past the unobtrusive Craigallian Fire Stone, their blisters and chafing still to come (although I did meet a German lad already with broken skin on one shoulder after just four hours lugging his simply massive pack. He refused my offer of Vaseline with deep suspicion). This is a shame as the memorial movingly commemorates an extraordinary piece of social history. To quote the inscription:
Here burned the Craigallian Fire. During the Depression of the 1930s, it was a beacon of companionship and hope for young unemployed people who came from Glasgow and Clydebank seeking adventure in Scotland’s wild places. Their pioneering spirit helped to make the Scottish countryside free for all to roam.
At Glengoyne I passed my first distillery and funnily enough theirs became eventually my souvenir of the trail as in the posh whisky shop at Inverness it was the only affordable malt in half bottles. The Beech Tree Inn is so friendly and characterful with its playgrounds, pet animals and wildlife areas that the really average food came as a shock. Friends at Killearn subsequently confirmed this was not a one-off. I’d have done better to have stuck to coffee and a scone here (the scones looked OK) then eaten a late lunch at Drymen which for a tiny town has an amazing number of catering options including at least three pubs, plus an excellent craft butchers whose pies are some of the best on the entire trail. I chose to visit the Clachan Inn which is directly on the SNT and claims to be Scotland’s oldest legitimate pub, licensed in 1734.
At Drymen SNT-ers cross the Highland Line, with almost as much trepidation as the pioneering 19th century tourists to whom the Highlands were a wild, exotic and newly fashionable destination. Before that, the line was crossed by Englishmen only at serious risk to life and property, and preferably accompanied by an army. There isn’t space here to go into Scottish geology other than to mention that it’s mega-diverse; walking south to north one strolls across eons on a daily or even half-daily basis. The so-called Highland Line may be a sociological construct but it follows an actual geological fault. Not only that, but on leaving Drymen, the SNT abandons the hordes on the West Highland way and the flocks of Loch Lomond car tourists, it ascends a steep hill and at the top of that plunges you into a dark and mysterious forest in which you are very suddenly, after a day of chats and company, entirely alone. These factors combine to make the crossing of the line feel very real on the ground.
Day 11, April 21st. Muir Park Reservoir or thereabouts to Callander. The first section of this walk takes the SNT along the mostly hidden but still impressive infrastructure of the Corrie Aqueduct which when opened by Queen Victoria in October 1859 was one of the largest water works ever built, it’s statistics are still amazing today. At 7 am by the first ventilation shaft I saw my first Osprey, or more accurately it saw me, circling low above and around me for several minutes as if evaluating whether my pinkish-red jacket signified an unusually large salmon steak.
Aberfoyle is a curious mishmash of a place with a quite sensible and friendly cafe, a fair selection of shops and a tourist trap of a Wool Centre, which turns out to be more or less just a branch of Edinburgh Woollen Mills with a few live sheep for local colour. Just after Kirkton Kirk, with its curious mortsafes, I saw my first and only Whitethroat of the entire trail (whereas Blackcaps were ubiquitous the length of Scotland, Whitethroats were virtually absent and I also only heard one single Garden Warbler, much further north at Craig).
Also at Aberfoyle is a very posh butcher whose pies are commensurately dear but completely amazing. By now one could be forgiven for expecting the SNT to be one unceasing and increasingly wonderful pie feast. Unfortunately, north of Fort Augustus the supply of pies completely dries up and it’s back to Supernoodles. I didn’t see any of the famous fairies at Aberfoyle and I trudged up the Menteith Hills in the kind of continuous, unrelenting heavy drizzle for which Scotland is justly famous. I must have acquired a personal trail fairy here though as ultimately I walked most of the SNT in exceptionally dry weather.
On the north flank of these hills the scenery starts to get rather Scottish, quite suddenly, and even more so on arriving at Loch Venachar. On the far side of this is an actual Trossach in the form of Ben Ledi, which at 879 metres is also our first Corbett, although I don’t subscribe to mountain listing personally and gleaned this information from a poster in the chip shop at Callander.
Callander is a very pleasant town, I bought a delicious Hake Tea (!) from the said very upmarket chippie then undertook the steep climb up to the crags, which is a challenge at the end of a long day’s hike. There’s plenty of camping up here if you head northeast away from the town. I impatiently chose a rather sloping pitch, there were better sites further on.
Day 12, April 22nd, Callander Crags to somewhere past Comrie.
This was a seriously scenic day. In Glen Artney views like this (below) are suddenly commonplace, then north of Comrie Glen Lednock is simply ravishing, darlings.
Comrie lacks Callander’s charm somehow and you need to leave the trail to find any facilities; the Comrie cafe on the first corner is friendly in a slightly odd way (they made a fuss about filling my water bottle claiming it was unhygienic) and doubles as a chippie – their chips are excellent, really superb. The shopping is a bit basic, the only hiker-friendly foods I could find were potato scones, fruit and nut chocolate and some Mrs Crimbles macaroons. Combined into a sandwich the next morning these made a pretty good breakfast. I didn’t notice any earthquakes.
Halfway up the Lednock gorge I came upon a stoutish chap of around my own age lying prone and motionless by the edge of the trail, just below Lord Melville’s Monument. ‘Oh dear’, I thought, and coughed loudly. He opened a quizzical eye. ‘Sorry’, I said, ‘I was worried you might have expired’. ‘I think I would know if I had’, he replied with endearing illogicality. Moving on rapidly, I wondered aloud who Lord Melville might have been. ‘My great great great great great Grandfather’, replied my horizontal acquaintance, and proceeded to regale me from a reclining position with a summary of the great man’s life story, which there isn’t room to share here. Even if I could remember it.
Fuelled by chips and history I strode to the top of Glen Lednock and invested considerable time in finding a flat campsite, having discovered the previous night that my new mat is slippery as an eel on even the slightest slope, in fact but for a tent peg jammed between my toes I might well have slid under the flysheet on it and woken back down in Callander.
Day 13, April 23rd. Upper Glen Lednock to Tirchardie (Glen Quaich). After a pleasant stroll up Glen Lednock to Coishavachan, where I enjoyed a fruit and nut and potato scone sandwich and saw a beautiful Red Squirrel, this became my first day of proper Scottish fell walking. It included my first high bealach with a proper view, my first properly trackless and boggy moorland, my first interesting river crossing (the skinny bridge looked more interesting than my rock hopping) and my first day without encountering a single other human being, other than watching from a distance a group of what looked like DofE kids wandering in a confused circle around the top of the bealach.
There also seemed to be endless glens, first Glen Lednock, then Glen Almond. After the buildings at Auchnafree (where there were signs of life, including a strong smell of smoking fish) the trail passes through Glen Lochan down into Glen Quaich. ‘How many glens can there be in Scotland?’ you ask yourself, having a horrible feeling the answer may be ‘nobody knows, they go on for ever’.
Loch Freuchie is surrounded by very well-manicured sheep farms, so as it turned out camping there would have been a matter of asking permission. It seemed easier to plod on, and finally I found an excellent campsite secreted in a small wood near Tirchardie.
This was a lovely spot at dusk, sunny and warm and with the River Quaich close at hand for water. However, judging from the numerous rosettes of the many prickly plants just emerging from the ground I doubt this campsite would be visible let alone viable in summer, it will probably be head-high with thistles; another advantage of hiking in spring. There were some pretty bizarre noises from the wood in the night and at one point several very loud rifle shots, worrying close by. I put my earplugs in.
Day 14, April 24th. Tichardie to Aberfeldy. After the moors and glens of the day before, the first half of this section was road walking, along Glen Quaich then up and over to Aberfeldy in the Tay Valley. Initially you carry on up the road towards Loch Tay which climbs steeply over a high pass, the top of which reveals your first views of proper snowy mountains, away to the north. The Grampians, I guess, and one of them was probably Schiehallion, but by the time I got to Aberfeldy to ask anyone, it was snowing and the peaks were no longer visible to point to.
Turning off the road, you cross an area of beautiful moorland massively blighted by huge pylons and, further east, extensive wind farms. As a small compensation there’s a small estate bothy on the downhill side which is kindly left open for walkers. The back of this bothy, bizarrely, houses domestic pigeons; I dread to think what they’re used for, up there on that grouse moor.
Passing through the mossy wood, I encountered an elderly couple from Sussex who were searching for the Moness Falls. I found that slightly surprising as quite clearly (and noisily) the said Falls were about ten metres away. I suspect they’d been expecting something more Niagaraesque.
I managed to descend the extremely scenic Birks without attending to any of the references to Robert Burns that litter the place, but at the bottom of the path walkers are confronted by a statue of the berk of Aberfeldy himself, in the poetic realist style favoured by the cultural commemorati.
I was in Aberfeldy by midday and as the BnB didn’t open until four, had time to kill. Everybody in the town seemed to be English, and most of them were congregated in the lovely Watermill bookshop and tearooms, which is much less twee than the place in St Boswells and, joy of joys, does cafetiere coffee, something I’d been craving since leaving Glasgow (and I only got it there through staying with an English friend).
The Scots, bless them, have embraced the global curse of the espresso machine with the same unholy monomania as they burned 4500 witches, compared to England’s 500 from a much larger population. In fact I’d say there’s now more espresso machines per head in Scotland than in Italy.
Everywhere in Scotland faithful filter coffee machines and humble cafetieres have been junked; instead hip coffee jockeys proudly offer you a claggy latte or a tongue-shrivelling, lukewarm espresso, as if espresso plus its ever more pretentious derivatives was the only kind of coffee in the world other than instant. ‘We don’t have old-fashioned coffee pots any more’ said a teenage barista at Blair Atholl firmly, waving her group head at me as if to ward off evil, ‘now we only have the good stuff’.
I used to own a coffee bar and, yes, we had an espresso machine, but we always offered cafetieres (‘French Presses’ in the US) as an alternative and they were the only coffees people actually complimented us on – nobody ever says ‘nice latte’ these days. Plus (stage whisper) cafetiere coffee is more profitable and requires negligible investment. I despair. At the Beech Tree Inn the menu had clearly said ‘filter coffee’, but upon ordering this rare treat in glad expectation, I was served what was patently an Americano. I ask you. Germans and Americans, who traditionally drink filter coffee of medium strength in large volumes all day, must be baffled by the disappearance of this pleasant and refreshing beverage from most of Scotland.
Anyway, thank goodness The Watermill at Aberfeldy still does proper coffee, and in a delicious house blend to boot. They also do great cakes and a truly magnificent deli platter which considering the quality of the produce (local venison and duck, creamy local cheese and a delicious terrine) was very good value at a tenner.
There’s some pretty funky shops in Aberfeldy and a Tourist Information Centre run by a gentleman whose wry and cynical sense of humour I greatly enjoyed. In the loo there I found a sizeable unopened bag of prescription medicine and, having more time to kill, queued up for ages in the pharmacy to return it. I could probably have sold the contents for a tidy sum.
I then ventured into the pub, which harboured what seemed to be the only Scottish people in town, and tried a pint of Schiehallion Ale. I’d love to tell you it was great, but it was actually quite insipid. Supper was a pile of chips and doner meat not much smaller than Schiehallion, eaten in warm sunshine between snow showers. Balnearn House is a lovely place to stay, I highly recommend it for atmosphere, facilities, friendliness and above all the magnificent feast of a breakfast.
Day 15, April 25th. Aberfeldy to Pitlochry. The only fly in the ointment at Aberfeldy was the weather forecast, which was terrifying, not so much for the further snow showers but the forthcoming very cold night. Minus eight celsius was threatened. I decided to cut this day short and book into the SYHA Hostel at Pitlochry instead of camping at Blair, as planned. From Aberfeldy the trail simply heads along the Tay, very easy walking and with the added diversion of trying to spot a beaver – sadly I didn’t.
At Grandtully (pronounced Grantly) there’s a friendly pub (with no filter coffee, although at least the landlady and I had a laugh about it) and an in my opinion expensive and pretentious chocolate shop. Other opinions may be available. Here the SNT crosses the mighty Tay rapids, loved by kayakers, then heads for the hills, albeit initially along a golf course.
Once above the latter there’s a nice wild interlude, a stretch of boggy moorland with great views back along the Tay (inbetween snowstorms) then the lush and mysterious Fonab Forest which allegedly conceals some very ancient archaeology. It snowed periodically, the flakes in the forest were some of the biggest I’ve ever seen and I was glad of the shelter of the trees from the biting wind. Emerging onto the road at Pitlochry one could suddenly be in Surrey – a substantial and elegant theatre overlooks the River Tummel and in its foyer is a friendly and good value cafe with sofas, loos and free WiFi. I spent some time in there before venturing over the river and into town through a gorgeous little wood completely carpeted with Wood Anemones. Pitlochry SYHA hostel is great, a classic of its kind and deservedly popular. It’s a bit of a hike up from and back down to the High Street but as it sells frozen curry and beer, this is of no consequence. It’s also wonderfully well-heated and I was glad I’d stayed there instead of camping as planned, on what was indeed a very parky night.
Day 16, April 26th. Pitlochry to Glen Tilt. At this point the plan went somewhat to pot. I got to Blair Atholl before midday and, the day before having been short, didn’t feel as if I needed the planned rest. Instead of camping at Blair, where anyway there wasn’t much to do, I forged on up Glen Tilt. If I’d kept to the plan, I might have made it through the Cairngorms, but I’m getting ahead.
Before even getting to Blair, the SNT from Pitlochry takes a rather charming woodland path up the River Tummel, then the scenic route up the River Garry past Soldier’s leap at Killicrankie, the same scenic route as the road and the railway line. It was quite odd, three weeks later, to see out of the train coming back south from Inverness the path I’d previously walked up.
At Blair I had a lukewarm latte and an overpriced dry bun in a pretentious bakery, then was delighted (and relieved as there’d been a surprising lack of shops on the way out of Pitlochry) to find a convenience store around the next corner where I stocked up on camping grub. Even better, around the next corner I stumbled upon the justly famous (as I now know) and friendly Food In The Park, where, despite being a bit full of dry bun, I forced down a delicious plate of fish and chips in preparation for the forthcoming privations of the Cairngorms.
A vehicle track runs along three quarters of Glen Tilt, pretty much all the way to the Falls of Tarf in fact. This makes a very long walk otherwise completely straightforward, boring even in places. It is somehow obvious though, more or less from the start of the glen, that you’re walking into a very wild place. The high, snowcapped mountains ahead probably have something to do with this. That and the sheer distance, Glen Tilt is a very long glen indeed. Despite the good track it really does take an entire day to get from Blair to Bynack Lodge.
There are several rather lovely holiday cottages along this track, also a surprising number of permanent homes and, higher up, a large shooting lodge. This was occupied by a gundog training school and I was taken aback, on emerging from the wood at its north end, to be confronted by a group of apparent shooters, apparently pointing guns in my direction. There were bangs, and dogs running towards me, even though I was sure the shooting season was long over. I waved my poles in the air and walked forward very slowly and, I hoped, conspicuously, towards the guns.
It turned out the guns were unloaded, the bangs were firecrackers and the pheasant I’d seen tumbling from the air was a stuffed toy, flung skywards by a skeet trap for the dogs to retrieve. All the dog owners were very friendly and dolled up to the nines in shooters’ fancy dress, tweeds, deerstalkers, feathers, the lot. To be fair, I was in fancy dress as a hillwalker.
The air was cold and there was a lot of snow on the tops, so rather than venturing any higher up the glen I pitched camp well before dusk in a sheltered spot by the river. In the night it started to rain. Heavily. I put my earplugs in.