Secluded stone circles, Scotland’s oldest distillery and the mousing champion of the world were but a few of the delights Mark Carr discovered while mapping the southern part of the East Highland Trail. But it wasn’t all drams and deft cats – he reflects on his journey from Blair Atholl to Drymen.
2012 had been a tough year for me both physically and mentally and I had managed little long distance walking in preparation for the second half of the East Highland Trail (EHT) apart from a two-day hike around upper Weardale and Tynedale following the Isacc’s Tea Trail. So when in the late summer of that year I set out to walk and map the section from Blair Atholl to Drymen, my body and soul were a little ill prepared for the long five days ahead. There was something of a strange internal echo from the Rob Roy story about the journey, as long stretches of this southern section would follow the Rob Roy Way.
As I alighted the train at Blair Atholl, the weather was once again with me. The Scottish sun blazed though a clear blue sky, lighting Glen Garry into ‘picture postcard’ views from the footpaths into Pitlochry. This eight-mile stroll was just what my body needed (or so I thought!), easing the joints and muscles into action. Unfortunately, as I took the first section of the Rob Roy Way south west out of Pitlochry, I was soon to find how ill prepared I really was.
The path crosses the A9 and then, after about half a mile, climbs very steeply up though mixed tree woodland to the Carra Beag pine plantation, peaking at a very hidden stone circle. The scorching sun and climb stretched my lungs and legs to the limit and when I eventually reached the stone circle I realised my goal of reaching Aberfeldy that evening was beyond me. I decided to take time out and took a leisurely stroll down into the Tay Valley to Grandtully, home to the Scottish National Canoe Association. From the vantage point of the bridge that crosses the Tay from Strathtay to Grandtully, I watched canoeists weave and bob their way through the slalom course set up on the rapids west of the bridge. It brought back fond memories of my time in Australia, when for two summer seasons I worked as a white water rafting guide, escorting a variety of intrepid souls on adventure holidays down the upper reaches of the Snowy and Mitchell Rivers in Victoria. That evening I took early advantage of the camping facilities associated with the club and after a swift pint in the local watering hole, slept like a baby after a good feed.
For most of the next day my route followed the Rob Roy Way south west towards Comrie, which, for a major national route, was so badly signposted in most places that one might assume that someone was deliberately trying to remove any trace of its existence.
From Grandtully to Aberfeldy the route takes you along the banks of the Tay, which mainly follows a long lost railway line. As I strolled along the path, the early morning sun cracked through the trees that cradled the banks of the Tay painting shaded stripes on the path in front of me. The Tay was almost in flood and eddies of deep chocolate brown water danced from bank to bank leaving the waterfowl struggling against this quiet surge. The path was awash with flowers: tansy, field cranesbill, tormentil, knapweed, scabious, sweet smelling balsam and many more. In one of the small inlets, where a quartet of ducks were sheltering from the surge, I came across a home-made swing that had obviously been used to propel oneself into the water. It reminded me of my long lost youth and inspired me to put pen to paper. I took a few moments out from my walk to write a poem, which I periodically do while out on the hills and byways.
The route out of Aberfeldy takes you through the Birks of Aberfeldy, a picturesque gorge full of tracks and tourists, named by Scottish poet and lyricist, Robbie Burns. Unfortunately the single route out – south – is not particularly clear, so I had to keep climbing the gorge until I passed the spectacular Falls of Moness, coming out on to a small single track road. This eventually led to Urtar Farm and out onto the moors, which on my ordinance survey map seemed particularly straightforward. However, the lack of way markers compounded by diversion signs around the farm and an inordinate increase in the number of new 4x4 tracks into the moors made choosing the correct path surprisingly difficult. My map reading skills eventually won the day and I soon found myself on the far side of the moor standing next to a tiny unnamed lochan looking out across the Appin of Dull to more wonderful views of the Tay Forest Park and beyond.
The next six miles of the EHT follows a single-track road into the rather uninspiring Glen Quaich. However, four red kites kept me fascinated for much of this as they circled and soared on the late afternoon thermals. From Glen Quaich the route takes you south west again through the short, but very steep Glen Lochan, (where the path is sometimes hard to track down), and on into the far more glorious Glen Almond and the heart of the area’s field sports. Here the EHT takes you west past a large lodge, Auchnafree, where dogs and ducks abound, and a rather odd makeshift nine hole golf course, which may well echo how many a course might have looked a century or so ago.
At the head of Glen Almond there is a Statutory Right of Way south over the Ben Chonzie range that takes you down into Glen Lednock and onto Comrie. This path is virtually none existent on the ground with the footbridge over the River Almond long gone and the battered way sign in sad need of repair. The climb up is rough and through a lot of knee length heather. I followed as many sheep tracks as I could but the climb and going was very tough, especially when the heavens opened and the cloud descended. Thank heavens for compasses, maps and GPS, as the at the top of the climb, in thick cloud and among the startled red deer and stag, all assemblages of paths disappeared and the steep drop down into the Invergeldie Burn was only found using them. Later that day, in conversation with the owner of the campsite at Comrie, I was told that many walkers tackle the Munro, Ben Chronzie, during the winter months to add extra edge and challenge thus leaving many paths unused especially during the summer.
Comrie lies on the banks of the River Earn, which flows east into the town of Crieff seven miles down the valley. This is the birthplace of renowned Scottish actor Ewan McGregor. Of far greater interest to me was the Glenturret distillery, which can be found a mile north of Crieff hugging the banks of the Turret Burn. This is purported to be the oldest working distillery in Scotland and produces a fine dram, but is just a really nice place to visit and tour. It is also where the World mousing champion, Towser the cat, lived. This long-haired tortoiseshell cat kept the stored grain free of mice for 24 years, catching a staggering 28,899 rodents!
After a comfortable overnight stay in Comrie sharing my slumber with a common toad (who had somehow managed to squeeze under my groundsheet) I headed south west again towards the Trossachs and the town of Callander. The road out of Comrie to Glen Artney takes you past ‘Earthquake House’, a small pyramid roofed building that is said to be the first purpose-built earthquake observatory. The building still houses modern seismographic equipment to record the regular seismic activity in the area. Because of this, Comrie itself is known as the Shaky Toon.
The beginning of Glen Artney is very picturesque, with deciduous woods sheltering the banks of the meandering Water of Ruchill. However, at Dalclathick it opens up into lowland moors and it was here that I encountered a small flock of sheep. There was a distinct smell of rotting flesh in the air and it was then that I noticed that one in the flock had a severe wound to its head and shoulders – it looked like a dog attack. It was obviously in tremendous pain. The compassion in me took over my logic. Leaving my rucksack in some bushes I spent 20 minutes trying to get close the animal, but to no avail; the animal was ill and distressed but not enough to allow a human near it. I then decided to try to find a nearby farm and crossed the river up to the small hamlet of Dalchruin. Sadly the farm was empty and there was nobody around. I had to admit defeat. With a heavy heart I collected my rucksack and headed west across the moors pondering the vagaries of life…and death.
At the small shooting lodge of Arivurichardich the EHT heads south hugging the banks of Keltie Water into the town of Callander. At the time I completed walk the two bridges that cross the river at this point were both down. Consequently, a very wet crossing ensued as I slipped and splodged my way across the laughing water. Looking back I should have chosen the sensible option and taken my boots off for the crossing, as I had at the very beginning of the walk when fording the River Findhorn. We live and learn!
On reaching Callander in the late afternoon I decided to have a pit stop and treat myself to a nice cup of tea and a sandwich. While in the café I struck up a conversation with the proprietor, a genial, but rather portly gentleman. He of course asked me where I had been and when I explained that I had walked south from Blair Atholl over the last four days as part of mapping a route from Inverness to Drymen, he seemed quite shocked. I distinctly got the impression he was thinking, ‘why would anyone want to do that?’ I suppose the answer would be: ‘because I can.’
That night I wild camped in the Menteith Hills just south of Loch Venachar. I had decided to push on a few miles south west out of Callander, so that with a prompt start, I could reach Drymen by lunchtime the following day. Early next morning I was greeted by clearing skies and a glorious sunrise that bathed Ben Ledi to the north, turning its dull brown slopes a brilliant orange.
From here the EHT follows the Rob Roy Way south west to Drymen, taking in the delightful village of Aberfoyle and the forest walks of the Loch Ard Forest. Here, in the open glades, the warmth of the late summer sun flushed out an abundance of small tortoiseshell and peacock butterflies feasting on the nectar supplied by the ever present purple scabious and the numerous other wildflowers – a dazzling dancing delight for the completion of the walk.
If like me, you like the challenge of a long distance walk that takes you through a beautiful landscape rather than to the peaks, the EHT or parts of it might just be for you. I spent a combination of eight and a half wonderful days completing this trail. However I would suggest that ten or eleven days might be more relaxing and easier to manage if you do not wild camp. I hope these two articles have encouraged you to explore the East Highlands of Scotland, an inspiring place to walk.
For more information about the East Highland Trail be sure to visit http://www.east-highland-trail.com