Friday, 23 September 2016


In the mid 1800s the 6th Duke of Atholl, George Murray, resident in Blair Castle in the village of Blair Atholl, attempted to close probably the best glen in Scotland, Glen Tilt, running for 14 miles in a south westerly direction from the Cairngorms.

But thanks to the Scottish Rights of Way Society at the time he was unsuccessful. Just as well, as last weekend Pauline and I set off for a couple of days in that very area.

Normally we use trains to get to our outdoor destinations, but the train company in Scotland is so out of tune that we are rarely able to get our bicycles on the trains due to a lack of available space. Undeterred, we loaded the bikes into my van and headed for Pitlochry, 13 miles south of Blair Atholl and the start of Glen Tilt.

There was the familiar smell of autumn in the air as we set out from Pitlochry, and the temperature was perfect with blue skies overhead. Surprisingly though for this time of year the trees were showing no sign of turning into their autumn hues. Having left the van in Pitlochry, we pootled along on quiet little back roads  the dozen or so miles north west to Blair Atholl. Halfway we passed by the site of the Battle of Killecrankie. In 1689 the Jacobites were victorious over government troops, albeit with great losses on both sides of around 2,000 men.

Soon we were entering Blair Atholl on its southern edge, past Blair Castle and out north east for Glen Tilt. The majority of the route is good quality track, and so the going is easy and fairly quick. The first few miles wind through woods, with the River Tilt always on our right, cascading its way down to join the River Garry.

By the time we stopped for lunch we were already passed the halfway point. The sun shone as we sat and enjoyed our snacks in its warmth beside a small burn, flanked by native Rowan trees, heavy with their bright red berries.

The good quality track now started to deteriorate as we reached the end of the V-shaped glen. A narrow path continues on to the Cairngorm, but we were leaving it here to turn due east.

Right at this point here is an ornate suspension bridge easing the crossing of a fast, wide river coming down off the hills. Though attractive it looks completely out of place, and is known as the Bedford Bridge.

In 1879 an 18 year old lad called Francis John Bedford drowned at this spot. Having fought off the Duke's attempt to close the glen, the Scottish Rights of Way, together with contributions from friends, paid for a bridge to be built to commemorate this boys life, and exactly 130 years ago since it was built, we now used this magnificent structure to safely cross the river.

It was only mid afternoon when we decided to camp. The second section of our route would take us over to the next glen, and as far as we could deduce from the map there would not be many places to camp.

Tents set up and supper on the stove, we were joined by several hundred unwelcome visitors. Midges! They can ruin a camp. By mid September they are usually gone, but the weather has been so unseasonably warm this year that they are still out in force. Unwillingly to allow them to feast on us, we retired to our tents to eat our supper, read and listen to the river bubbling past as the light slowly faded.

On a chilly morning with the moon still visible low in the sky, we were faced with a tough challenge to the start of our second days route. A small hill with a very steep path stood in our way, and with the bikes fully loaded with kit we struggled to push them up the narrow path, at times almost losing balance to teeter over the edge. Pauline of course is more sensible than me, and did the climb in two stages, first the bike, then the kit. I on the other hand took the lazy option, and did it altogether.

It was around 2km before we cycled again, once the narrow footpath reached Fealar Lodge, said to be the highest, permanently inhabited dwelling in Scotland. From here the track we joined was of good quality and the going was fast. Mostly it is downhill and a lot of fun to allow gravity to do its job, with my hands always ready on the brakes of course, as the road twists it's way following the natural course of a river.

It was a striking glen, with large areas of forest regeneration in progress. At one point the track climbs very steeply but you are rewarded with a long fast downhill after. We stopped briefly for snacks before heading down the last few miles of the 12 mile run to join the main road. Turning west it was only 10 miles back to our start point of Pitlochry, with the last half being all downhill. As if that wasn't reward enough there was coffee and cake too.

On the way home Pauline asked me what my favourite part was. It's always hard to pick one above all others, but it dawned on me that it was at that moment. Not because it was over and we were on our way home, but because of the great feeling the Scottish hills leave you with, refreshed and relaxed.

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