Dan Hobson

Hike old thieves' roads in a forgotten part of Scotland — Cateran Trail

Neillwphoto (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Hike old thieves' roads in a forgotten part of Scotland — Cateran Trail

Hiking Collection by Dan Hobson

The Cateran Trail is a spectacular long-distance loop that follows bygone bandit tracks through a forgotten yet beautiful part of the Scottish Highlands.

Exploring peaceful glens, majestic moors, wild hilltops, ancient forests, pastoral farmland, and pretty lochans, the diverse landscapes and charming settlements along the way afford a real flavour of Highland culture.

The trail is named after the Caterans; groups of blood-thirsty bandits who rustled cattle from wealthy landowners in the glens between the 14th and 17th centuries. Much of the trail follows the same tracks used by these fearsome thieves, as well as drovers’ roads used by farmers in times-of-old.

Whilst the trail explores a surprisingly-little-hiked part of Scotland, the entire 64-mile (103-km) trail is fully-waymarked throughout and never strays more than a few miles from some kind of civilisation. As such, it is a great choice for both beginners and experienced walkers.

The trail begins along a spur from Blairgowrie town across Cochrage Muir and into Bridge of Cally. You then start the loop through Blackcraig Forest along Strathardle Glen and into the Cairngorms National Park briefly at Spittal of Glenshee. The trail then winds around Mount Blair (an optional detour) through Glen Isla to Alyth. The final section passes over moorland and farmland to Bridge of Cally and retraces the spur to Blairgowrie.

With towns and villages at decent intervals — complete with welcoming inns serving food and wee drams — as well as breathtaking mountain views, plentiful wildlife-spotting opportunities, and historic sites, the Cateran Trail always has plenty to pique your interest.

Whilst this is by no means an easygoing hike, the walking is generally steady with mostly mild ascents and descents. There are a couple of tough sections, of course, but the trail is good for all abilities.

In this Collection, I split the route into five stages, each averaging 15 miles (24 km), and complete it clockwise. This is essentially the tried-and-tested itinerary for the trail. As Stage 2 and Stage 4 are both quite short, though, I have included worthy extensions to make both full-day walks.

Every stop is relatively well-served with accommodation, with the exception of Spittal of Glenshee. However, places to stay can be limited so it is worth planning in advance and scheduling your rest days accordingly. Whilst civilization is never too far away, there are not always places to resupply en route, so it is worth making sure you have enough food and water.

To get to the start/finish, your best bet is catching a train to Perth, which has direct services from Edinburgh and Glasgow and connecting services around the UK. From there, you would need to catch the 57, 57A, or 57C bus services from Elibank Street, roughly a five-minute walk from the train station (for the timetable, visit: stagecoachbus.com/routes/east-scotland/57a/dundee-perth/xhbo057a.o).

On The Map

Tours & Highlights

    15.7 mi
    2.2 mph
    1,625 ft
    1,125 ft
    Expert Hiking Tour. Very good fitness required. Easily-accessible paths. Suitable for all skill levels.

    The first stage explores Strathardle Glen and takes you over lonely hilltops with lovely views.With 15.7 miles (25.3 km) of distance and 1,625 feet (495 m) of climbing, this is a challenging hike but certainly not the toughest in this Collection.You begin from the 11th-century market town of Blairgowrie, a place synonymous with berry growing and outdoor adventures, and hike north alongside the River Ericht.Within the first mile, you pass Cargill's Leap, a narrow ravine along the river that Presbyterian minister Donald Cargill leapt across in the 17th century to escape pursuing soldiers when his religion was outlawed. The trail then climbs over Cochrage Muir. On the descent into the hamlet Bridge of Cally, you experience stunning views. From there, you hike along Strathardle Glen, which has been farmed since the Bronze Age, before passing through Blackcraig Forest, which opens in places to reveal spectacular views.At the edge of the forest you find Blackcraig Castle, one of the finest examples of Baronial architecture in Scotland.You continue through the rugged upland scenery past Davely Loch to finish in the village of Kirkmichael, which has some accommodation, a couple of places to eat and drink, as well a village shop.

    13.7 mi
    2.0 mph
    2,925 ft
    2,525 ft
    Expert Hiking Tour. Very good fitness required. Easily-accessible paths. Suitable for all skill levels.

    You reach the highest point of the Cateran Trail on this stage and will hopefully catch glimpses of eagles soaring along the way.From Kirkmichael, the trail rises gradually along the edge of Kindrogan Forest and crosses the River Ardle near Enochdhu. The climb continues and you reach the highest point on the entire trail among wild scenery before descending gradually into the Cairngorms National Park and onto Spittal of Glenshee, which is located in a stunning position where four glens meet.To make the overall itinerary work in such remote countryside, the second stage is actually a short-but-sweet 8.3 miles (13.4 km) and finishes at Spittal of Glenshee. You will find a few places to stay in the area.However, if you are hankering for more action, climbing Ben Gulabin is an experience you will not forget. Whilst this near doubles the amount of climbing and adds three hours, the peaceful summit affords wonderful views over the southern Cairngorms. It is one of the easiest Corbetts to climb, too, so a worthy detour for the hill-baggers out there.For the Ben Gulabin extension, simply follow Old Military Road then take the footpath to the left all the way to the summit. Unfortunately, there are no easy loops, so you will have to retrace your steps back to Spittal of Glenshee.

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  • Difficult
    14.7 mi
    2.3 mph
    950 ft
    1,250 ft
    Expert Hiking Tour. Very good fitness required. Easily-accessible paths. Suitable for all skill levels.

    Serene lochs, spellbinding scenery, and a sumptuous sense of solitude combine on this hike.With 14.7 miles (23.7 km) of distance, 950 feet (290 m) of uphill and 1,250 feet (381 m) of downhill, this stage is easier than the previous two but still tests your fitness and ability. For the first 6 miles (9.7 km), the trail follows Glenshee and takes you back over the Cairngorms National Park boundary once again.When you reach the B951, turn left and follow it for 1.9 miles (3.1 km) and then take the quiet country lane past Forter Castle, a striking fortified mansion that was built in 1560.After looping around Little Forter, the trail becomes more natural again as it rises around the Knaps.After a brief descent, you reach Auchintaple Loch, a secluded stretch of water nestled amid pine trees that affords a marvellous view of Mount Blair. The gently-undulating descent continues past Loch Shandra, after which the scenery begins to change from rugged moorland to greener pastures interspersed with small woodlands.When you reach the B951 once again, head right to finish Kirkton of Glenisla, where you find a few accommodation options and a hotel that serves food.

    13.4 mi
    2.2 mph
    1,150 ft
    1,600 ft
    Expert Hiking Tour. Very good fitness required. Easily-accessible paths. Suitable for all skill levels.

    Glorious views over Glen Isla await on this stage, which takes you to the stunning town of Alyth.With 13.4 miles (21.6 km) of distance, 1,150 feet (351 m) of uphill and 1,600 feet (488 m) of downhill, this is one of the easier stages on the Cateran Trail. From Kirkton of Glenisla, you cross the River Isla — which roughly translates to the pre-Celtic word for ‘rapidly moving’ — and make a short-but-sharp ascent to Whitehill Wood, which you then descend gradually through. From here, you follow an easygoing path along the glenside through fields and small woodlands, where you experience lovely views over the landscape.After Kilry Lodge, you join quiet country lanes for a short while and return to a more natural terrain after Knowehead.You leave the splendour of Glen Isla behind at this point as you hike south, skirting the Hill of Alyth to finish in the town itself. The Den of Alyth, a majestic wooded-glen and a direct-descendant of the forest that once covered great swathes of Scotland, is not included on the official trail but is well-worth exploring if you have the legs. If you do not take the extension shown here, it shaves-off 1.4 miles (2.3 km).You find a good selection of accommodation in Alyth, as well as plenty of places to eat and drink, shops, historic sites, and other attractions.

    17.0 mi
    2.2 mph
    1,675 ft
    1,850 ft
    Expert Hiking Tour. Very good fitness required. Mostly accessible paths. Sure-footedness required.

    The final stage takes you to a magical Bronze Age stone circle and explores wild hilltops with awe-inspiring views. Challenging throughout, the Cateran Trail does not let you off-the-hook with an easy finish. At 17 miles (27.4 km) long and with 1,675 feet (511 m) of climbing, the plentiful pubs and restaurants of Blairgowrie come as a welcome reward at the end.To begin, the trail makes a short-but-steep ascent of the Hill of Alyth, which affords wonderful views over the farmlands of Strathmore, the Sidlaw hills, and the southern Cairngorms.You then cross the Bamff Estate and continue through upland pastures to Parkneuk, a spellbinding ‘four-poster’ stone circle atop a hill with fine views of the area.You join country lanes a short time after Netherton, cross Black Water river, and, at the Bridge of Cally, retrace your footsteps from Stage 1 along the loop’s spur over Cochrage Muir to finish in Blairgowrie.In the adjoining towns of Blairgowrie and Rattray, you find lots of places to stay, as well as an excellent selection of pubs, restaurants, cafes, shops, and other attractions.

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Collection Stats

  • Tours
  • Distance
    74.4 mi
  • Duration
    33:58 h
  • Elevation
    8,325 ft

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Dan Hobson

Hike old thieves' roads in a forgotten part of Scotland — Cateran Trail