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Cateran Trail

The Cateran Trail

The Cateran Trail is Scotland’s only circular ‘official’ and waymarked long-distance footpath. It’s 64 miles / 103 km long. It uses old tracks and trails across the hills and moors of east Perthshire. The Cateran Trail gets its name from the caterans of old – the cattle thieves who operated in the Highlands, notably between the 13th and 17th centuries.

The Caterans

Amongst the Highland clans, cattle were currency. In times of need, especially in winter weather, the Highlanders were inclined to target the farms close to the edge of the Highlands. The cattle there grazed on the richer Lowland pastures within easy reach of the clansfolk’s territories.

Sometimes the Highland men formed themselves into loose confederacies from a number of clans and families. They placed an experienced clansman in charge and planned a raid. They tended to move fast, some say up to fifty miles a day, and usually struck at night. They were called caterans, perhaps from Gaelic ceathairneach, a robber or freebooter.

On the Cateran Trail; dawn mist in Glenshee

On the Cateran Trail; dawn mist in Glenshee – picture by Mike Bell.

About the Cateran Trail

Today’s Cateran Trail is circular, with a strand running up from Blairgowrie in Perthshire to join the loop. Though no part of the route is more than 8 miles or so from a village of some sort, it has a sense of an excursion into wild and lonely hillscapes. When the wind sings over the heather or when the cloud lowers on the silent peaks to the north, it’s a really atmospheric experience.

It’s easy to imagine the tension as the caterans, an armed band, made their way down to the Lowland edge – or came north again into the dawn and the protection of the hills, only much more slowly and anxiously, keeping the cattle moving, while looking over their shoulders in case of pursuit.

Below the Spittal of Glenshee on the Cateran Trail in March

Below the Spittal of Glenshee on the Cateran Trail in March

Cateran Trail practicalities

You can walk the Cateran Trail in, say, five days, but it’s also good for day or weekend trips. There is a variety of accommodation along the route. Some operators and accommodation providers will arrange to forward baggage or take you to the starting point of the day’s walk – in short, they will package the Highland walking experience for you.

Nowhere on the route is more than about 7 miles (11km) from a village or some kind of settlement, and this is the big plus point of the trail: you can experience the landscape of the Highlands and a sense of the big hills beyond, but as it lies in east Perthshire, you are still relatively close to the central belt of Scotland and easy transport links. In short, it’s easy to reach and divides into reasonable not over-strenuous sections.

Legends of the Cateran Trail

Part of the heritage of the area is its wealth of folk-tales and legends. Many have connections to identifiable locations of the Cateran Trail. For instance, a tale of the mighty warrior Diarmuid, from Celtic mythology as found both in Ireland and Scotland, has taken root near the most northerly point of the trail near the Spittal of Glenshee. Briefly, legend has it that Diarmuid was not just a mighty warrior but also irresistible to women (for reasons outlined in a separate tale!). He was having an affair with the local King Fingal’s wife, called Grainne . The king knew about this but also knew he would come off worse in any confrontation. However, he had a cunning plan!. He challenged Diarmid to tackle a fierce boar that was terrorising Glenshee.

As boar-killing was all in a day’s work for Diarmuid, the demon boar was duly despatched but the warrior was wounded by the beast’s poisonous bristles. There was an antidote – the legend says that water drunk from the king’s own hands was all-healing. (Why? Because this local king was really Fionn MaCumhaill – the famous Finn McCool who features in a body of Irish and Scottish legends.) Anyway, Fionn/Finn or Fingal lets the water dribble through his fingers and so, end of Diarmuid.

So high was Diarmuid’s reputation in Glenshee that the local people buried him in a grave marked by a mound and four large stones in an arrow-head shape that point to the place of the battle between warrior and boar. This site not only survives to this day but is actually marked ‘Tomb’ on OS maps (Sheet 43 ref 120702). It’s a perfect short winter day walk east from the Spittal of Glenshee, along a section of the signposted trail, with superb mountain views. Diarmuid’s tomb is pictured below, photographed by Andrew Barrie, Strategic Routes Officer, Perth and Kinross Countryside Trust.

The grave of Diarmuid in Glenshee.

The grave of Diarmuid in Glenshee.

Cattle raiding
in Glenshee
– the last battle

Today’s Cateran Trail comes in from the west and drops from high moorland down to Glenshee, via Coire Lairige. The view to the north-east looks up Gleann Beag, which also carries the main road, the A93 – on its way to the Glenshee ski centre and over the high Cairnwell Pass, at that point the highest main road in the UK. Gleann Beag (usually thought of as Glenshee) climbs relentlessly northwards from the Spittal taking the modern road past the disused and long-bypassed hairpin called the Devil’s Elbow. The modern route is also the strung-out site of the last recorded major raid by the caterans in the early 17th century – and one in which they came off worst. What became known as the ‘Battle of Glenshee‘ had been a coordinated raid on several glens with the stolen cattle brought together at the Spittal of Glenshee. Some say 500 raiders were involved and they had lifted over 2000 head of cattle, intending to take the beasts away north, probably to Strathspey.

Word, however, had spread and reinforcements from neighbouring glens pursued the raiders and became entangled in a running battle all the way up the glen. Even the men of Braemar came down from the north to help. Slow-moving and trapped on the steep slopes, the caterans began to take losses, especially when a certain Cam Ruadh (Gaelic: the squint-eyed or one-eyed red-headed man) from Glen Taitneach arrived. His eye was no handicap as he was a deadly archer and helped turn the tide. The caterans eventually abandoned the animals and fled. Some say casualties on both sides amounted to 400 men. There’s more information on (legitimate) cattle-droving in Scotland here.

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