12th May 2023: Aberfeldy to Pitlochry – 9.5 miles
It’s hard to start walking again once you’ve stopped for a while. I wasn’t sure if it was better that I’d stopped for 90 minutes, or worse! not only had my legs switched off, but my brain had too. It was quite firmly in ‘find food’ mode when I started out again. I didn’t think I’d have time for a proper meal if I was going to get back to the car before nightfall. I had no worry about walking in the dark, but if I could avoid it I would. And besides I’m not sure my legs would have thanked me for adding a meal to the weight I was carrying. As such, I stopped at the Co-op on the way out of town and grabbed a sausage roll, a couple of KitKat Chunkies and a bottle of Diet Coke.
The sun was out, it was lovely and warm and there was barely a cloud in the sky as I walked along the pavement, beside the busy A827 from Aberfeldy. The map shows the RRW right on the road for the first mile or two, and I wasn’t especially enthusiastic about what was to come, so I plugged my headphones in and tuned into my audiobook. I was pleasantly surprised, therefore, to find a footpath sign just as I passed Dewar’s World of Whisky. The sign pointed me down a ‘Riverside / Railway path’ to Grandtully. It was a thin, twisting, grassy path that runs between the river and the road. It provides some lovely aspects of the Tay and was a massive boost to my spirits. For the first time on this walk, the views ahead were mostly flat – almost no hills to speak of, just some low rolling, forest-clad lumps stretching off into the distance.
I knew I had some climbing to do in a while though. Part of my judgement call about walking this was how much ascent I needed to do. I reckoned I had plenty of miles left in my legs, but I wasn’t sure how much ascent I’d be able to manage. The 9 or 10 miles of this section didn’t concern me, but if I’d had much more than the 1500 feet of ascent it entails, I’d have probably thought longer. The ascent all comes in one lump too, after about 4 miles along the flat. I expected to be able to grind it out and then coast down the other side to my car and a long drive home, tired, after 22 miles! But that was too far ahead to worry about – I first needed to get the walking bit done.
I tried to keep up a decent pace along the lovely flat path beside the river. Time was a factor, and I decided to make good time while I could, and allow more time for the long slog up the slopes of Dunfallandy Hill. The riverside path turned into the railway path about 2 miles outside Aberfeldy and my views of the river were immediately replaced by the sides of what felt like a never-ending embankment as the railway bed cut through the surrounding scenery. Under better circumstances this may have been a perfectly fine section, in fact I knew in my heart it was better than some of the tarmac sections earlier in the walk. At least the path surface was grass-covered, a little muddy in places, but not enough to get more than the soles of my boots dirty. The only problem with it was that it felt gloomy, in places trees overhung the railway bed, which was cut into the embankment, so it all felt a bit dull. It probably wasn’t anything like as bad as it felt, and the photos I took don’t really back up the way I felt, so I guess I was just tired.
There were a couple of places where trees had come down across the path, but generally the cut was so narrow that they just fell across the path like a bridge – I didn’t have to get on hands and knees at any time. There were also loads of bluebells in the embankment, they never quite reached the ‘riot of colour’ level, as they were mostly overwhelmed by the surrounding grass, but they were still nice to see – they’ve mostly gone from my local paths.
The railway path soon emerges into the massive car park beside the Grandtully Station campsite and I was soon at the main road, looking for a bench to rest for a while. There was a pub here, but it was packed with people and I only wanted to stop for a few moments to rest my feet and catch my breath before the hard work began. The bench I found was a bit rickety and I wasn’t sure its wafer thin slats were going to hold my weight. I risked embarrassing myself in front of a hundred people eating their food, balanced against the fact I needed to rest. I ate one of my KitKats and part of my coke, not really fancying my sausage roll, despite being ravenous when I’d bought it.
Partially refreshed, but not recovered, I pushed on, over the narrow road bridge over the Tay and up onto a narrow track beside a golf course. I panted past four lads drinking and putting on one of the holes, trying not to show how knackered I felt. I was plodding very slowly now as the hill began to take its toll on my legs. The path was lovely (from a RRW perspective), a rocky narrow affair that ran between trees and the occasional moss-covered dry stane dike. The Tullypowrie Burn was close to my right, but it must have been mostly dry because I never heard much of it and only noticed it when I crossed it on a wooden footbridge.
From that point the path became even better. It opens up as it crosses the lower slopes of the hill and it winds between yellow-flowering gorse and the not quite flowered yet broom. The path was so narrow in places it scratched my arms as I pushed between the bushes, but I’d rather take this than a tarmac cycle path any day! It was still warm, the sky was almost completely blue and it was approaching 7pm. I haven’t been out walking this late for years – except on a local training walk – this was becoming quite a treat for me!
I crossed an open section of moor, leaving the gorse and the broom behind and heading towards a forestry section. I took what I expected to be a final look behind me, south across the hills of Perthshire and Stirling – hills rolling off into the sunset, distant hazy clouds covering some of their tops. In so many ways I was glad I’d decided to not only walk this final section, but walk it this evening. It was splendid.
The forest was separated from the moorland by a gate, which had a huge vertical handle that you’re supposed to lever to one side to release the gate catch. It was quite stiff and I had to lean in to put my weight behind it before it would move – at which point the long handle jerked free and smacked me on the nose. I immediately thought I’d broken it (my nose, not the stupid handle) – I had a white-hot bolt of pain, the copper smell of blood and I nearly fell to my knees in shock. I cursed the gate, kicked it and then found a seat on a nearby stump. I was tired of course and not paying attention when I should have been. (It’s been 48 hours since that happened and my nose is still sore).
I finished my other KitKat and the rest of my coke – I thought I’d broken the back of the walk and I could probably free wheel most of the way back now, so I doubted I’d stop again. A fingerpost said I had 2.5 miles to go and I knew it would nearly all be downhill. The RRW now runs on a wide forest ride, which is easy walking and with few views to distract me, so I just put my head down and put one foot in front of the other. I don’t think I was going very fast, the climb up the hill had been hard work and I plodded pretty slowly up it. I was covered in sweat and my baselayer and shirt were wet to the chest, but I only had a couple of miles to go.
I was pleased to swap the forest ride for a lovely springy path down one of the access channels through the trees. These can often be a horrible boggy mess, but although this one was damp and little bit cut up from horses, it was mostly fine underfoot. As I got closer to the bottom of the hill the path became wet in places and I actually got my boots dirty in one or two places. Soon enough the forest ended though, and I was out of the trees onto a farm track, with expansive views ahead to Pitlochry. I crossed the A9 and followed a narrow lane into the outskirts of town. The highlight of this final section was crossing the River Tummel on the very bouncy footbridge. It’s so bouncy, the council have had to put a sign on it, asking people not to swing it.
I arrived back at my car at about 8pm. Despite my slow pace up the hill, I’d still averaged about 2.7mph along this section. To be fair that was mostly achieved along the first few miles to Grandtully on the riverside / railway path. I changed out of my sweaty clothes in the station car park, and headed home. I rang my wife to explain why I’d be home early and she thought I was bonkers. To be fair, when I was in my hotel room stuffing my kit back into my pack, I remember asking myself out loud “are you sure you want to do this?” – the decision had been a great one though, and I’m so glad I made it. There are times when I push myself into a ‘willpower’ walk, mostly that will be to divert to a trig point, or to take the high route when a lower, easier one is available, but this time I’d willpowered myself into finishing the Rob Roy Way and doing it in a memorable way.
I’ve had a couple of days to think about this walk now. I’m glad I did it, but it’s a long way from being one of my favourite walks. I’d also be hard-pressed to recommend it to anyone. You know why of course – I’ve mentioned it in almost every paragraph, never mind every day – there’s just too much tarmac! I haven’t calculated how many miles, and I won’t because it will probably depress me too much, but there’s a lot. There’s more tarmac than you expect too, because so much of it is ‘hidden’. What I mean by that is when you look at a map and see the yellow line of a road you know you’ll be on tarmac, but with the Rob Roy Way you can appear to leave that yellow road and join a track, only to discover that too is tarmac, because it’s being used as a cycle path.
I don’t think you could do this walk without using Cycle Route 7, not unless you turned it into a proper mountain walk, where you need to backpack the long sections between towns and that’s just not feasible for a national trail. However, I’m not sure there’s a good enough reason to create a walk for the Rob Roy Way, by using so many miles of cycle path. I’d almost prefer there were no Rob Roy Way than be forced to use so many miles of tarmac path. I know, no-one forced me to walk the route, and I knew there was tarmac involved, but I’m being perfectly honest when I say the number of miles was a surprise – there are too many ‘hidden’ tarmac miles.
The saving grace of the walk was the scenery of course, as it always is in Scotland, the scenery was fantastic. Not the level 11 fantastic you get on Skye, or in the far north west, but it was superb. Having said that, I still hold the opinion I formed when I did my first walk in Scotland – the West Highland Way in 2008 – that there isn’t a decent view in the Scottish Highlands, that isn’t spoilt by a pylon, a pole, or more recently a wind turbine. Almost every glen has a line of pylons down it, and almost every hill now has a windfarm on it.
The moorland stretches were excellent too, a bit drab this year, when normally they would have probably been a bit greener by now, but there’s something to be said for desolate moorland – in the late summer I imagine it would be even more impressive.
In summary, Rob – 6 out of 10 – could do better!