The Battle of Glen Tilt

I’ve written before about the Scottish land access battles which eventually led – in 2003 – to their splendid Land Reform legislation, which allows responsible access to almost all Scottish land and waters. When I walk there I feel envious. We English, though we value the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 (CRoW), very much recognise we are just – as usual – getting the crumbs from the table.DSCF0537

The Scottish land access was hard won over centuries.

I often think of it as we wander up Glen Tilt, one of our favourite Scottish glens. We were there the other day, a lovely fresh one for walking, passing the scene of the fight for Glen Tilt. Here are some extracts from the account in my book The Compleat Trespasser, which gives a history of the access battles on both sides of the border:

It was in Glen Tilt, a particularly scenic part of the Duke’s 200,000 acres, that one of the most memorable of Victorian access battles took place. The track through Glen Tilt, the only direct route from Blair to Braemar and Deeside, had been a drovers’ route for centuries and was much used by the growing number of recreational walkers, until the sixth duke began to forbid public access.DSCF0542

The first recorded conflict was in 1847 between the Duke and Professor Bayley Balfour and a party of botanical students from Edinburgh University, who were forced off the ancient track.

The professor and his students had set out from Braemar, observing the flora of the glen for some nine miles before they were challenged by a shooting party led by a Captain Oswald, a Captain Drummond and several ghillies and servants. The botanists were ordered to turn back to Braemar. They refused to do so and pointed out that the track was a public road. The walkers continued on their way until they encountered a locked gate at Tibby’s Lodge, where a ghillie evidently summoned up the Duke, who seems to have gone into a rage at their presence:

The Duke then said, “Well you must return; you don’t move an inch further, unless you break open the gate, which you may do, and take the consequences. Don’t spoil my walks with stamping. Come off that walk every one of you. Every step you take is a trespass – a new trespass. I shall not count it an additional trespass if you return on the main Walk.” Professor Bayley Balfour – “Oh, it’s a trespass then on the side walk, but not on the main walk.” The Duke – “I shall not waste any more words with you; you must return.”

Given that the passage through Glen Tilt is a considerable walking challenge, the trespassers refused to retreat back to Braemar, though they were forced off the track, as the press reported, and ‘in their desperation, they made their escape over a wall, hotly pursued by the Duke’s familiars.’DSCF0544

Unfortunately for Atholl, the case for access was taken up by the newly-created Edinburgh Society for the Preservation of Rights of Way, formed ‘for protecting the public against being robbed of its walks by private cunning and perseverance’. Three of its members, Alex Torrie, an advocate, Robert Cox, a Writer to the Signet, and Charles Law, a merchant, brought an action against the Duke in the Edinburgh Court of Session.

They argued that the road had been metalled a hundred years before and was kept in repair by statute labour. When the decision went against the duke, he appealed to the House of Lords, where he lost once again. While the case creaked through the Victorian legal system – mostly on Atholl’s argument that its pursuers had no right to bring the action – the Duke made headlines once more over a conflict with two Cambridge University students, who found themselves accosted by him and his retainers as they attempted to use the old drove road on a summer’s day in 1850. As one of the undergraduates told The Times:

On Friday, August 30th, we shouldered our knapsacks and left Castletown of Braemar with the intention of walking to Blair Atholl through Glen Tilt, a distance of thirty miles. We might have gone by another road through Blairgowrie and Dunkeld, but as this road was upwards of sixty miles in length, and we were informed by all persons of whom we inquired at Braemar that though the Duke of Atholl, in spite of the decision of the Court of Session, was still endeavouring to stop all who made use of the bridle-road or footpath through Glen Tilt, yet he would not dare use violence if one insisted on a right of passage, we determined to take the shorter road.

It was a decision that was to bring them into conflict with the Duke himself, as one of the undergraduates recorded in his letter to The Times:

“You must go back! Why didn’t you stop sir?” (The Duke yelled). I again took out my pocket book, and preparing to write, said “What is your name?” “I am the Duke of Atholl” he replied, upon which we immediately tendered him our card (which he read and pocketed) and stated that we wished to proceed to Blair Atholl.  However he insisted that we must “go back” to which we urged that the Court of Session had decided that there was a right of way through Glen Tilt, and, therefore we could not be stopped. He replied angrily “It is not a public way, it is my private drive! You shan’t come down; the deer are coming, the deer are coming!” upon which we expressed our willingness to retire behind the lodge till his sport was ended, but he said we had been impertinent, we claimed it as a right, and we should not go down an inch.

Hereupon I said that in that case I certainly would go down, and if he stopped me it would be at his peril, upon which he became impatient, seized my companion by the collar of his coat, and attempted to force him back, refusing to listen to anything we had to say. This unseemly scene took place before the Duchess and another lady, for whose presence he had so little regard as to use oaths and other violence such as you would scarcely expect to hear from the lips of a gentleman. Finding his strength was of little avail, he shouted for help to his unwilling grooms, who were evidently enjoying the scene from a distance, and my companion, seeing opposition was useless against four men, allowed ourselves to be led away by a servant.DSCF0547

The students remained behind the lodge, being advised by a sympathetic highlander to wait around until dark and then sneak down to Blair Atholl. An attempt to escape up the brae was met by pursuit by two ghillies who at first threatened to take the students up as poachers, and then ordered them back to Braemar:

They told us that we would be closely watched, and if we stirred from the path we would be prosecuted for trespassing. On parting, they took care to tell us that it was not their fault; and I will do them justice to say that they did their work very reluctantly. Well now, there was nothing to do but to take the old ghillies advice, and wait till dark. The hills on each side were very steep, so that, besides the danger of being taken up for trespass, it would have been no easy matter to find our way to a village distant 10 miles. For four long hours, then, we were forced to walk up and down this bleak vale in order to ward off the chill autumn evening. When it became dark we proceeded on our way, which gave us no little trouble and uncertainty, as the darkness of the night was increased by the black shade of the pine forests. However, by midnight we reached the hotel, and soon recovered from the fatigue of a day, which, after all, gave us a good deal of amusement.

But this was not the end of the matter. Two days later The Times published a leader about the event. The editorial voice thundered:

The public have as perfect a right of “way” through the Vale of Glen Tilt as the Duke of Atholl has to the possession of any acre of the property which constitutes his estate. The right in the one case, as the title in the other, is the mere creature of law.

In point of fact there was not, at that time, a ruling on the right of way itself, only on the right of the Edinburgh Society to bring the matter to law. However, the Duke appeared to lose interest in the quarrel, perhaps not least because his actions led to him being lampooned in the magazine Punch and criticised in the correspondence columns of The Times.The_Compleat_Trespas_Cover_for_Kindle

Now, you can walk where you like in Glen Tilt.

My book The Compleat Trespasser is out now in paperback and as a Kindle Ebook. Just click on the link for more details and sales offers:


Text and pictures (c) John Bainbridge 2018


Walking and Robert Louis Stevenson

I’ve been thinking a lot about Robert Louis Stevenson lately, not least because I’ve been re-reading Kidnapped, that great novel of the Scottish landscape. Stevenson’s essay on walking is one of the most inspiring ever written – do see it out, it’s online. Although Stevenson spent his final years in Samoa, Scotland was never away from his thoughts. It was the major subject for much of his writing. Even Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, though nominally set in London, gets its root inspiration from the streets, wynds and closes of Edinburgh.DSCF0569

Even after a hard day’s tramping, when we’re in Pitlochry, we usually walk up through the fields towards Moulin, taking the path past the Caisteal Dubh, the Black Castle, with such fine views up towards Ben Vrackie.

This time we extended the little ramble to Edradour (site of the smallest whisky distillery in Scotland – a bit lost on me as I only drink shandy!), so that we could follow the lane around to Kinnaird, where Stevenson lived for a while in the summer of 1881.

Stevenson’s Home at Kinnaird (c) John Bainbridge 2018

He enjoyed his time in Kinnaird. He wrote in a letter to Sidney Colvin:

We have a lovely spot here: a little glen with a burn, a wonderful burn, gold and green and snow-white, singing loud and low in different steps of its career, now pouring over miniature crags, now fretting itself to death in a maze of rocky stairs and pots; never was so sweet a little river. Behind, great purple moorlands reaching to Ben Vrackie. Hunger lives here, alone with larks and sheep. Sweet spot, sweet spot.

While staying at his cottage, Stevenson wrote two terrific short stories, Thrawn Janet and  The Merry Men. He also thought out aspects of a novel which, in time, became The Master of Ballantrae. In his essay Beggars, Stevenson tells us how he encountered a tinker down by the Kinnaird Burn. He wrote:

You should have heard him speak of what he loved; of the tent pitched beside the talking water; of the stars overhead at night; of the blest return of morning, the peep of day over the moors, the awaking birds among the birches; how he abhorred the long winter shut in cities; and with what delight, at the return of the spring, he once more pitched his camp in the living out-of-doors…

Rosebay Willowherb by a path Stevenson would have known.

It was delightful walking these paths he would have known so well, seeing scenes that are now so familiar to me. We walked down a path, through the gloaming, along a hedge filled with Rosebay Willowherb, looking at the broad view over that grand landscape.

Old Woodland at Rannoch

It’s interesting seeking out bits of Scotland’s Old Caledonian Forest. Not that there’s a lot left, but what there is is worth seeing. Much has vanished entirely, more has been well-hidden by the conifers of the Forestry Commission and independent foresters.

Woods near Carie (c) John Bainbridge 2018

But still interesting to find those traces…

After our walk from Kinlochleven up to Craig Varr (see last blog), we drove round the south side of Loch Rannoch to the Forestry Commission’s car park at Carie. A good and pretty start to forest walks, with a rather splendid campsite.

A magnificent wooden footbridge led to a walk up through the wood. Certainly some older hardwood trees at the start, but as you get higher you find yourself amid the same old conifers – though relieved by lovely views up towards Schiehallion.DSCF0531

We were amused by the “grave” of the unknown forester – glad to see the guys have a sense of humour!

Much of the original Caledonian Forest around here was sacrificed after the Battle of Culloden in 1746, under the powers of the Forfeited Estates Commission, who built a sawmill here to take down the trees.

There are some very lovely trees left, descendants of the originals, but you have to seek them out.

It was hereabout that fugitive Jacobites hid after Culloden – and wild country it must have been. Reputedly, the last Scottish wolf perished hereabouts too. There are capercaillie, deer and red squirrels resident, though we didn’t see any, but then it was the middle of the day.

“Grave” of the Unknown Forester (c) John Bainbridge 2018

We drove down to Aberfeldy afterward, passing through the little settlement of Dull (twinned with Boring, Oregon) as we went.DSCF0535

This brief stroll inspired a lot of thoughts about Forestry along the way.

But I’ll save those for the next blog.

A Walk to Craig Varr

Just a year ago we stood on the summit of Schiehallion, looking towards Loch Rannoch. This time we were looking back in the opposite direction.

Craig Varr from the Allt Mhor (c) John Bainbridge 2018

Craig Varr is a modest height, but a terrific viewpoint, really a spur of the long ridge running down towards Kinloch Rannoch. And when I say terrific viewpoint, I really mean it. Excellent views over Loch Rannoch, and back towards Dunalastair Water and Loch Tummel but, most of all, what I think is the finest view towards Schiehallion itself.

Waterfall on the Allt Mhor (c) John Bainbridge 2018

A relatively easy walk too, a morning ramble that you can combine with somewhere else in the afternoon, or just visit the delightful cafe in KinlochRannoch.

We did both…

KinlochRannoch (c) John Bainbridge 2018

It begins with a steep, winding path through woodland, before the open hill is reached. At the beginning is the impressive waterfall of the Allt Mhor, which slopes at such an odd geological angle that it makes you feel giddy.

There are more delightful little waterfalls on the open hillside. We crossed the Allt Mhor on a little footbridge and followed a drystone dyke wall to the summit. Three kestrels were hunting the high ground as we approached, like three heralds of fate in some old Highland ballad.

Schiehallion from Craig Varr (c) John Bainbridge 2018

Craig Varr itself is almost the lowest part of the ridge, but really very beautiful, its top covered with a scattering of pines, some bent by the wind, most fallen but still growing, offering shelter to the stravaiger.

Schiehallion’s top was up in the clouds as we looked across at it, but suddenly appeared in stark sunlight in all its magnificence. Fifty-one weeks before we had been up on that top looking in this direction. As with all hillwalking days, it seemed like yesterday – that is the way that hill-days live in your memory. Distinctive from the same misspent hours of the workaday world.

A well made cairn (c) John Bainbridge 2018

We followed the ridge north, through a light shower, which hid Schiehallion and then produced it to view from time to time, rather like a slide being switched on at a picture show. There were several well-built cairns along the ridge, seemingly too substantial to be markers. Someone had taken a lot of time and trouble. I don’t like unnecessary cairns, but I’ll forgive these. Positively works of art.

The heather was out too, giving that wonderful purplish tinge to the glen and its steep hillsides.

The showers stopped as we descended to a higher point of the Allt Mhor, which we waded across – not difficult after the weeks of dry weather.

We descended the track back to KinlochRannoch and, before we went on to a next walk, had a welcome cup of tea in the cafe, one of those places where they sell books, crafts and art as well as refreshments. Always nice to see John Buchan novels on sale, a writer who had the great gift of conjuring up the Scottish landscape in gorgeous prose.

Another favourite writer of mine, Matt Marshall, writing in his book The Travels of Tramp Royal ( I recommend it to you) came this way in the 1930s, telling of the navvies thronging the village at the time. A real invasion of the Highlands by men building power lines and reservoirs, undertaking the harshness of long hours of labour in often terrible weather.

You sometimes feel that their ghosts walk this land still.