Great Scott: walking Scotland’s Rob Roy Way

Sir Walter Scott’s account of the lawless life of Rob Roy was published 200 years ago. And today, hikers can follow in his cattle-rustling footsteps on a footpath across central Scotland. Dixe Wills reports

Hero, thief, extortioner, loyal Jacobite, traitor or Scotland’s very own Robin Hood. Any of these epithets can be used to describe Rob Roy MacGregor, and will at least be partly true. The outlaw, whose fame was sealed 200 years ago this New Year’s Eve with the publication of Sir Walter Scott’s fictionalised account of episodes from his life, is one of history’s true enigmas.

Nowadays, he also boasts his own long-distance footpath. The Rob Roy Way is a 77-mile hike (94 miles if you add an optional loop) from Drymen – on the edge of the Trossachs, 17 miles north of Glasgow – to Pitlochry, gateway to the Cairngorms. On the way, it takes in other places MacGregor is said to have been in his somewhat chaotic career: Aberfoyle, Callander, Strathyre, Killin and Aberfeldy, plus Lochs Venachar, Lubnaig and Tay.

Armed with an 1863 edition of Rob Roy and the excellent guidebook to the footpath written by its co-creator Jacquetta Megarry, a friend and I tackled the path at a pace that Rob Roy might have found sloth-like. We ambled between 9 and 15 miles a day (he moved quicker than that even when driving stolen cattle) and stayed in comfy B&Bs each night.

The writer’s friend crosses a burn below the Menteith Hills.
The writer’s friend crosses a burn below the Menteith Hills. Photograph: Dixe Wills for the Guardian

At one, the owner told us that he’d just had a couple of peeved Americans staying. “We’ve paid thousands of dollars to come here to do this walk,” they had grumbled, “and there are parts of it that are boggy.” Apparently they had expected the whole trail to be on a wide gravel walkway.

Come day four we, by contrast, had begun to wish there was rather less minor road, forestry track, disused railway line and metalled cycle path and rather more in the way of little footpaths, whatever their state. The route had necessarily kept us low, winding through bonny glens and straths, by rivers or lochs, as it mimicked the journeys Rob Roy would have taken as he drove his rustled wares. We spent our time either looking up – at the Menteith Hills, or the stately peaks of Ben Ledi and Ben Lawers – or looking down at myriad cascades along the way.

The author's friend heads north-east from Aberfoyle.
Heading north-east from Aberfoyle. Photograph: Dixe Wills for the Guardian

It must be said that, 283 years after his passing (against all odds MacGregor died in his bed, peacefully), traces of the infamous villain/hero are few and far between. Our journey had begun propitiously enough at Drymen’s Clachan Inn, a pub that gained its licence in the very year of MacGregor’s death, but the Rob Roy Experience in Callander has been closed since 2006; and, unaccountably, the way passes within two miles of Rob Roy’s grave at Balquhidder – with its fantastically defiant epitaph, “MACGREGOR DESPITE THEM” – but doesn’t deign to visit it.

Swimming in Loch Venachar, Rob Roy Way, Scotland
Swimming in Loch Venachar, Rob Roy Way. Photograph: Dixe Wills for the Guardian

At least the descendants of the cattle he was so adept at purloining still grazed the hillsides, dotting them black, brown, ginger and cream. The skies above them were awash with late-staying swallows, dining on what few early-autumn midges remained. Buzzards wheeled on high, while in one narrow glen a kestrel had an almighty altercation with a crow. At Loch Tay, we were entertained by red squirrels; and we stopped and gazed spellbound at brown-and-white dippers as they dived into a river to fish, tumbled and turned in the swift currents, then emerged unruffled to fly back upstream and feed again.

The Forth Inn, Aberfoyle.
The Forth Inn, Aberfoyle. Photograph: Phil Crowder

We fed rather well ourselves, and with rather less effort. It’s fair to say that rural Scotland is not yet renowned as a gourmet destination, but our evening meals were consistently delicious. Michael Clayton, the chef at Aberfoyle’s Forth Inn, worked particular wonders with vegetables and, so my companion informed me, venison too. Most of our lodgings, meanwhile, had evidently been built for well-to-do Victorians who enjoyed comfort and space – the landing at Aberfeldy’s gorgeous Balnearn House was so large it was worthy of a map.

It was during the final two days, when the Rob Roy Way finally leaves the glens – and civilisation – behind for extended stretches, that the walk really took off. We breathed in the silence and rejoiced to be in the hills, rather than merely spectators of them. We delighted in the fairytale Falls of Moness and their sylvan cloak, the Birks of Aberfeldy, a beguiling birch wood immortalised by Robert Burns.

The fairytale-like Falls of Moness.
The fairytale-like Falls of Moness. Photograph: Alamy

But we came closest to the spirit of Rob Roy on a road skirting Loch Tay.

“How far is it to Killin?” an elderly overalled man pushing an empty wheelbarrow asked us.

“It’s about 15 miles,” I estimated, then, unable to stop myself, enquired as to why he was pushing an empty wheelbarrow there.

“Oh, in case I need to pick up anything along the way,” he replied, walking purposefully away.

Now there’s enigmatic for you.
The trip was provided by Wilderness Scotland, whose Self-Guided Rob Roy Way costs from £720pp, including eight nights’ B&B, luggage transfers and route notes. Rail travel was supplied by Caledonian Scot , which has London-Glasgow overnight seats from £45 and sleeper beds from £100, and Pitlochry to London overnight seats from £50 (sleeper £100)