Following Queen Victoria into the great through route of the Grampians.
Distance 6.4 miles (10.4km)
Minimum time 3hrs 15min
Ascent/gradient 852ft (250m)
Level of difficulty Easy
Paths Estate tracks and smooth paths, 1 stile
Landscape Castle grounds, woodland, wild river valley and mountains
Suggested map aqua3 OS Explorers 386 Pitlochry & Loch Tummel; 394 Atholl
Start/finish NN 866662 (on Explorer 386)
Dog friendliness On leads on open grazing land
Parking Castle main car park
Public toilets Opposite driveway to castle
Notes Track through firing range closed on a few days each year (mostly weekdays). Consult Atholl Estate Ranger service
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1 Turn right in front of the castle to a four-way signpost, and bear right for a gate into Diana's Grove. Bear left on a wide path to Diana herself. Turn right on a path that leads to a giant redwood tree, then bear left, to cross Banvie Burn on a footbridge alongside a road bridge. A gate leads to the road.
2 You are now at Old Blair. Turn right and follow Minigaig Street uphill. It eventually becomes a track and enters forest. Ignore a track on the left and, in another ¼ mile (400m), fork right. In 60yds (55m) you pass a path down to the right with a green waymarker. This is the return route if the firing range ahead is closed. Otherwise keep ahead to emerge from the trees at the firing range gate.
3 A red flag flies here if the range is in use, but read the notice carefully as on most firing days the track route through the range may be used. Follow the main track gently downhill, well below the firing range targets, until you get to the riverside, then fork right to reach Gilbert's Bridge.
4 Cross and turn right over a cattle grid. Follow the track for 220yds (201m), then turn left up a steep little path under trees to a stile. A green track now runs down-valley with fine views. It passes along the top of a mixed birchwood. Once through a gate into the wood, keep on the main track, gently uphill. After the gate out of the wood, there's a view across Blair Castle to Schiehallion. Another gate leads on to a gravel track and then a tarred road.
5 Turn right, down a long hill, crossing some waterfalls on the way down. At the foot of the hill turn right, signed 'Old Blair', to cross the Old Bridge of Tilt, then turn left into a car park.
6 Just to the right of a signboard, yellow waymarkers indicate a path that passes under trees to the River Tilt. Turn right through an exotic grotto until wooden steps on the right lead up to the corner of a caravan park. Head directly away from the river under pines. Ignore a track on the right and, at the corner of the caravan park, keep ahead under larch trees following a faint path. Cross a track to take the clear path ahead towards Blair Castle. Bear left at a statue of Hercules, passing the Hercules Garden (which you may walk round) to the front of the castle.
Since humans first arrived, Tilt has been a natural highway. King Robert the Bruce marched down Glen Tilt in 1306 on his way to a minor defeat near Tyndrum. Some 200 years later James V and Mary, Queen of Scots attended a deer drive in 1529, but the next monarch to complete the whole route was Queen Victoria. She came this way with Prince Albert on the third of their 'great expeditions' from Balmoral. Along with the Christmas tree and the 'Scottish Baronial' style of architecture, multi-day hill walks were ideas introduced from Thuringia in Germany by the Prince Consort. Today we'd call it backpacking, except that the packs were carried by ponies and so were the people for much of the way. Even so, 69 miles (111km) from Dalwhinnie to Balmoral in a day was a considerable trek. Two bagpipers forded the Tarff side-stream waist deep, playing all the time, while the Queen came behind on her pony, led by her special ghillie, John Brown.
Kings and cattle thieves, soldiers and shepherds have used Glen Tilt for thousands of years, and its right-of-way status is self-evident. But in 1840, the then Duke of Atholl, whose castle lay at its foot, felt he could make his own law. He did, after all, boast Britain's only private army. He tried to turn back a botanical expedition lead by a certain Professor Balfour. The professor won the right to walk the route, and his victory is commemorated in a ballad:
'There's ne'er a kilted chiel
Shall drive us back this day, man.
It's justice and it's public richt
We'll pass Glen Tilt afore the nicht,
For Dukes shall we care ae bawbee?
The road's as free to you and me
As to his Grace himself, man'
Today a general right of responsible access to all hill ground is generally accepted, and about to be given the force of law by the Scottish Parliament. An 'Access Code', with the same status as the Highway Code for motorists, will define responsible access. During the deer-stalking season, from mid-August to October, polite and reasonable requests from the estate will be respected by hill walkers. Such a request is made at Gilbert's Bridge (Point 4).
At Blair Atholl Water Mill and Tea Room they don't just bake their own scones and shortbread, the flour and oatmeal are also ground on the premises. The mill dates from 1613, but the tea room is more recent; both are open from Easter to October (but not to dogs).
White-painted Blair Castle dominates Glen Garry. It claims to be the most-visited historic house in Scotland, with Queen Victoria, Bonnie Prince Charlie and Robert the Bruce among its early guests. Under a fine set of turrets and battlements, it has 32 elegant apartments in styles covering five centuries. Blair was one of the first of Scotland's private houses to open its doors to the public.
After a visit to admire the nearby Falls of Bruar in 1787, the poet Robert Burns in his Humble Petition of Bruar Water appealed to the Duke of Atholl to plant more trees. The duke took the hint, with 27 million conifers going into the estate over a period of 50 years. Diana's Grove is named after the classical Roman goddess of hunting, whose statue stands among 100-year-old specimens of various exotic conifers. Recent measurements show that several are Britain's biggest of their species.