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Making the Rob Roy Way suitable for horses

Rob Roy McGregor lived from 1671 to 1734 and spent so much of his life in and around the Loch Lomond and the Trossachs area that you'll hear it described as 'Rob Roy Country'.

Marking the Rob Roy way
Marking the Rob Roy way

Rob was essentially a canny businessman, an 18th century Highland Arthur Daley, but time and Sir Walter Scott's romantic 1818 novel Rob Roy have transformed him into a mythical hero. The 1985 Liam Neeson film - also fictional though unrelated to Scott's novel - didn't do the legend any harm.

Rob Roy-related tourism has been big business in the Trossachs since Scott's time and it remains so. The Rob Roy Way has been a relatively recent addition to the area's tourism product, a 77-mile walking and cycling route between Drymen and Pitlochry.

Much of the route traverses country associated with Rob Roy, though it goes nowhere near his birthplace at Glengyle, avoids association-heavy Loch Lomond, bypasses his grave at Balquhidder Kirk and in its later stretches around Aberfeldy and Pitlochry is far from the heart of 'Rob Roy Country'.

Perhaps the route would be more accurately described as a grand tour of Highland Perthshire.

Of course, the creation of any new leisure route through the countryside raises issues of cost, access and maintenance, and it can also be tricky to balance the interests of leisure users and agricultural and forestry interests. The different groups using the route may also have conflicting interests and access needs.

That's why I was asked by Scottish Natural Heritage and the British Horse Society (Scotland) to audit the Rob Roy Way to establish what stretches were suitable for horse riders, what stretches weren't, and what barriers needed removing to bring the route up to standard for riders.

I knew much of the RRW already from walking and cycling trip, but I felt that I needed an insight into the equestrian user's perspective, so for the first stretch I audited I was accompanied by my wife, Rhoda, and her pony Fizz.

We chose the stretch from Drymen Road to Aberfoyle because it begins at a capacious Forestry Commission car park, with plenty of room for parking the horse-box and loading and unloading Fizz.

Access to the RRW is easy for walkers and cyclists. The route starts in Drymen Square at the village's main bus stop and finishes a short walk from Pitlochry Railway Station.

In between, there's no end of bus routes and car parks. However, the equestrian user with a horsebox needs a lot of parking and manoeuvring space and many car parks are unsuitable.

Throughout the entire route, I only came across a single car park with a notice inviting use by horseboxes. The smaller forestry car parks along the route provide better horsebox parking than the ever-busy large tourist ones.

Fizz enjoyed the broad forestry roads and didn't have any problems with the concrete bridges or with the grazing pigs near Aberfoyle - apparently some horses do have problems with pigs. As I cycled alongside, it was clear that horses can bring complications that bike's don't.

The RRW is often hilly and there are some steep, wild sections. Where the route followed forestry or water authority roads and tracks, the going was perfect for horse riders, but in the wilder sections, with the route corridorised by fences and forestry, heavy use had reduced the path to a forbidding gluepot. Not suitable for horses anyway, but these sections also tended to have barriers in the form of fences crossed only by stiles.

Beyond Killin, the route offered tremendous high-level riding, with a high point 20m higher than the West Highland Way's summit, though riders are unable to continue all the way to Ardeonaig on Loch Tay.

Another magnificent stretch runs from Callander to Killin, largely following the former railway line. It must have been a magnificent railway journey, but today at least it provides a tremendous experience for walkers, cyclists and riders. Frustratingly, the only real barrier to horse use on this long section was a single locked gate a few miles south of Strathyre. Hopefully, equestrian access can be secured in future.

My audit was carried out during the forgettable summer of 2012, and took over three months to complete. I needed dry weather, as taking notes in the rain would have been no joke, yet my survey of the glorious stretches either side of Killin coincided with some of the best weather of the year - in October!

A short stretch of the RRW, in forest north of Strathyre, was closed owing to felling operations at the time of the audit.

Such temporary arrangements are necessary so that leisure and forestry/agricultural interests can live and let live. The temporary alternative route followed a public footpath through fields, some of which had horses grazing - so not a suitable alternative for horse riders.

Hopefully, the report I completed will provide useful information for the various authorities, land-based interests and those responsible for access and leisure.

Caroline Fyfe, from Scottish Natural Heritage said: "We're really pleased that an equestrian audit has been carried out for the Rob Roy Way, one of Scotland's Great Trails. The suggestion for such audits was put forward by BHS (Scotland) in 2012 and the Rob Roy Way audit was carried out as a pilot project that summer."

After all, there are other routes in other parts of Scotland, and horse riders aren't going to go away.

"We hope this pilot will be extended to other long distance routes," Caroline continued, "and this will improve opportunities for all kinds of users in the future."

Many walkers and cyclists follow the RRW from start to finish, providing valuable income for hostels, B&Bs, restaurants and shops along the way.

Few horse riders would be able to use the resource in this way, but many stretches offer great riding. With the odd barrier removed, and a little give and take in the use of car parks, horse riders could enjoy much of the route.

For me, carrying out the audit was an instructive experience in the importance of every party - riders, cyclists, walkers, forestry operators, farmers - respecting each other's rights and interests.