Caterans, Cowboys and Cushion-covers

At the end of our first day on the Cateran Trail in August 2013, a friend and I found our way to a large plastic-wood bar at the Spittal of Glenshee Hotel. A cavernous room was crowded with families, runners, walkers, and middle-aged driving tourists. Propping up the bar, an ageing cowboy jangled his spurs, raised his hat to us, and began telling us the long story of his broken back.

‘Where’s your horse?’ I asked, only half-joking.

I imagined riding the route we’d just taken from Kirkmichael, climbing from Enochdu to pass the wooden hut where Queen Victoria had once taken lunch. The horse’s mane would lift in the breeze as we stopped at the bealach, a notch in the hill worn down by the tread of feet and hooves over centuries. Silhouetted magnificently against a pale sky we’d survey the high hills spreading ahead and fading blue to the north: a new land to me. An Ennio Moriccone soundtrack starts up at that point and then I cluck my mount on, down the grassy slope leading into the crevice between hills, towards the inn, its music, shelter and possible hospitality.

‘My car’s in the car-park.’ The Cowboy nodded outside. ‘I’ve been in posh hotels, me,’ he said. ‘Was a bodyguard for some pretty famous people.’ By implication they were over the ‘pond’ and must not be named.

Spittal of Glenshee from the Cateran Trail

When he swaggered out of earshot, his friendly wife confided to us that, if it wasn’t for him, she’d be out walking too. His back meant he must these days travel in a car supported by cushions. She was consigned to watching Scotland go past through the windscreen.

Radio 2 played Johnny Cash in the bar. I waited for Dean Martin and Dolly Parton. Claymores and other armaments hung on the wall. For some reason a cowboy didn’t seem so surprising here, such is the crossing of cultures at a wayside inn. I imagined truck-drivers pulling in for lunch – their boxed cattle left huffing and chewing outside – and mixing with skiers in the winter. It was perhaps friendly partly because nobody quite belonged, a stopping point on a high and lonely road, as it always has been, between North and South. Drovers once paused here with their cattle on their way to Kirkmichael’s Michaelmas fair or on to markets in the central belt by way of Ballinluig. That was, at least until the cattle trade died out in the mid-19th century. The route was also said to have been used by ‘caterans’ (a word that came to refer to Highland cattle-raiders) taking their stolen cattle back to the Highland glens by way of Glenshee. A raid here was halted by a great battle with clansmen from both sides of the Cairnwell in 1644, a story echoed in several other battles remembered around the Cateran Trail.

Our chatty cowboy perhaps didn’t realise the historical allusion he made on this lonely road. When the cattle business that was the basis of the Scottish Highland economy for so long began to falter, it gave European roots to the cowboy life across the Atlantic. Better-off Scots became involved in ranching; others went as migrant workers and became cowboys in the American West. Many of these may have come from droving backgrounds, or, who knows, may have been better described as ‘caterans’. Rob Gibson’s fascinating book Plaids and Bandanas: From Highland Drover to Wild West Cowboy explores the cultural and historical links between droving and driving, reivers and rustlers; the weaving of music, skills and people across the Atlantic because of cattle.

A sign in the Hotel’s porch explained the meaning of ‘spittal’ and then noted: ‘Unfortunately during its 1000-year history the spittal has been burned down at least 15 times. However, our insurers have estimated the next burning will not occur before the year 2029 AD.’ Sadly, they were incorrect, the hotel burnt down not long after our visit and has not yet risen again from the ashes.

At the Spittal of Glenshee

The Cateran Trail is a 64-mile, roughly circular route through the upland rural landscape of eastern Perthshire and is defined by Strathardle, Glen Isla and Glen Shee. There is a pleasure in circumscribing a piece of this heartland, an unassuming but satisfying landscape incorporating high heather moorland and low pasture towards the Carse of Gowrie where berry-fields these days shimmer under plastic.

Between the high land and the low, the trail threads through rolling hills and winding, wooded river valleys reminiscent of ‘The Shire’. Passing hill forts, haunted castles, old mills and carved stones, it offers quiet except for the occasional whoosh of a turbine blade, the peep of golden plover on the moorland and, of course, the low moans of taut-skinned cattle shouldered into the dips between the rise of similarly muscular hills, who raise their heads as I pass.

Because I don’t live too far away, I’ve followed the trail’s length in odd days here and there since 2013, discovering a variety of terrain straddling the Highland Boundary Fault Line. Its farmland, forests and moors were largely unknown to me before and I’ve loved the sense of discovery, the glimpses into villages and estates, the opening up of hidden back-ways, the next inn or tea-shop never too far away, and the sense of my steps overlaying layers of history. Being circular, there’s a particular satisfaction in seeing features of a terrain that’s partially familiar reappearing at a different angle or in a new effect of light and season. The cone-shape of the Cairnwell Summit comes in and out of sight, an orientating high beacon always to the north as you draw your circle.

Small delights of walking it for me – apart from the cowboy in the bar – included meeting a woman who had collected a whole bucketful of wild raspberries on a late summer day, and offered me a taste of them and a welcome to her cottage nearby should I need anything. There was the pleasure of descending into the wynds of Alyth and finding myself on ‘Toutie Street’, so called because the village herdsman would slowly make his way each morning towards Alyth Hill tooting his horn so that folk shooed their cows out into his care for a day’s grazing. And having walked some of Wade’s Roads, I enjoyed the distinctive banks and stones thrown up either side of one of the stretches of Caulfeild’s military road incorporated into the trail. It gives the way a directness and a pleasingly familiar profile to follow.

This walk would perhaps particularly appeal to tree-lovers: Grand oaks and aged beech line the spines of hills (though admittedly there are some stretches of spruce plantation to stomp through); a walk in which to enjoy autumn colour. And a walk to take either in company – because often the paths are wide enough to allow chat – or alone, for reflection, as the waymarking is consistently good and allows the mind freedom to wander.

In the last two years, a visionary project ‘Cateran’s Common Wealth’, the brainchild of independent arts producer Clare Cooper, has focused on the Cateran Trail, enhancing and celebrating the places, history and lively current culture that gives this area a ‘wealth’ not exactly describable in economic terms. Rather, it’s a form of wealth that a community both looks after and builds upon through the generations – buildings, biodiversity, landscapes, knowledge. The project has involved many of the organisations, businesses, schools, artists and communities embraced by the Trail.

A range of activities have been undertaken, including walks and talks to explore the history and archaeology, resulting in an exhibition and associated book: ‘The story of the Cateran Trail in 100 Objects’. Of the objects, which were proposed by people in the community, a personal favourite is Blairgowrie’s 19th century ‘drunk’s cart’. Another outcome is the ‘Story Box’, a disused telephone-box in Alyth where one can dial up locally-related stories and songs, such as legendary traveller Belle Stewart’s The Berry Fields of Blair.

Place-name research has also been undertaken, and a series of oblique aerial photographs of the area taken by Perth and Kinross Heritage Trust (PKHT). These photos reveal layers of history; traces of shielings, hut circles, burial cairns and roundhouses alongside old roads, snow-scored lines of rig-and-furrow cultivation, multi-period defences, a crannog dwelling on Loch Beanie as well as the routes of burns and rivers which thread capillaries through this land, and form tree-like footprints. The photos highlight the differing textures of pasture and moorland, land management practices such as the patchworked grouse moor and strips of heather-burning. Cattle appear, spine on, all ancient angles as they group in pools of sunlight. And there’s Alyth, the photo clearly revealing its original pattern when founded as a Burgh of Barony market town in 1488 and its subsequent development through cattle droving, wool, linen and jute trades. I found myself thrilled to witness this further dimension; the invisible wrinkles and features of past occupation made into visible patterning by height and strong light.

Such photos are routinely made of archaeologically-rich areas by PKHT but rarely find further use. The Cateran Commons project brought in one of Scotland’s foremost contemporary textile artists, Deirdre Nelson, known for harnessing research, humour and craft technique to contribute to projects dealing with social and environmental issues. Citing walking as the most ancient exercise and as an important way of seeing the landscape and feeling its history, she led walks which encouraged a sense of joy and belonging in the natural world. She also drew on the exciting colour and visual inspiration of the aerial photographs, and of place-names, to provoke creative activity, offering local people of all ages, and particularly children from five local primary schools, the opportunity to take part in workshops to design and make new Cateran textiles.

The photographs were printed onto cotton, bamboo, and linen cloth and participants were then invited to enhance and add another layer to them by stitching. This was a new skill to many of the children she worked with, who highlighted with bold lines of colour existing archaeology or more recent features which drew the eye such as the white dotted-line tacking along an A-road. By doing this they learned an important manual competence, engaged with the material world and gained a greater sense of and pride in their own environment, seeing local landmarks in a completely fresh way; literally getting intimate with the fabric of ‘their’ land.

Each school then decided where in the community their creations should find a home. Some, for example, made cushion-covers to go to one of the local care homes; another school made bunting to be used in local celebrations. Thus, the project amplified the idea of ‘Commons’ as land and resources that belong to a whole community.

The residency has culminated in an exhibition of the newly-designed textiles and their sources of inspiration at The Barony, Alyth, and the Wellmeadow Café, Blairgowrie, and also forms the basis of a new booklet about the creative response to the Cateran Trail’s landscapes.

A walk, at least for me, is rarely only a visual or sensory feast or a bodily excursion. It also gives a feeling of learning the place, of observing and discovering insights into the past, or even imagining into its future. This project has enhanced that process and made it explicit. It makes me wonder whether more of our national trails, or even paths used by local people and visiting walkers, would benefit from cultural projects such as this; the opportunity to experience a place afresh and contribute to enhancing it.
Asked about the purpose of linking an artistic project to a walking trail, Clare Cooper quotes Marcel Proust: “The real act of discovery consists not in finding new lands, but in seeing with new eyes”.

Walkhighlands guide to The Cateran Trail
Cateran Commons Projects

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