Even though this is largely on land rover track, you don't normally get to ride this route in winter because of the snow and ice. However, it was so snow-free, dry and mild that the three of us decided to give it a go. Two of us live locally and know it well. It's tempting to ride it clockwise but resist that! By riding anticlockwise you get that sweet Fealar singletrack and then 13 or so miles straight down Glen Tilt to the Atholl Arms!
It starts with a killer climb up from Blair Atholl up the River Tilt, through Old Bridge of Tilt and then by the Fender Burn on the Monzie road to Loch Moraig. It continues with a more gentle climb towards the uninhabited farm of Shinagag (with a wide and shallow ford en route that should be taken slowly if you want to try to keep your feet dry). Before the descent to the Girnaig Burn bridge for Shinagag look out for the old track branching off to your left/East (639 682) . It sometimes has a cairn marking it but this often falls over. If you follow it then you'll come to the Girnaig about a mile further upstream of Shinagag. Fording is usually easy but at least one wet foot is guaranteed most of the time. Head upstream for a hundred metres or so and you'll see a natural weir formed by the burn. You might find it easier to cross there.
Push your bike up the hill (much further than you think) and you'll encounter the solid, singletrack (and ancient) trail from Shinagag to Glen Fernate. The views to your left are fab/distracting and it's a good place to look for eagles and red deer. This is an area steeped in hunting history (the gaelic place names support this) and territorial disputes. Mary, Queen of Scots hunted here and is reputed to have caused the death of several beaters by releasing her hounds too early and stampeded the deer over the men. Soon you meet the land rover track for an exhilarating downhill to the site of the old bothy at Ruigh Chuilein. To your left towards Loch Loch is the site of a fairly recent tragedy involving the crew and passengers of an RAF Hercules transport aircraft. Loch Loch itself is worth a detour any day, it's name is self-evident! It is home to Arctic charr and has some really interesting plants on the crags above.
Now, take the undulating track down to Daldhu and turn left up Glen Fernate towards Fealar Lodge. This is a long series of climbs, with exhilarating downhills, taking you deeper into the mountains. Not long after halfway round this circuit, you come to the long, narrow, wooded gorge of Gleann Mor and then Feith Lair gorge (where the name Fealar comes from). Shortly after you encounter Fealar.
The appearance of a settlement is surprising enough but the pink paintwork gives a further, if somewhat incongruous, touch! This is reputed to be the most isolated inhabited home in Scotland. It's difficult to disagree. I know several people who have lived here and, although life wasn't easy, Fealar is held with deep affection. You can imagine the stories that this place has generated over the centuries! Further progress is not clear at this point. So, go through the gate and then follow the track towards the houses bearing left round towards the yapping dogs in the kennels. The trail continues to the right of the kennels and out through a gate into the fields, becoming singletrack and heading towards Glen Tilt. This section is on fenced, rough grassland and apart from some short very boggy sections and burn crossings, is rideable with a few gate stops.
The singletrack leading down to the nascent River Tilt is amongst the sweetest in Scotland. If your mojo is present then expect to arrive at the river bank with cheeks sweetly painful from grinning, your nostrils full of the acrid stench of brake pads and adrenaline influenced hyperbole on your lips ! There's no shame in dabbing, just get yourself down safely to the river crossing. This is generally straightforward, but take care and don't try and stay dry (in the unlikely event that you still are). On the other side of the river you are heading left. You can cycle through to Braemar if you turn right. but this report isn't about that route! By the river, you'll see several remains of settlements and buildings. These are a testament to past communities who populated these glens. Centuries ago, a nasty, bullying local laird met a bad end near to here. His horse was found by the river, several miles from where it was judged to have stampeded. The laird's leg was all that was still attached to the horse, by the stirrup. Oops. 'Devil mend you', as my Mum would've said.
Swing your leg back over your frame and enjoy the technical singletrack downstream to the Bedford Bridge. The plaque tells you a little of the reason why it is so named. In order to prevent the great unwashed from disturbing his deer shooting, a former Duke of Atholl had the previous bridge removed. A young English lad called Bedford drowned attempting to ford the Tarff at this point. A public subscription was put together and a new bridge was installed. Be grateful for their generosity and spirit! Soon the singletrack ends and the land rover track restarts. This will be your companion for many miles down through the extraordinary Glen Tilt (in winter no adult salmon will bve around but it's fun spotting them in pools in the summer). Generally, downhill and fast, you are heading to Blair Atholl (an hour or so away) and rest/pints/crisps/food/car/home/therapy/relationship counselling, whatever!
Be aware that the glen is soaked in history: Kings brought Papal Envoys here for a decadent feast, it gave birth to the Scottish Rights of Way movement, it's where the first manned, powered flight took place in the British Isles, it's where some of the most significant interpretations in geology were described first bringing into fierce confrontation scientific theory and the beliefs of the established church, there was a marble quarry, US Presidents and other World Leaders have shot deer here but it's the links to Queen Victoria and Prince Albert that are probably most popularly known. There are lots of stories in books of local history and some great illustrations of their expeditions up the Glen. Seek out the picture of them crossing the Tarff ford complete with kilted pipers! Fantastic or just a bit daft?! See John Kerr's books for much better info.
Continue on for miles. Cross the Tilt down at Cumhann-leum Bridge, climb up the last incline and then tear down the descent that spits you out of the glen road, past the wee cottage, across the road and into the Glen Tilt car park. To get to the village, continue on down past the car park, with the caravan site on your left until you encounter the main drive to Blair Castle. Turn left on to it and head down to Blair Atholl. If the main gates are closed then bikes can exit by a track to the left of the gates. That's it! You've done it and if you're normal then you'll be knackered, happy and in much need of sustenance. Remember beer is food! ;-) I hope you enjoy and appreciate it, Mike
Do it anticlockwise, like the locals.
Bring a map: OS Landranger 43 Braemar & Blair Atholl is best and shows bale-out routes if required. The Explorer's might give more detail but you'll have to carry two or three to cover the area.
Escape Route in Pitlochry (01796 473859), ten mins by car south of Blair Atholl, is my friend's genuinely outstanding bike shop. You can have anything done there, supplied there and laugh while sipping freshly ground coffee while you do.
This is a six hours bike ride amongst mountains, often isolated by hours from help.
Phone signal is patchy and unreliable after crossing the Girnaig.
In addition to the usual Camelback stuff, bring extra food, socks, a hat, gloves and a replacement rear dropout.
Don't try to race it unless you've something to prove. This is a route to be savoured, shared and laughed about.