Scotland's newest long distance walk has one special ingredient that should make it very popular indeed. The Cateran Trail, a 63 mile circuit starting and finishing in Blairgowrie, boasts a pub every 12 miles or so, an asset which will doubtless appeal to a great many hikers.
Officially opened by SNP leader John Swinney, the route is already drawing walkers from all over the UK and has attracted interest from the Continent and even Australia.
It differs in its concept from Scotland's other established long distance paths in that it has not simply been created for the purpose of healthy outdoor pursuit. It's backers hope it will pump significant amounts of revenue into the economy of the area and bring new business to scattered rural communities facing lean times.
Named after medieval brigands from the Highlands who plundered the cattle rich glens of Perthshire and Angus, the circuit wends it ways through some of the finest scenery this part of Scotland has to offer.
The strategic positioning of towns and villages along the way enables the walker to conclude each day with a hearty plate of pub grub, a steaming hot bath and a comfy bed. If that's not enough to tempt the most reticent of armchair explorers into action, there's even a sherpa service to take care of the luggage.
It has taken almost four years to bring the project to fruition. Once a route had been mapped out, negotiations took place with over 30 landowners.
Setting off from Blairgowrie, the Cateran Trail runs north through open country to Bridge of Cally and Kirkmichael, before climbing over the hills to Spittal of Glenshee. Walkers turn south to Blacklunans before heading east into Glen Isla, running down through Kirkton of Glenisla then on to Alyth. At this point it turns west, returning to Bridge of Cally and the final stretch leads back into Blairgowrie.
Hotels, guesthouses and B&Bs along the way break the 63 mile total down into bite-sized chunks, offering a daily mileage of between nine and 14 miles.
The driving force behind the Cateran Trail is local businessman and outdoor enthusiast Allan Dick.
''Rather than just building a trail for the sake of building a trail, we have created something here that will attract people into the area and boost the economy,'' he said.
Scottish Tourist Board estimates suggest that each person who walks the way will spend £40 a day. Simple arithmetic reveals that if each one spends five nights in the area, £200 will be generated. If 5,000 people do it each year, local businesses such as shops, pubs, taxis, hotels and B&Bs, will benefit to the tune of £1 million per annum.
''If we can attract that level of visitor number it would be wonderful and would go along way to revitalising the villages of the glens,'' he added.
Allan was vice-chairman of the Glenshee Tourist Association when he came up with the idea and he admits that the first tentative plans were scribbled out on a piece of scrap paper.
Scouring local maps, he identified existing Rights of Way, tracks and paths and pulled them together to form the circuit.
He recalls: ''There were a lot of complaints about the lack of people stopping in the area and from hoteliers and guesthouse owners who were not able to get the bed numbers they wanted.
''Eight years ago I had been involved with Scottish Enterprise Tayside looking at walking in the Angus area. I went back to have a look at the notes I made then and started to pencil in a possible route for a circular walk.''
However, taking the project from a scrap of paper to a waymarked trail on the ground was clearly not going to be just a walk in the park. First off, permission had to be obtained from landowners over whose ground the route would run.
Allan discussed the idea with local councillor Bob Ellis, a former hill runner, and he quickly spotted its potential. Indeed, he describes the completed route as: ''A delightful walk set in magnificent scenery - every day was a new treat''.
In late 1997 an approach was made to the Perth & Kinross Countryside Trust who were equally positive. They invested £50,000 in creating the physical route on the ground, building bridges and stiles and erecting the distinctive Cateran Trail waymarkers, posts feature a heart symbol. The route bills itself as being in ''the heart of Scotland''.
Technical advisor to the trust, Brenda Clough said the organisation works to develop access in the countryside. She said the Cateran Trail is a good example of this, particularly through the way negotiations have been undertaken with a large number of landowners.
''The landowners have generally been very helpful and receptive, although in
some places alterations have had to be made to accommodate the route,'' she continued.
''Quite a lot of people have been using the walk, a lot of them just doing day walks, and there has already been evidence it is bringing money in and helping local businesses.''
Brenda added that the trust is working on a network of paths round Blairgowrie which ties in well with the new trail.
Negotiation with landowners to determine an acceptable route was one of the biggest tasks embarked upon - it took two and a half years to complete. Modifications were made where necessary and ultimately written permission was obtained from each.
''The general consensus was from the landowners has been very good,'' said Allan.
A third of the route runs over existing Right of Ways but the rest is essentially over ''permissive paths'', routes that have received the blessing of the landowners.
''This is the sensible way forward because at the end of the day it is someone's land,'' Allan added.
The official opening ceremony in September, where Mr Swinney cut the ribbon with
a huge claymore, didn't mark an end to the work. The trail will have to be maintained and any problems that crop up dealt with.
This is where the innovative Cateran Trail Trust comes in. Local businesses who benefit from the predicted influx of walkers are being encouraged to make a contribution to the fund. It will also receive a percentage of the proceeds from the Cateran Trail map.
This will ensure cash is always readily available for repairs, allowing work to
be carried out speedily. As with many popular paths, erosion may be one such
problem that has to be tackled. But there are many more mundane jobs, such as
cutting weeds away from around waymarkers to ensure they don't get lost in the undergrowth.
Despite only being open for a few months, visitors are already making tracks for Blairgowrie and the response has been very favourable. Enquiries have been received from around the UK, and from as far away as Germany, the Netherlands and Australia.
Allan said: ''Most people come back and say it is a wonderful walk. All feedback
is good because it allows us to go out and make modifications where necessary.''
Local businesses are starting to reap the rewards too. Steve Higson, owner of the Glenisla Hotel, said: ''The trail was only opened in September and already we've had 60 room nights from it. It should do a power of good. All in all the trail is probably one of the biggest things we've had in this area for tourists in a very long time.''
Steve said he walked the West Highland Way last January and is planning to do the complete Cateran Trail circuit.
Some alterations to the Cateran Trail route are already planned. Around eight miles of the trail currently involves walking on minor roads and Allan is keen to cut this down to a minimum, realising walkers would rather have the satisfying crunch of dirt and gravel under their boot soles than the dull, plodding thud of asphalt. The Perth & Kinross Countryside Trust is also keen to see this happen.
The Cateran Trail has the established long distance routes to thank for some of its features. When the West Highland Way opened it was simply a long walk from Glasgow to Fort William. Walkers were left very much to their own devices. Over time, however, a miriad of complementary services sprang up, ranging from a simple luggage transfer service to fully tailored package holidays, as entrepreneurs latched on to the ever growing popularity of hiking.
The Cateran Trail offers these from the start. A reception centre for the trail has been set up in Boat Brae, Blairgowrie, to provide an accommodation booking service, car parking and a luggage transfer point. Full packages are also available, from around £150. A safety alert service has been devised in conjunction with Tayside Police and the mountain rescue service. If a walker fails to arrive at a pre-determined point by 8pm the alarm will be raised. Aswell as the very detailed Cateran Trail map, an impressive website is now online and the publication of a guide book is planned.
All in all the Cateran Trail seems to have hit the ground running.