Behind the tranquil landscape of Strathmore and the northern glens traversed by the Cateran Trail is a dramatic story, stretching back millions of years, which can be read in the rocks and landforms through which trail passes. The resulting physical landscape can be seen to have a profound influence on patterns of settlement, cultivation and transport.
The Physical Landscape : Geology and Scenery
The route of the Cateran Trail takes one across the Highland Boundary Fault, an ancient geological divide between the Highlands and Lowlands of Scotland, running from Stonehaven in the east to Helensburgh in the west. To the north of this divide are harder metamorphic rocks, schists, quartzites and limestones formed by heat and pressure resulting from huge earth movements which brought about the uplift of the Grampian mountain range. There followed a long period of erosion, with rivers carrying material into the neighbouring lowlands to form sedimentary rocks, conglomerates or pudding stones which can be seen in places such as the Craighall Gorge and Den of Alyth, and softer sandstones a little further to the south in Strathmore. The tilting of these rocks by later earth movements was accompanied by vigorous volcanic activity, with the eruption of lavas which now form the Sidlaws a short distance to the south.
In more recent times, during the last Ice Age, the landscape was shaped by glaciers, when the Perthshire and Angus hills were overridden by a great ice sheet, giving them their characteristic rounded shape. The final phase of the Ice Age involved valley glaciers in Strathardle, Glenshee and Glenisla, which rounded off spurs and crags as they pushed their way southward. The melting of the glaciers saw huge quantities of rock dumped as moraines, or as sand and gravel carried by meltwater streams, burying the solid rocks in all but a few places. These deposits form many of the mounds and steep sided terraces seen in northern glens, and broad spreads of material in the adjacent lowlands.
The Cultural Landscape : Patterns of Cultivation and Settlement
A major influence on the human or cultural landscape which has emerged since the retreat of the glaciers are the soils which have developed since the last glaciation, which do much to determine the pattern of land use and settlement. In the uplands the soils are thinner and more acid, characterised by large areas of heather moorland and summer grazing. Within the more sheltered glens gravel terraces offer year-round grazing, while the richer alluvial ground alongside the rivers and in the neighbouring lowlands lends itself more to arable cultivation. Steeper slopes and marshy ground tend to be wooded, whether with semi-natural woodlands or plantations. At the same time, limestone quarries such as that at Wester Bleaton, and the existence of a number of old lime-kilns throughout the area, serve to remind us of the constant need to maintain the fertility of the soils.
The underlying geology is also clearly reflected in the variety of building stones to be found throughout the area – in the characteristic red sandstones used in the majority of houses in Blairgowrie and Alyth to south of the Highland Boundary Fault, and in the grey schist and quartzite used in most of the houses in the northern glens, as well as in the construction of the numerous drystane dykes which festoon the hills and valley sides.
The topography has influenced the pattern of settlement in the glens, from prehistoric times onwards, with evidence to be seen in such things as numerous Bronze Age hut circles and standing stones, and the long-abandoned clachans or farmtowns strung out along the valley sides. Travellers, too, have always been obliged to follow the valleys, whether the ancient cattle droving routes running south from Deeside and Strathspey down Glenfernate and Stathardle to Kirkmichael, and thence via Glenderby to Ballinluig and Strathtay, or down Glenisla further to the east ; or the military road leading from Coupar Angus through Glenericht and Glenshee to the Spittal of Glenshee, and on to Fort George, built in the 1740s.
Finally, the physical boundary between the Highlands and Lowlands is reflected in the place names to be found along the route of the Cateran Trail, those further to the south being predominantly English, and those to the north mostly Gaelic in origin. The Gaelic place-names in particular are descriptive, and reflect the intimate relationship between the local inhabitants and their landscape. Alongside human place-name elements such as tigh meaning house, baile or bal meaning farmstead and dail or dal meaning field or meadow, are numerous names to do with the shape and character of the landscape – craig meaning cliff, carn meaning rocky hill, meall meaning rounded hill, and uchd meaning steep bank ; others to do with the colour of the landscape, as uaine meaning green, dearg meaning red, or dubh meaning black ; and still others to do with the natural world, as coille meaning wood or forest, bad meaning clump of trees, loin meaning marsh or meadow, or daimh meaning stag.
We’d like your suggestions as which landscapes around the Cateran Trail should be included in the story we hope to tell through this project.
You can go here on the site to make your suggestion, tell us a little about why you think it should be included and load up a photograph of the landscape you want to propose.
Christopher Dingwall, Heritage Consultant and Lecturer
Photo: View from the Cateran Trail Looking towards Glenshee, courtesy of Clare Cooper