Travel: Ride across the heart of the Highlands

Rupert Isaacson discovers that the best way to explore some of Scotland's most isolated and spectacular scenery is from the saddle
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The Independent Travel
THIS IS probably the toughest trail ride currently running in Britain, a 10-day, 200 mile, trans-Scotland journey from the riding centre (actually a hill farm) in Glass, Aberdeenshire, clear across the Grampians, Cairngorms, and into the Western Highlands, riding through to the Atlantic at Shiel Bridge via the high emptiness of the Forest of Kintail. In all, some of the most dramatic landscape in Britain - and some of the most impossibly named; try pronouncing Coirre Shubh, for instance.

And you don't just look at this huge, heart-rendingly romantic landscape, you have to cross it, sometimes at a fast canter along the floor of a wide glen, sometimes picking your way up a 3,000ft pass, sometimes fording fast-flowing, icy streams that come up to your horse's belly. It's adventurous stuff.

This no pony trek - you have to be able to ride to at least intermediate level - though the horses (fit cobs and hunters between 15.2 hands and 16.2 hands) are quiet, hard-workers, too busy coping with the terrain to waste energy bucking you off. But they do expect a certain standard of rider and might try their sense of humour out on a total novice. You should also be used to very long hours in the saddle, and hard weather. Your guide - Fiona Hill, now in her third year - has most of the worry: making last-minute route changes if weather, loss of horseshoes, a fallen rider, or any other problem arises. Raised in southern England, rather than the glens, she has had to learn it all in a year, having taken over from Highland Horseback's founder, Tony Montgomery, who died of a heart attack two years ago. "Up until then I had just been a client - there to enjoy myself," she says ruefully. "It's tough, but it's the best job in Britain."

She's right - she now leads eight trans-Scotland rides per season: who else gets to spend the whole summer riding an estimated 2,000 miles through the best of the Scottish Highlands?

But to go as a client is pure pleasure and a great adventure. The group - never more than 10 people - takes extra horses so that the mounts can be rotated and rest their backs on the demanding trek. This means that you ride with the herd, several loose horses following with you, a very natural way to travel. It's a bit like going back to the Middle Ages. If you haven't the time to do the full 10-day ride, you can opt for half of it, either the western or eastern sections, ridden over four days. And there's more good news - you may have to brave the rough weather, but there's no roughing it by night. At the end of each day you ride down to a comfortable hotel and a big meal, your luggage having been taken on by car that day. The back-up vehicle is also in regular contact with Fiona, ensuring that emergencies don't turn into disasters.

Most of all, though, this is a journey to absolute beauty: white mist moving off the mountains; vivid purple heather bloom; herds of red deer so big that it can seem as if the whole hillside gets up and walks away; sheets of rain with the sun breaking through; and a sudden glimpse of the whole Western Highlands laid out before you, framed between your horse's ears. You'll also get very close to your mount - grooming, feeding, and generally seeing to his welfare before your own.

horse riding fact file

Contact

Highland Horseback, Cairnargat, Glass, Huntly, Aberdeenshire, tel: 01466 700 304.

Accommodation

In country hotels along the route - cost included in fee.

Food

A good standard of cuisine. Special diets by prior arrangement.

Season

May-October.

Children

Over 16s only.

Disabled facilities

None.

Insurance

Clients should arrange their own personal accident insurance.

Safety

Ride leader Fiona Hill is in contact with mountain and air rescue if necessary.

Tariffs

Ten day Trans-Scotland ride costs pounds 1,080 per person. Five nights half- way ride costs pounds 540.

Booking

Deposit of pounds 100 with booking. Balance due six weeks prior to ride. Payment by cheque.

Access

Huntly lies on the A96 and A920 in Aberdeenshire. For directions to Glass, ring centre. The nearest railway station is at Huntly, which can be reached from Aberdeen or Inverness.

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