Balquhidder and Kirkton Glen – Heart of Rob Roy Country

Balquhidder and Kirkton Glen offer a fine afternoon’s hike and possibly a glimpse of the local ghost – a Highlander and his dog! Spooky for sure!

Balquhidder is a scattered (but very friendly) community and real Highland settlement, strung along Balquidder Glen, at right angles to the main road north and west from the Highland-edge town of Callander.

Kirkton Glen runs north, off Balquhidder Glen. There is a lot of heritage here – not just Rob Roy’s grave – though Balquhidder is also quite close to all the resources of the Lowlands of central Scotland. There are some fine alpine plants at the top of the glen – and crags and a lonely loch, all set in wild Highland landscape.

Because of the setting amid the hills, Balquhidder and Kirkton Glen are well worth a visit. Many visitors stop off because of the Clan Gregor connections.

Fewer though put on their hiking boots and head along the path, behind the church, that leads up into Kirkton Glen itself. Here are my notes from a trip there a little while back.

Rob Roy's grave. Balquhidder kirkyard
Rob Roy Macgregor’s grave, in the Balquhidder kirkyard. Grave slabs are mediaeval and re-used. Rob’s family were obviously thrifty Highlanders.

Rob Roy’s Grave

That famous old rogue and folk hero Rob Roy Macgregor lies by the old kirk (church) in Balquhidder Glen, north of Callander, off an important road that eventually leads west to Oban or Fort William.

On our most recent visit, on the Highlander’s grave there was a large sprig of Scots pine, laid there by the Clan Gregor Society on his birthday.

But there was also some miscellaneous bric-a-brac and a large amount of coins.

I don’t remember that from before, when I passed this way a lot. Nice to see he’s still popular. (Locally based Scottish tour guide Charles Hunter tells me the money goes to charity on a regular basis.)

At the top of the Kirkton Glen pass
A gloomy day in Kirkton Glen, Balquhidder. View back down Kirkton Glen towards Balquhidder from the watershed and the base of the Meall an Fhiodhain crags.

Please note the dog is a real dog and not the ghost mentioned in the text below. I hope you don’t mind, but I’ve just left all the pictures of that day a bit gloomy on this page.

I only whacked up the colour saturation a wee bit but there’s plenty of sunny cheerful stuff elsewhere on this site. (Isn’t there?)

The Walk Up Kirkton Glen

It’s worth discovering Kirkton Glen if visiting the famous grave site. It’s easy to find.

The path up and into the glen starts right behind the church. (Hence the name – the glen with the ‘kirk-toun’ or church-township, obviously.)

My own earliest memories of walking here recall a track up and through swathes of muffling conifers. As a reminder of how quickly things change, these have been felled and replaced by, uhmm, more swathes of conifers that haven’t quite started to muffle yet.

At the moment you can see all the way to the watershed. But whatever stage the trees are when you walk here, they do end and you emerge into the open glen. 

Upper Kirkton Glen
Quick, get through these trees before they block the view. Heading for the skyline and the old hill pass.

Anyway, plod on cheerily till you leave the woods behind for the grassy rises that lead towards the head of the pass and the base of the craggy face with its ancient rock fall below Meall an Fhiodhain. 

It’s the craggy face on the skyline in the picture above.

By the way, anyone offering a translation here? I note ‘fiodh’ as timber, but ‘fiodhan’ as a cheese-vat. Maybe this is a reference to herds pastured here in summer, but I could be bluffing.

Or I need a bigger Gaelic dictionary. Or the Ordnance Survey made a spelling error. Surely not!

Lochan nan Eireannaich, Kirkton Glen
Lochan nan Eireannaich, Kirkton Glen.

The Loch Of The Irish

In the old days, these high passes, such as the one leading up from Balquhidder described here, were commonly traversed by the local native folk.

Nowadays they are lonely places, except for walkers or hardy anglers trying their luck with the wild trout in Lochan an Eireannaich (the little loch of the Irish – no, I don’t know why).

Perhaps the Irish were monks heading to the chapel in Strathfillan (mentioned on the Crianlarich page) but that’s highly speculative.

Anyway, this lonely stretch of water lies near the head of the pass.

From the nearby slope we could see north and downwards to Glen Dochart with its busy main road connection eventually leading through to the western seaboard.

But, below a grey sky and with the chilling wind rising in this exposed spot, we probably felt the same discomfort and urge to drop back into the summery glens that many a Highlander of old must have felt, with only coarse plaid for protection.

It just seemed a forlorn spot, with the gloomy weather adding to the ambience.

A ghostly encounter high in Kirkton Glen? Eh, no.
A ghostly encounter high in Kirkton Glen? Eh, no.

The Kirkton Glen Ghost

To make matters slightly more unsettling, this is the setting for the Kirkton Glen ghost!

This is a tale still current in Balquhidder and it has also appeared in print.

Apparently, more than one group of walkers has seen the figure of a Highlander in 18th-century garb wandering about the nearby rocks, with a large lurcher dog by his side.

He sometimes appears below the onlookers but never re-appears from behind the rocks or dips in the slope.

Oh, well, if you’re going to see the local Balquhidder ghost or things that belong to another time, then the top of Kirkton Glen is certainly a place where the imagination can get to work!

The picture above shows the kind of terrain in which the ghostly figure of a Highlander and his dog has been seen. But not in this pic. That’s my son fooling around.

So we finished our sandwiches and made our way down. Yes, you could say the place had atmosphere! (More haunted places in Scotland on that link.) And here’s where you can see more places associated with Rob Roy.

Kirkton Glen, looking back down to the main glen at Balquhidder.
Kirkton Glen, looking back down to the main glen at Balquhidder.
Around Balquhidder Glen

The road up the cul-de-sac glen winds for many miles. There’s a top-notch hotel on the way but if you drive on, at the very end of the public road, there is a carpark popular with walkers bent on the climb to the big hills of Stobinian and Ben More. 

The sign in the snowy pic below directs walkers through the fields en route to the high tops. The other sign – Inverlochlarig – is a private property on the site of Rob Roy’ house.

End of public road, Balquhidder Glen
The end of the public road Balquhidder Glen – but for many walkers the start of a big day on the high tops. (Though maybe not today – it’s January!)
Inverlochlarig sheep, at the head of the glen, in deep winter.
Inverlochlarig sheep, at the head of the glen, in deep winter.

And finally, for this page, as you’re still here…below is what I wrote for a series of commissioned info panels for the then area tourist board, many years ago. (During a slack period in my copyrighting career, shortly after the Battle of Culloden, if my memory serves me…)

That’s why the style from now on is information laden, very sober – and as for jokes and flippant asides: there are none. (Sorry, I hate it too…)

That’s because I was getting paid to write the stuff. Read and learn, young tourism copywriters everywhere…

‘Clears throat and adopts a serious tone…’

More Information On Balquhidder

Though main road traffic now bypasses this lovely glen, up to the 1745 Jacobite rebellion, the Kirkton of Balquhidder was a place of some importance.

As well as on an east-west running glen, it lies at a natural crossing of several hill routes frequented by clansmen of old: down Glen Buckie southwards to Brig o Turk; up Kirkton Glen, behind the church, to Glen Dochart.

Balquhidder formerly had its own annual fair, dedicated to St Angus, and held on the river flats nearby. Highlanders came from miles around. In olden days this was the country of the Maclarens

The Macgregors also claimed territory here, much of it later confiscated by King James IV.

Poetic Balquhidder

Let us go, lassie, go/ To the Braes o’ Balquhither/ Where the blaeberries grow/ ‘Mang the bonny Highland heather…

(Above) Though adapted and often sung at ceilidhs and folk clubs in Scotland, the original version of the popular song ‘The Wild Mountain Thyme’ makes specific mention of Balquhidder. It was written by the weaver-poet Robert Tannahil (1776-1810).

No sweeter voice was ever heard/ In spring-time from the cuckoo-bird/ Breaking the silence of the seas/ Among the farthest Hebrides…

The more famous poet William Wordsworth made his first Scottish visit in 1803. William and his sister Dorothy came down from the head of Loch Voil and enjoyed the pastoral scene here.

A Highland girl singing while she cut the corn inspired one of Wordsworth’s most famous poems ‘The Solitary Reaper’.

WAIT, STOP…we need to rest the eye on a picture for a moment. This is serious stuff.

Loch Voil and the Braes o Balquhidder
Loch Voil and the Braes o Balquhidder

Atmospheric, eh? Now…let’s finish off the serious information laden output, as per those information panels of old…

Rob Roy

Rob Roy Macgregor (1671-1734), cattle dealer, outlaw and folk hero is buried in the old kirkyard, beneath a 14th-century grave slab. The site of his house at Inverlochlarig (private) can be seen near the carpark at the road end further up the glen.

Balquhidder Kirk

The ruined church here dates from 1631 and was built on the site of a pre-Reformation chapel, once visited by King James IV. The ruin here is said to have seated a congregation of 600, as the glen was once densely populated.

The ‘new’ Parish Church dates from 1853.

Walks among the Braes o Balquhidder

Though the public road ends in Glen Buckie, there is still a route leading through to Glen Finglas and the Trossachs. Good footwear is recommended for this scenic excursion.

A shorter though steep walk (signposted behind the church) leads to the rocky outcrop of Creag an Tuirc, the former rallying place of the Maclarens. It offers breathtaking views of the Braes of Balquhidder.

High peaks close by include Stobinian and Ben More, accessible from the lochside road to the west, while the carpark at the road end is the starting point for other ‘Munros’. These are serious high-level expeditions for fit and properly equipped walkers.

Lots more on Rob Roy.