It's 8.30am on a bright April day and it feels like we're in the middle of nowhere.

Six of us pile out of two cars, well wrapped up against the bitter cold, and trying not to feel apprehensive. We're about to embark on the Slow Marathon 2013, a daunting 26-mile hike from Glenlivet to Huntly led by Claudia Zeiske, the doughty – and extremely fit – German director of Deveron Arts in Huntly.

She is among a team of residents and organisations who have won a £100,000 Creative Place Award from Creative Scotland for the rural Aberdeenshire market town. More than half of the money will go towards Deveron Arts' newly formed Walking Institute (a first for Scotland, if not the world), which will explore, research and celebrate walking, art and culture while also forging new paths and trails. The Slow Marathon takes place on April 20 and will mark the launch the institute.

Part of the route follows old drove roads that connected the communities of north east Scotland. Due to the snow our route today has changed slightly so we're setting out from Upper Cabrach instead of Glenlivet, and terminating in Huntly. We've been told to expect the walk to take around 10 hours.

Munich-born Zeiske – an anthropologist who has lived in Huntly for 17 years – has already put the town on the international map through a 15-year programme of residencies for artists from China, South Africa, South America and Europe. On her invitation they each come to the town for three months to work with the community to create a body of work called The Town Collection. One residency led to the rebranding of Huntly as a place with "Room to Roam" and since then Zeiske has developed the concept of "slow travel" with several walking art projects.

The idea of the Slow Marathon came from Ethiopian artist Mihret Kebede, who wanted to walk from her home in Addis Ababa to her residency in Huntly. Safety concerns made this plan impossible, so she found 225 people who between them walked the 5850 miles from Ethiopia to Scotland.

The Huntly Slow Marathon was launched last year with 65 walkers, with a route centred around Huntly, as a Deveron Arts project. This year's new route has been devised by Zeiske, and she is keen to try it out in its entirety before the real thing takes place: 100 people are signed up for April 20. Zeiske closed applications at the start of this month because she felt that was the ideal number, although she was inundated and says she could have taken more than 300.

But back to our walk. From our start point at Upper Cabrach church, with its beautiful little bell tower, we pass the deserted farm of Aldivalloch, named in the bothy ballad Roy's Wife of Aldivalloch. There's a dead sheep here, one of many victims of the recent cold weather. Behind the farm, we ascend – with some difficulty – the terrifyingly named Dead Wife's Hillock. The question that has been asked millions of times before is mooted once more: is this the same wife Roy had? Nobody has the answer, but at least it keeps our minds from fretting about the steep pull up.

Dead Wife's Hillock almost takes your breath away, literally and metaphorically. At just 543 metres (1780ft) this should be a fairly easy climb, but the snow, knee-high in some places, is an extra challenge. The stunning views, plus several close encounters with startled grouse who whirr away as we pass them concealed in the snowy heather, make the slog more than worthwhile.

We follow the Blackwater river to the Blackwater forest. Great swathes of the Moray straths are dappled in sunlight. Hoof prints in the snow cross our path, left by red deer on their way down from the imposing cairn, or Tor, on the sloping Stroninch. We see lapwings and mountain hares.

Sadly this beautiful, fertile land is dotted with derelict farms, grand houses and other buildings. Blackwater Lodge, for instance, was last inhabited in the 1960s.

After three hours, we get a short break and munch our sandwiches atop our rucksacks, which we use as seats to avoid sitting in mud. Then it's a scented tramp through the pine forest.

Zeiske fishes out her secateurs from her rucksack and cuts back stray branches from the trees, so walkers won't get smacked in the face when they pass here on the walk proper. The term "Guerilla Pathmaking" springs to mind, and adds a giddy frisson of danger.

We trudge on over gates and fences, until we reach open ground and yomp down to the Grouse Inn and beyond to the Aaron community centre, the former Cabrach primary school that closed when the last two pupils left. Here we enjoy a cup of tea.

We cross the Deveron by a bridge, walk to the end of main road, then cross wide sloping fields. Then, after six-and-a-half hours and almost 13 miles, two of us recross via the footbridge at Mill of Lynebain to pick up our welcome lift back to Huntly. Another three bale out at 19 miles.

After that, it's a fairly straightforward hike back to Huntly on tracks and roads and over the Clashmach hill, which takes Zeiske another four and a half hours, making a total of 11 hours; only one hour more than last year, when there was no snow.

Over a pint at the Crown Bar in town, I take my fleecy hat off to Claudia Zeiske. I wish I had her stamina.

The Slow Marathon takes place on Saturday April 20. Visit