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Issue 24 - Perthshire – Scotland's ‘big county'

History & Heritage

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Scotland Magazine Issue 24
January 2006


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Perthshire – Scotland's ‘big county'

Perthshire has often found itself at the epicentre of Scottish events, not least because of its geographical location. Ian Buxton acts as tour guide

Located in the very centre of Scotland and known to all as ‘the big county,’ Perthshire has seen some of the major events in Scottish history. It’s also one of the fastest growing and most affluent areas of Scotland, with its 135,000 residents passionately convinced of the quality of life to be found here.

And, naturally, it’s hugely popular with visitors, attracting large numbers of tourists each year who come for the magnificent landscape, the history, the many attractive small towns and villages and the museums, arts centres and attractions that are dotted around the countryside.

Offering as it does both Highland and Lowland scenery, Perthshire has something to delight visitors year round. A trip might begin in Perth itself, or St John’s Town or the Fair City as it is also known. Once known as the home of such famous old whisky brands as Dewar’s and Bells, it’s now the thriving centre of local government, insurance companies and, of course, tourism businesses.

The compact city centre is undergoing a process of regeneration the first phase of which, a major new concert hall, has just been completed.

This exciting project is designed to help transform Perth into one of Europe’s most successful and dynamic small cities by 2010.

The concert hall is located at Horsecross, within a short walking distance of Perth Theatre, Perth Museum and Art Gallery and a growing array of restaurants, bars and galleries.

Hopefully, this new arrival will only enhance Perth’s other charms: two large and open public parks – the North and South Inches and the mighty River Tay running through the city, alongside elegant Georgian terraced houses.

If you fancy a flutter, Perth Race Course offers a summer programme of National Hunt meetings from April to September.

Nearby Scone offers the famous Palace, which is not to be missed. Historically the heartland of the Scoto-Pictish Kingdom, Scone Palace’s iconic status was perpetuated by King Kenneth MacAlpine in the mid-ninth century, when he made Scone the centre of his kingdom, to balance the recently created ecclesiastical seat in Dunkeld.

From this time on, the Scottish kings were crowned on the Stone of Destiny, which MacAlpine brought in 838 from Dunstaffnage, near Oban to Scone. Robert the Bruce was crowned here, and subsequently every king through to Charles II, whose coronation on January 1, 1651 was the last on Scottish soil.

His reign was ill-fated however: leading his Scottish army south to challenge Oliver Cromwell, it was routed at the Battle of Worcester on September 3, 1651 and he fled to France.

To the lasting dismay of all Scots, the Stone of Destiny itself was stolen by Edward I in 1296 and carried off to Westminster Abbey, where (apart from a brief and unauthorised excursion in 1950) it remained underneath the Coronation Chair. In an imaginative gesture by then Prime Minister John Major it was returned to Edinburgh Castle in 1996.

Near to Scone Palace is the famous beech hedge at Meikleour Estate – officially recognised by the Guinness Book of Records as the tallest in the world. Approximately 530m long, it stands at an average height of around 30m, in places reaching 41m (more than 120ft).

The hedge is believed to have been laid out and planted in the autumn of 1745, the year of the Jacobite uprising, by Jean Mercer and her husband, Robert Murray Nairne.

Legend has it that the men who planted it took up arms for Bonnie Prince Charlie and perished on the battlefield of Culloden. Their hedge was left to grow untended towards the heavens as a living monument to their memory.

The Meikleour hedge is not the only large piece of greenery in Perthshire, which has some of the most remarkable trees, woodlands and country gardens in Europe and is stunning in the autumn.

In fact, there is even a Perthshire Big Tree Country partnership to promote tree tourism, justly claiming it’s every bit as dramatic as a trip to New England in the Fall.

Certainly, the blaze of reds and golds in the forests’ autumn colours provide a spectacular backdrop for walks and activities.

Just a short trip in Perthshire can take you to Europe’s oldest tree, the sole survivor from Shakespeare’s ‘Birnam Wood’ and even the tallest tree in Britain. That’s a magnificent Douglas Fir, standing an incredible 212 feet high in the beautiful Hermitage forest a few miles from Perth, at Dunkeld. Owned by the National Trust for Scotland, this is a ‘must see’ destination when visiting the area.

Staying on the wood theme, Perthshire is also home to the Scottish Crannog Centre at Kenmore on Loch Tay. A crannog was a prehistoric timber-built roundhouse supported on piles or stilts driven into the loch bed, many built as defensive homesteads and representing symbols of power and wealth.

At the centre you can discover how and why these ancient people built their homes, and experience first-hand how they lived.

But, after that, you’ll be ready for a reviving dram and Perthshire has a long association with whisky distilling. Illicit distilling flourished here and around 140 farmhouse distilleries have been recorded: ruins can be seen at Auchnagie, Ballechin and elsewhere though many have been converted to other farm uses or even houses.

But the stills remain active, legally these days, with attractive visitor centres at Dewar’s World of Whisky in Aberfeldy (“the ultimate Scotch whisky visitor centre” says Whisky Magazine); the Famous Grouse Experience in Crieff; Blair Athol distillery, which confusingly is found in Pitlochry, also home to tiny Edradour and Tullibardine, just off the A9 trunk road at Blackford.

This is also where the famous Highland Spring water is bottled at the start of its journey to your local supermarket.

The Tullibardine distillery has recently been reopened and the site also contains a major retail complex dominated by a Baxters of Speyside superstore.

This old-established family company is famous for their soups, preserves and other Highland foodstuffs – no doubt some of which goes no further than the world-famous Gleneagles Hotel, site of the recent G8 summit, which is just over the hill.

But, if retail therapy is what you seek, then you should journey further north up the A9 to the House of Bruar.

This magnificent development, known as the Harrods of the North, offers a quite unique shopping experience.

Under its ever-expanding roof you can buy superb cashmere (they claim to hold the largest stock of this luxurious fabric anywhere in Great Britain, almost all totally made in Scotland); a wide range of ladies and gents country clothing; garden supplies and everything for the enthusiastic cook.

In its art gallery, which is currently being refurbished and expanded, Bruar aims to present Scotland’s finest contemporary wildlife and country art. Look out for this in Spring 2006 – the first four exhibitions are already planned.

When you tire of shopping, leave your car in the free parking and stroll up the pathway alongside the dramatic and romantic Falls of Bruar for spectacular views and fresh, clean air you’ll wish you could bottle and take home!

On your return to base, if all this was not enough, the House of Bruar also offers a superb restaurant, featuring in particular local organic beef and lamb from the Atholl Glens farmers’ co-operative.

Atholl Glens Organic Meat comes from farms on the Atholl Estates in Highland Perthshire, one of the United Kingdom’s largest special protection areas.

The cattle and sheep are reared in open fields, eat mineral rich grass and are looked after by highly experienced stockmen who really care about the welfare of their animals. Check out their website for mail order offers.

While at Bruar, make time to visit Blair Castle, the ancient seat of the Dukes and Earls of Atholl, which dates from the 13th century.

It has a magnificent setting in 2,500 acres of grounds within an estate of more than 145,000 acres, home each year to the Bowmore International Horse Trials and Country Fair, held every August.

It’s also home to the The Atholl Highlanders formed as a ceremonial unit by Lord Glenlyon, Duke of Atholl, in 1839 and granted a unique status by Queen Victoria.

In 1844, when the Queen stayed as a guest of the Duke at Blair Castle, the regiment mounted the guard for the entire duration of her stay.

In recognition of the service that the regiment provided, the Queen announced that she would present the Atholl Highlanders with colours, thus giving the regiment official status.

Today, they remain the only private army permitted by law in Europe but also have a pipe band, known as the ‘Unit in the Colonies’ which is resident in Stone Mountain, Georgia.

So there is much to see in ‘the big county’, and I haven’t even mentioned Pitlochry, with its Festival Theatre, Salmon Ladder and Scottish Plant Collectors Garden; I seem to have forgotten St Johnstone FC, Perthshire’s only professional football club; Blairgowrie and east Perthshire, known as the raspberry capital of the world, have slipped by; the superb salmon fishing and opportunities for pheasant and grouse shooting have gone unnoticed.

I’ve neglected Auchterarder and the beautiful Ochil Hills and I’ve omitted Rob Roy and Bonnie Prince Charlie.

You’ll just have to come and see for yourself!

What to do

Aberfeldy Watermill
The largest bookshop in the rural Highlands, a contemporary art gallery, music and coffee shop housed in a beautifully restored watermill.

Black Watch Museum
Hay Street,
Perth An outstanding museum that charts the military campaigns of Scotland’s foremost regiment since 1740.

Blair Castle
Blair Atholl
Beautiful white castle and fine grounds. Has Europe’s only remaining private army. A must-visit.

Breadalbane Folklore Centre
Four star museum housed in a beautifully restored watermill overlooking the Falls of Dochart.

Clan Donnachaidh Museum
Informative museum that tells the story of Scottish history through the life of the clansmen.

Dewars World of Whisky
A unique exhibition and interactive centre that makes use of the latest technology to celebrate the courageous entrepreneurial spirit of the Dewar family.

Drummond Castle Gardens
Muthill, Crieff
The largest formal gardens in Europe. The castle is not open to the public but the gardens more than make up for it.

Scotland’s smallest distillery. Winner of Whisky Magazine’s visitor centre of the year.

Famous Grouse Experience
Scotland’s oldest distillery, with a famous award winning visitor centre now housing ‘The Famous Grouse Experience’.

Heathergem Factory
Crafts people can be viewed turning the stems of the heather, pulled from the Perthshire hills, into attractive and unusual jewellery.
Tel: +44 (0)1796 473 863

Highland Adventure Safari
Landrover safaris over the most spectacular countryside. Reaches the parts other tours cannot reach.

House of Menzies
New world wines, Scottish art and gifts and a pleasant café.

Nr Pitlochry
The visitor centre exhibition features interactive wildlife displays, and tells the story of the battle in 1689, showing examples of the weapons used.

Perth Museum and Art Gallery
George Street
The museum provides a detailed insight into the local history of Perth, there’s also a varied display of artwork on display too; numbering some 4500 pictures.

Perth Theatre
High Street, Perth
The theatre where Ewan McGregor had his first theatrical experience.

Queen’s View Visitor Centre
The focal point for the Tay Forest Park. Famous viewpoint close-by with sweeping vistas across Loch Tummel to the distinctive peak of Schiehallion. Audio-visual film, exhibition, tearoom and shop.
Tel: +44 (0)1796 473 123

Salmon ladder
Pitlochry dam
There is a viewing chamber inside the dam visitor centre where salmon maybe seen in their ascent to the upper reaches of the river.

Scone Palace
Old Scone
One of Scotland’s great treasures. Once the crowning place of kings and immortalised in Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Not to be missed.

The Scottish Crannog Centre
Kenmore, Loch Tay
A crannog is a type of water homestead built in Scottish lochs 5,000 years ago. Discover how and why these ancient people built their homes in the water, and experience firsthand how they lived.

Splash White Water Rafting
Highly recommended! Also offers a range of other activities including abseiling, quad biking and clay pigeon shooting.

Where to stay

Ballathie House Hotel
Kinclaven, Nr Perth
A true country house hotel on the Tay. Fine dining and many original features.

Cargills Restaurant & Bistro
Cargills is a friendly bistro with an extensive wine list. Daily specials.
Tel: +44 (0)1250 876 735

Crieff Hydro
A huge Victorian hotel; with endless entertainment for kids and grown-ups. A national institution

East Haugh House
Turreted stone house. Open fires and four poster beds. A good base for shooting and fishing excursions. The Two Sisters Restaurant is excellent.

Farleyer house hotel
Pretty whitewashed country house. Restaurant with a few bedrooms and a choice of two dining rooms. The best choice for a romantic weekend away.

If you can afford it, this is the only place to stay in Perthshire. Five star luxury and a world famous golf course. It hosted the G8 summit of world leaders in July.

Grove Cottage B&B
Charming stone Victorian house near town centre.
Tel: +44 (0)1796 470 108

House of Bruar
Blair Atholl
The home of country clothing and a fantastic foodhall.

Huntingtontower Hotel
Four star traditional hotel with an established reputation.

Kinfauns Castle
Dundee Road, Perth
Definitely has the ‘wow’ factor. Bags of history and original features.

Kinloch House
Beautiful five star hotel in a peaceful location. Excellent food and service in the dining room.

Kinnaird House hotel
A beautiful Edwardian oasis in 9,000 acres of countryside, also has six self catering traditional cottages.

MacDonald Loch Rannoch Hotel
Kinloch Rannoch
Good basic hotel. Recently refurbished and nice restaurant.

St Leonards Bank, Perth
The former home of one of the Lord Provosts, one of the most luxurious places to stay in Perth.

The Pend
Winner of best B&B in Scotland in 2003. Three beautiful bedrooms and fantastic home-cooked food. Great winelist.

Perth Youth Hostel
Glasgow Road, Perth
An excellent hostel in an ideal touring base in central location. With dorm beds for under £10 – the best choice for those on a budget.
Tel: +44 (0)1738 623 658

Royal Hotel
A handsome 18th century coaching house and tasteful interior.

Wellwood House
Four star B&B. Lovely traditional interiors and an Honesty Bar in the guest lounge.

Westburn House B&B
Auchterader Very comfortable and friendly B&B in a delightful setting.

Where to eat

63 Tay Street
Tay Street
Modern British cuisine with hand picked ingredients. Award winning chef.

St Leonards Bank, Perth
Excellent restaurant at Parklands hotel, but with separate atmosphere. Dinners only.

Andrew Fairlie at Gleneagles
The best meal to be had in these parts. Set apart from hotel restaurant. Michelin starred.

The Bank Restaurant
Modern Scottish cuisine inside an old bank. One of the cosiest places to eat in Crieff.

Brambles Coffee Shop
Princes Street, Perth
A varied selection of light meals, lunches and interesting home baking using local produce with an emphasis on healthy choices.
Tel: + 44 (0)1738 639 091

Duchally Hotel
The cuisine of this five star hotel is prepared from locally sourced products and is presented skilfully and imaginatively.

The Deil’s Cauldron
The restaurant offers a successful combination of traditional and continental style meals.

South Street, Perth
Relaxed style and superb local produce. Good seafood.

Let’s Eat
Kinnoul Street, Perth
Award winning bistro. Thought by many to be the best place to eat in town.

The Loft Restaurant
Blair Atholl
There is the restaurant for formal dining and for less formal dining, The Bistro. Both menus use fresh, local Scottish ingredients
Tel: +44 (0)1796 481 377

Metzo Restaurant
George Street, Perth
An elegant restaurant with a good choice of flavours. Good value.

The Oven Bistro
Dumnacree House, Blairgowrie
Features a wood burning oven enabling diners to watch dishes being cooked Local produce, and a friendly and informal style.


The M90 from Edinburgh and A90/M90 from Stirling/ Glasgow provide particularly good links. Perthshire is around 21/2 hours from the Scotland-England border and around eight hours from London

Perthshire has seven railway stations with rail links to the south through both Edinburgh and Glasgow. There are some direct services from London taking less than six and a half hours – a sleeper service is also available direct from London

Glasgow Airport is only 75 minutes drive from Perthshire, while Edinburgh and Dundee Airports are less than 1/2 hour away