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Issue 51 - Perfectly wonderful

Scotland Magazine Issue 51
June 2010


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Perfectly wonderful

Gavin D. Smith looks at the fortunes of Perth.

Ask the people of Perth whether they live in a town or a city and the answer is likely to be almost unanimous. Perth is ‘The Fair City,’ of Sir Walter Scott’s novel The Fair Maid of Perth, and only a reform of local government legislation in 1975 removed that cherished, formal status.

Perth residents are intensely proud of their historic home, which is currently celebrating the 800th anniversary of having been granted Royal Burgh status by King William the Lion of Scotland in 1210.

An extensive and varied programme of events is taking place during ‘Perth 800’ year, but one aim beyond the immediate commemorations and celebrations is to create a foundation for Perth’s bid to regain its “City” status in 2012, that is unless determined attempts by local politicians and leading businessmen bring about that objective in the meantime.

It has been announced that towns across Britain will be invited to apply for city status in 2012 as part of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations, and Perth will seize that opportunity, but many in Scotland feel that Perth should not have to wait.

Provost John Hulbert declares that “Perth’s claim is a reinstatement of dignity lost. Our case is different and special. We have the support of the First Minister of Scotland, and the good wishes of the Secretary of State. I hope this process allows us to move forward in 2010.” Civic officials prepared a formal submission for Jack Straw, the former Lord Chancellor, detailing Perth’s historic claim, and titled Perth: A Fair City. It was presented to Straw, by Brigadier Melville Jameson, the Lord Lieutenant of Perthshire, earlier this year.

And speaking in the Scottish Parliament during February, John Swinney, MSP for North Tayside, declared that, “We must have, among the key components of a prosperous city such as Perth, the city operating as a true capital of the county, with a demonstrably strong local economy that is supported by the economic activities that are undertaken in the surrounding county areas. Perth is a most beautiful place to live alongside, as I do, and we will see Perth city fulfil its true county capital status.

“Perth believes that it is ready to resume the responsibility that goes with the restoration of official city status, and to take its rightful place alongside six existing official cities in shaping the development of modern Scotland.” Unlike many cities, Perth was never granted a city charter; its importance in the historical, social and economic life of Scotland was simply taken for granted.

From 1332, Perth boasted a Lord Provost, which symbolised its pre-eminence among Scottish burghs, and during the reign of King James I in the 15th century it was effectively the capital of Scotland, with the King holding court there for some 30 years, and calling 16 parliaments in the process.

Perth also has a significant royal connection due to the fact that generations of Scottish kings were crowned on the Stone of Scone, or Stone of Destiny, housed at the Abbey of Scone, three miles from Perth, until its removal to Westminster Abbey by King Edward I in 1296. The red sandstone block was returned to Scotland in 1996, but now resides in Edinburgh Castle, with only a replica on display at Scone.

Geographically speaking, Perth lies just south of the Highland Boundary Fault, which separates the Lowlands from the Highlands, and has enjoyed the status of a major ‘crossroads’ with routes north to Inverness and Aberdeen, south to Edinburgh, east to Dundee and west to Glasgow. The development of the railway network throughout Scotland from the mid- 19th century onwards cemented its geographical significance, and the settlement has also long had strategic importance as the lowest crossing point of the Tay and the highest navigable part of the river. Perth’s traditional prosperity came from trading with France, the Low Countries and the Baltic, and through the production and processing of linen.

Due to its strong rail links between the Highlands, where much Scotch whisky was distilled, and the Lowlands, where growing centres of population enthusiastically consumed the product, Perth developed into a centre for blending and bottling.

The likes of Arthur Bell & Co, John Dewar & Sons and Matthew Gloag & Son became internationally renowned as blended Scotch whisky became a drink for the world during the later years of the 19th century.

Today, few traces of Perth’s great whisky heritage remain, but it continues to be a bustling centre of commerce and a highly desirable place to live. It also attracts many tourists during the summer months, and this year, thanks to the ‘Perth 800’ celebrations, they are spoilt for choice in terms of activities and events, Those celebrations were officially launched in January with the opening of a major exhibition at Perth Museum and Art Gallery, entitled ‘Skin & Bone: Life and Death in Medieval Perth.’ It runs throughout the year, and, in the words of its organisers, “This fascinating new exhibition...uncovers the secrets of medieval Perth and showcases the treasures unearthed by archaeological excavations in the town. ‘Skin & Bone: Life and Death in Medieval Perth’ offers a glimpse of the lives of ordinary people through extraordinary objects, many of them not normally on display.” Those with an interest in Perth’s history will also welcome a major two-day conference ‘Perth: A Place in History’, staged on 10th and 11th September in Perth Concert Hall. The conference will include presentations on the archaeology and history of Perth, from its earliest settlement to its recent past, and a glimpse into its future.

In total, more than 100 events are being Contact Visit: Email: Tel: +44 (0) 1738 477958 staged this year, focusing on the triple themes of sport, the arts and conferences, and celebrations spread beyond Perth itself to embrace the whole county of Perthshire. One highlight of Perth 800 is Perth Day, which takes place on 2nd July. According to Perth 800 project officer Suzanne Cumiskey: “Perth Day will be a day of commemoration and celebration showcasing the Army, RAF, the Navy and the Royal British Legion, massed pipe and drum bands, uniformed organisations and veterans associations, in a parade which will begin at the South Inch and finish at the North Inch, via Tay Street.” The two ‘inches’ are a significant feature of Perth, being large areas devoted to public recreation and home to a variety of sports. It is claimed that King James VI played golf on the North Inch during the late 16th century, while the area earlier staged a pitched battle between members of Clan Chattan and Clan Kay in September 1396, in front of King Robert III of Scotland.

Somewhat less confrontational outdoor activities are an important feature of Perth 800, including the first ‘Geocaching Megaevent’ to take place in Scotland, scheduled for 31st July. The organisers explain that “Geocaching is a high-tech treasure hunting game played throughout the world by adventure seekers and orienteer ’s equipped with GPS devices. The basic concept is to locate hidden containers outdoors.” Another action-packed outdoor event is the Park World Tour, a world cup for park orienteering, which will bring 40 elite, international orienteers to Perth on 10th and 11th September. Before that, however, culture-lovers can experience the varied delights of the 39th Perth Festival of the Arts, which runs from 19th to 30th May.

As ever, the Perth Festival features a diverse range of art-forms, from classical music and opera to rock, jazz, folk, dance and visual art. It takes place in Perth Concert Hall, Perth Theatre and St John’s Kirk.

Perth 800 will undoubtedly provide plenty of entertainment and interest for those taking part, but there is more than celebration at stake. Hopefully, before too long, Perth will once again be ‘The Fair City’ in law as well as in legend.