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Issue 63 - Along the Silvery Tay

Scotland Magazine Issue 63
June 2012


This article is 6 years old and some information provided may be time sensitive. Please check all details of events, tours, opening times and other information before travelling or making arrangements.

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Along the Silvery Tay

John Hannavy explores Scotland's history along its longest river

When we planned this trip, we were enjoying those wonderful and unseasonably warm weeks in March when the country’s weather patterns had been completely turned on their heads. Now, as I write it (in late April) those warm heady days seem so long ago!

Not that I have anything against photographing Scotland’s spectacular scenery dressed in a mantle of the white stuff – quite the contrary as regular readers of my column will know – it’s just that you are reading this in the middle of (hopefully, a warm) summer. You will remember April – it was not very warm, and sunny spells were rare indeed. However when the sun did shine, Scotland looked magnificent.

The Tay flows through some of my favourite bits of the country, past regular childhood haunts, and areas which have, over the past half a century, been frequent subjects for my cameras. It also flows past many important sites from Scotland’s history.

In researching these projects, I turn, as always, to my muse, Henry Vollam Morton and his delightful book In Search of Scotland, and I am immediately taken back to my childhood as he describes crossing the Tay on the Newport to Dundee ferry. My grandparents lived in Newport in the 1950s, and visits always involved a ferry across the estuary, hopefully on either the 1924 built paddle steamer Sir William High, or the 1929 built paddler B. L. Nairn – both built by Caledon of Dundee, the former operating until 1951, the latter until 1966. The crossing was spent peering down below to watch the engineers who seemed to be forever polishing the magnificent brasswork on what we called the ‘sweeper engines’.

There were also a couple of diesel ferries – the Abercraig and the Scotscraig, but they somehow lacked the magic of the old paddle steamers. They are all, of course, long gone; the last ferry sailing on the day the Tay Road Bridge opened in 1966.

Morton recalled that the fares for cars were based on the number of seats rather than the vehicle size, so it cost ‘three shillings for a Rolls Royce coupé and three shillings and sixpence for a Ford fourseater’.

He didn’t tell his readers which one he was driving!

The river he had crossed – in his Rolls or his Ford – is more than two kilometres wide between the sites of the former ferry slipways, and once thronged with shipping of all shapes and sizes.

Dundee made its name as the world centre of the jute industry and at its peak imported nearly a quarter of a million tons of the stuff annually.

Today that once-great industry has all gone, but the city’s jute history is celebrated in the excellent Verdant Works jute museum, just a few minutes’ walk from Discovery Point.

At Discovery Point, of course, Captain Scott’ beautifully restored RRS Discovery stands as a memorial not only to the great explorer, but also to the prowess and quality of Dundee’s shipbuilders.

And in an adjacent dock, awaiting a much needed restoration, sits the former North Carr Lightship.

If and when funding can be found, the restoration of this historically important ship will bring another fascinating tourist attraction to the attention of visitors to Dundee. She was built in 1923 by A & J Inglis at Pointhouse on the Clyde, launched in April 1933, and in service anchored off Fife Ness until replaced by an automatic beacon in 1974.

The river, of course, starts out as a trickle a long way from Dundee, and is said to be the longest river in Scotland – albeit flowing under several names before it finally becomes known as the Tay.

Along the way it is fed by dozens of other streams and rivers, drawing water from a huge catchment area in the lower reaches of the Highlands. Its length can be traced all the way back to its source just a few miles east of Oban where it is known as the Connonish, before becoming the Fillan and then the Dochart which flows into Loch Tay.

Beyond the loch, the river becomes the Tay, growing ever larger, and eventually feeding more fresh water into the sea than any other British river.

The beautiful valley of Strathfillan is passed through daily by motorists on their way from Crianlarich to Tyndrum, but this is a place which was once so remote and isolated that it was chosen as the location for one of the most remote mediaeval priories. Today, little remains of Strathfillan Priory save for a few rubble walls in a hillside farmyard. Never a wealthy place, the Augustinian Canons who lived there must have endured a pretty hard existence.

Just beyond Crianlarich, the river, now known as the Dochart, enters – passes through is more accurate – Loch Dochart, before reaching Loch Iubhair – marked on some maps as Loch Lubhair – after which the river flows close by the A85 until it reaches the Falls of Dochart at Killin and enters Loch Tay.

The falls are pretty spectacular at most times of the year, and can be heard long before you can see them, but just a few hundred yards further east, and the water flows calmly into the loch itself.

Loch Tay has, in recent years, been the focus of a great deal of archaeology since the discovery that many of the little islands dotted just off shore are, in fact, the remains of Crannogs, 2,500 years old dwellings on stilts. The Scottish Crannog Centre, on the south side of the loch at Acharn near Kenmore is well worth a visit. There you can learn a great deal about these unusual structures, and the skills employed by their iron age builders. If you have never seen anyone make fire by rubbing two pieces of wood together, that’s almost worth the entry fee on its own.

A crannog has been built using traditional methods and materials just a few yards out from the south shore, and is reached by a walkway on stilts out across the water. There, suitably clad in rustic manner, really well-informed guides explain not just the iron age lifestyle, but also the on-going archaeology of crannogs.

There have, so far, been 18 crannogs discovered on the loch bed, and much is still being learned about them.

Opposite, on the north shore, stands an expensive failure. There were once grandiose plans to reintroduce a steamer on to the loch, its jetty linked to Kenmore by a little steam railway. The boat – based on Loch Katrine’s SS Sir Walter Scott – was built at Fergusons yard on the Clyde, dismantled and rebuilt on the loch side. A steam engine to power it has been sourced from a redundant Grimsby trawler, and all should have been complete several years ago. A problem with the hull has meant that the project has been all but abandoned, and the vessels site forlornly just a few yards from the waters she was designed to sail.

The River Tay leaves the loch at Kenmore and meanders north-eastwards to Aberfeldy, where it is crossed in style by General Wade’s most celebrated Scottish bridge, designed by William Adam, and completed in 1733. One of more than forty bridges built by General Wade, it still carries traffic nearly 280 years after it was opened.

Continuing north until it passes Grandtully – where the rapids are a popular venue for canoing – the river then turns south east, passing the little village of Logierait, where the village churchyard has a chilling reminder of grizzlier times. Three ‘Mortsafes’ – two for adult coffins and one for a child – hark back to a time when body-snatchers visited freshly filled graves the night after the funeral and sold their contents to surgeons for dissection and experiment.

Just before the river reaches Dunkeld, it is joined by the waters of the Braan, a spectacular river in its own right, rushing through narrow ravines beneath ‘Ossian’s Hall’ – better known as ‘The Hermitage’ – a Georgian folly and viewing platform built by the Duke of Atholl.

At Dunkeld itself, the river is crossed by another fine bridge – this time built by Thomas Telford, and opened in 1808. It is recognised as one of the engineering masterpieces of the age. With no rocky foundations below the river bed, the bridge piers stand on rafts of compressed spruce, several feet below the river bed. So how was such a bridge built then? At the time, the Tay had been forced to find a new channel, thanks to thousands of tons of gravel washed down from the Braan blocking its historic route. So, while Telford’s workforce constructed the bridge, they were, unusually, able to do so on dry land. When the bridge was completed, the gravel was simply cleared away, and the river was returned to its original channel.

Robert Southey, whose journey through Scotland with Telford in 1819 featured a few issues ago, wrote of the problems then being encountered by the Duke of Atholl who planned on making his new bridge the formal entrance to the town. Southey told of “a stubborn blacksmith, whose shed stands just in the way, and who will not sell his pen, thus in a surly doggish spirit of independence impeding by his single opposition a very material improvement.” So, in the early 19th century Dunkeld had its very own ‘Swampy’.

Our next stop on this mammoth river tour was the village of Stanley, and what was, for me, an unexpected find – Stanley Mills, a huge complex of late 18th and early 19th century cotton mills right in the heart of wool country. Now partly converted to housing, the mills are an imposing sight, and inside the visitor centre there are a number of inter-active displays to appeal to everyone from eight to 80 and beyond.

From Stanley, the Tay meanders south towards Perth, past Scone Palace, onetime site of Scone Abbey, historic site of the Stone of Destiny, and the place of coronation for generations of Scottish kings.

Perth has seen more than its share of Scottish history over the centuries. To me, as a child, it was where we went to the dentist, so it was well down my list of favourite places. Since Adam was a lad, Perth has been a city, but for some reason, like Brechin and Elgin, it was stripped of its city status in the 1990s. I always thought Dunblane was a city as well, but apparently not, despite its magnificent cathedral. Anyway, in this Diamond Jubilee year, Perth’s city status has been restored – and about time too.

St John’s Kirk in Perth is often described as the seat of the Scottish Reformation. After one of the earliest of John Knox’s fiery sermons in 1559, the rioting parishioners made their way to the local Franciscan and Dominican friaries and destroyed them. Then they turned their attention on Scone Abbey, and reportedly reduced it to ruins as well.

Perhaps, if the locals are still a bit impetuous, that could explain why the church was firmly locked up on a Sunday afternoon – to the chagrin of several potential visitors.

The best place to see the meandering of the Tay around Perth is from Kinnoull Hill – a stiff climb but well worth the effort. From the top, the river can be seen making its way slowly east towards the estuary – but it still has lots of history to flow past before it gets there.

Rivers, of course, are ideal sites for both castles and abbeys, and the Tay is no exception. Just a few miles from Perth, and a short distance south of the south shore, Elcho Castle is said to be one of the finest survivals of 16th century fortified house architecture in the country.

It has fared a whole lot better than the two abbeys along the same shore – only fragments survive of the 12th century Lindores Abbey, another of the religious sites to be demolished by the reformers in 1559. A little more survives of the Cistercian Balmerino Abbey closer to Dundee – sufficient to make it worth preserving by the National Trust for Scotland. It suffered the ignominy of being sacked by English forces in 1547, while what was left was largely destroyed by the 1559 assault on Scotland’s abbeys and priories.

Our journey ends up where we started – a quick drive across the Tay Road Bridge into Dundee, and a site of the railway bridge with the piers of the first rail bridge still poking out of the water. But the story of that first bridge is told elsewhere in this issue.

Next time, we move to the west coast, and set off ‘Doon the Watter’.