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Issue 65 - The Heart of History

Scotland Magazine Issue 65
October 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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The Heart of History

Charles Douglas takes us through this Highland city

This has been a memorable year for the 'Fair City of Perth’, which won the legal right to use its age-old definition of being a city. Having been previously omitted from this “official” status, Perth was one of the 26 bidders to mark Her Majesty the Queen's Diamond Jubilee, and on 14th March its status was granted.

Moreover, on 6th July, for the culmination of the Scottish leg of her jubilee tour, Her Majesty visited Perth to celebrate the achievement. On that day, the streets were filled with cheering crowds from the local community.

Whether or not the use of 'city' throughout the ages was erroneous or in any way misleading, the old settlement on the banks of the River Tay has been at the heart of Scotland's momentous history since records began. Awarded Royal Burgh status by William the Lion in the early 12th century, the inhabitants prospered through trading with mainland Europe. As the location of Scone Abbey, which from the ninth century housed the biblical Stone of Destiny upon which, until a fateful day in 1296 when it was seized by the English and taken to London, it was here that all many of the medieval Scots kings were crowned.

In 1559, following a sermon by the Reformer John Knox in St John's Kirk, the Scottish Reformation was launched with a vengeance with the religious houses of Greyfriars and Blackfriars being ransacked. In the 17th and 18th centuries, the town was occupied by Jacobite supporters during all three of the popular Uprisings.

Strategically, this was critical. Perth is first and foremost a frontier 'Highland' town, providing easy access from the south, Edinburgh and the Kingdom of Fife; to the west and the Road to the Isles; to the east and the sea routes to Holland and the Low Countries, and to the north, to Inverness and Aberdeen. Its first railway station was built in 1848 as the town expanded.

With its open and historic green spaces known as the North and South Inches, modern Perth provides a compelling holiday location in addition to a lively local community. The Perth Museum & Art Gallery houses collections of fine and applied art and natural history. In a former waterworks is housed the Fergusson Gallery comprising a collection of the works of J. D. Fergusson (1874-1961), the renowned Scottish colourist.

Enthusiasts for military history may want to visit Balhousie Castle in Hay Street which houses the regimental museum of the Black Watch Regiment which was raised by the British Government in 1739 to police the Highlands.

Horticulturalists will favour the Branklyn Gardens in Dundee Street, managed by the National Trust for Scotland. During the summer months this is a blaze of glorious colour from its plantings of rhododendrons, herbaceous and peatgarden plants.

In the evenings, the Perth Theatre and Perth Concert Hall offer a diversity of musical and drama performances. The latter establishment dates from 1817, moving to the High Street in 1900. A devastating fire destroyed the original theatre in 1924, but it was soon re-born and Hollywood stars such as Donald Sutherland and Ewan McGregor, not to mention UK greats such as Una McLean, Russell Hunter, Edith McArthur, Elaine C Smith and Jimmy Chisholm launched their careers here.

Seasonal out-of-door attractions in and around a surprisingly compact area encompass the monthly Farmers' Markets and race meetings at the Perth Racecourse, which adjoins the Scone Palace estate.

For children (and adults, of course), there is the Perth Leisure Pool situated next door to Dewar’s Centre which provides curling, skating and bowling facilities. Bell’s Sports Centre at North Inch hosts a wide range of national and international sporting events.

On the North Inch in 1396, allegedly a battle was staged between the Clan Chattan Confederation and either followers of Clan Cameron or Clan Kay, the records do not confirm which. The spectators included King Robert III. In the event, Clan Chattan was triumphant in killing all of its opponents and today it is hard to imagine such a brutal event having taken place on such a welcoming and wide green space.

In Perth’s pedestrianised High Street and St John's Shopping Centre can be found all of the major brands you would expect in an upmarket and affluent area. In the surrounding streets, Perth enjoys one of Scotland’s best selections of independent specialist shops, retailing an exciting range of designer label couture and street wear, antiques and collectibles, art and crafts, home furnishings, fine china and glass, leather ware and jewellery, both antique and modern.

Until the 19th century, Perth was the lowest crossing point of the River Tay which majestically sweeps from Loch Tay in the west to the port of Dundee in the east. As a consequence, there are a number of bridge crossings, at least two of which have been dismantled or washed away during the centuries. Today the roads travel north to Inverness on the east side of Perth, and on the east side, to Dundee and to Forfar and Blairgowrie into the glens of Angus. As a touring destination for the central Scottish Highlands Perth is therefore unsurpassed.

On the north aside of the River Tay there is Scone Palace which sits in close proximity to Moot Hill, and Scone Chapel which occupies the remains of Scone Abbey. A replica of the Stone of Destiny, the legendary Jacob's Pillow, is displayed here. The “official” original (some say that it was replaced with a lump of red sandstone and removed for safekeeping at the time of Edward I's invasion in the 13th century), was returned to Scotland in 1996 and can now be seen on show at Edinburgh Castle.

The Gothic style palace that exists today was begun around 1803 by the eighth Earl of Mansfield and has remained largely unaltered since its completion.

In the Long Gallery here in 1842, Queen Victoria and Prince Albert witnessed a demonstration of curling upon the polished wooden floors, and afterwards Prince Albert agreed to become the first president of the Caledonian Curling Club. Although open to the public, Scone Palace remains the family home of the eighth Earl & Countess of Mansfield, and the house is filled with priceless treasures, fine Dresden and Sèvres porcelain, paintings, ceramics, clocks and furniture, acquired by this enormously influential sept of Clan Murray.

Held annually in the grounds are the Scottish Game Fair and the Central Scotland International Horse Trials. Scone Palace is also a popular venue for antique fairs.

There are a large number of excellent hotels and hostelries to be found in the vicinity of Perth, and the city alternates between being vibrant and being a peaceful retreat, depending upon the mood of the individual. Good restaurants include Sante in South Saint John's Place; the Bothy in Kinnoull Street and Breizh in the High Street. However, those are just a handful.

If there is one recommendation to be given to visitors to Perth it is that they enjoy the glorious surroundings of this most attractive of Scottish destinations. If you are fit and enthusiastic and have enough time to spare in your 48 hours, may I recommend that you climb to the summit of Kinnoull Hill, on the Dundee road where there are fine vistas of the River Tay, the Friarton Bridge built in 1978 to accommodate the A90 to Dundee, and the encroaching landscape with Moncreiffe Hill in the Kingdom of Fife beyond.

In the woodland park there are 14 animal and plant sculptures created by the chainsaw wood sculptor Pete Bowsher. On the summit is Kinnoull Tower, built in the 18th century for the ninth Earl of Kinnoull who was inspired by the castles of the German Rhineland.

Enjoy Perth. It is a lively and friendly place far removed from the grisly and relentless bustle of so many other cities.