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Issue 7 - Perthshire – Scotland's Land of Diversity

History & Heritage

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Scotland Magazine Issue 7
March 2003

 

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Perthshire – Scotland's Land of Diversity

Tom Bruce Gardyne reveals the mystery of a landlocked county linking lowland Scotland to the Highlands

On the day she returned from Scotland with her husband Prince Albert in 1844, Queen Victoria was already suffering serious withdrawal symptoms.

That night back at Windsor Castle, she wrote emotionally in her journal of how she missed the fine hills and the mountain air “so pure, light and brisk.

“Independently of the beautiful scenery, there was a quiet, a retirement, a wildness, a liberty, and a solitude that had such a charm for us.”

It was only her second visit north of the border but she was clearly hooked, on this occasion by the hills and glens of Perthshire. This large, almost entirely landlocked county sits bang in the middle of Scotland, straddling the Highland line that splits the country in two. For Victorians, inspired by the example of their Queen, the city of Perth was a gateway to the mysterious land to the north.

The cultural differences between the Highlands and the Lowlands have been eroded by ease of travel and the modern media. Today the world has shrunk and is beamed out from every television set. And though these differences still exist, certainly on a subliminal level, they are as nothing to what the Victorians experienced as they bravely headed off into the unknown of the Perthshire hills.

For these early tourists, it was Sir Walter Scott who put the county on the map with his novel The Fair Maid of Perth, having done the same for the Trossachs in his epic poem The Lady of the Lake written in 1810.

In both cases he had been inspired by more than just the beauty and romance of the landscape. Like the Trossachs, with its heroic tales of Rob Roy, Perthshire is equally steeped in history and legend. Perth itself dates back to Roman times when Agricola built a fort beside a crossing on the river Tay in AD 80 and called it Bertha. This was the first point upstream from the mouth of Scotland’s biggest river that you could cross at low tide.

At high tide it was navigable for sea-going vessels, and this allowed the city to trade directly with the continent in later years. There was a long history of exporting hides and leather goods – especially gloves in the 18th century. At the same time, during the fishing season, Perth was shipping salmon packed in ice to London twice a week – a journey that took 60 hours in 1796.

Not all Roman developments have stood the test of time, but Perth was perfectly placed as a hub that connects central Scotland with the rest of the country. For anyone coming from the Lowlands it was an obvious starting point on the journey north up the river Tay and its tributary the Tummel, before branching into Speyside and on to Inverness.

Today, the A9 follows the same route and remains the country’s main artery through the Highlands. Reflecting its strategic importance as a natural crossroads, Kenneth MacAlpin established the first capital of the joint Kingdom of the Picts and the Scots just north of here at Scone (pronounced ‘Scoon’) in AD 846. From then on all 42 Scottish kings were crowned here, on the Stone of Destiny on a small mound of earth, known as Moot hill.

It may have been Boot hill, however, for according to legend, the nobles who came to swear their allegiance to the king wore boots full of earth from their own lands, which they would empty onto the ground after the ceremony. At the end of the 13th century, King Edward I of England removed the Stone of Destiny and took it to Westminster Abbey, before it was finally returned to Scotland in 1996. It now lies in Edinburgh Castle.

Today, Scone has become a suburb of Perth, while its ancient Abbey lies buried beneath Scone Palace which was expanded into a large gothic building in the early 18th century.

Long before then, Perth played a critical role in the Scottish Reformation after John Knox preached a sermon denouncing the persecution of Protestants from the pulpit of St John’s Kirk in 1559.

Though he later denied any intention to incite the mob, that was the effect, and an angry congregation left the city’s main church to ransack monasteries and religious sites.

Despite this radical Protestant tradition, Perth supported the Catholic Jacobites. It was in Perthshire, just north of Pitlochry beside the river Tummel, that the Government forces had their first taste of defeat in 1689.

In a battle that lasted just two minutes, ‘the mingled torrent of red coats and tartans went raving down the valley to the gorge of Killiecrankie’. Today, a visitor centre explains how John Graham of Claverhouse or ‘Bonnie Dundee’, won the day but lost his life to a stray bullet. Without its charismatic leader, the revolt quickly fizzled out.

Having crushed the next uprising in 1715, the Government embarked on a massive road building scheme under General Wade to link Perth, Fort William and Inverness to allow its troops access and bring the Highlands to heel.

Ironically, it was Bonnie Prince Charlie who made use of these roads on his march south in 1745. Wade also proposed setting up a local militia of clansmen loyal to the crown – a force that became the Black Watch, one of the most famous regiments in the British Army. It was first mustered in 1740, on the banks of the Tay at Aberfeldy, and today its soldiers are commemorated in war memorials in almost every Perthshire town.

With or without the failure of the ‘45, the old Highland way of life was on the way out. Its demise probably happened faster in Perthshire than anywhere else, because of its proximity to the Lowlands where agriculture was being transformed.

“What an astonishing change has taken place in the memory of man!” declared one contemporary account of the county written in 1799.

Where once “the farmer went on foot to market, now he rides well dressed, [where] formerly he ate his food off his knee, now his table is covered, he sleeps comfortably on feathers with his curtains drawn snugly around him.”

To this day Perthshire remains resolutely rural, never having had the deposits of coal and iron ore needed for heavy industry. Perth may have missed out on the great boom of its arch-rival, Dundee, but as a result it never had to suffer the pain of industrial decline.

And though Dundee finally appears to be on the mend after its post-war crisis, it sits in stark contrast to the confident elegance of Perth. With its Georgian crescents and spacious parks there is more than a nod towards Edinburgh’s New Town. Much of the credit for keeping the developers at bay is down to the Perth Civic Trust, dubbed the Black Watch of conservation pressure groups.

The Trust’s greatest victory was saving the Round House, a classical rotunda that was built as a waterworks in 1832 and now contains the Fergusson Gallery. Fergusson was one of the leading Scottish Colourists – arguably Scotland’s most important art movement of the 20th century.

Thanks to its central position, its quality of life and perhaps lack of trade-union strife, Perth has managed to sell itself to big business. Among others, it is home to the insurance giant General Accident, and the whisky firm Highland Distillers, famous for producing The Famous Grouse.

Yet there was a suspicion from those outside that the place was getting a little sleepy, its tweedy image a little threadbare. A few years back there was clearly some truth in the accusations, but now they sound more like jealousy, not least when it comes to food.

As well as a thriving farmers’ market on the first Saturday of every month, you can eat extremely well in Perth in a clutch of award-winning restaurants.

Before moving on, pause for one last view from the Perth bridge to appreciate how well the city makes use of its river. If you look down at the water flowing past, just think that almost all the rain that falls on Perthshire eventually drains into this mighty river via a network of lochs, tributaries and burns.

Fourteen miles upstream of Perth, the Tay passes the small town of Dunkeld and suddenly the scenery starts to get more dramatic as you leave the flood plains behind. Long ago this was something of a border post where the corpses of any Highlander captured would be strung up along the roadside to deter others.

At Dunkeld, you can head across to the north-east corner of the county on a road that climbs high into the Grampian mountains and over to Deeside, or carry on to Pitlochry – a Victorian boom-town thanks to mass tourism and the railways.

If the unbroken line of gift shops and woollen mills is not attractive, there are plenty of pretty woodland trails to explore on foot, while in the evening the Pitlochry Festival Theatre puts on a summer season of plays. Back on the A9, at the foot of Glen Garry stands Blair Castle – the home of the Duke of Atholl and Britain’s only private army. It is open to the public throughout the summer.

To follow the Tay you must turn off the A9 and head due west to Aberfeldy and Loch Tay. A mile or two beyond Aberfeldy, whose distillery proclaims itself to be the home of Dewar’s whisky, is a tiny hamlet called Dull – reputedly the site of Scotland’s oldest university.

Perhaps the name didn’t help, but there’s little sign of campus life now. And finally to Loch Tay, one of the largest inland lochs in Scotland. If the weather is kind it can be a beautiful drive along the northern shore for 17 miles to Killin, just over the border in Argyll.

In the late 18th century, 800 families were recorded to be living round Loch Tay. Today many of their descendants are in Canada thanks to the 5th Earl of Breadalbane, who decided to replace his tenants with black face sheep as part of the Highland Clearances.

Breadalbane gave the family seat of Taymouth Castle the full baronial treatment and entertained Queen Victoria there, but by the 1920s the money was running out and it was sold as a hotel. Recently there was a vague rumour that the American singer Cher was looking for a Scottish home and that Taymouth might fit the bill. Nothing came of it.

To the north of Loch Tay lies Glen Lyon and above that, Loch Rannoch. Both offer a very remote wilderness, pretty in summer thanks to the heather and desperately bleak in winter.

A more gentle prospect is offered by Loch Earn, a short drive south from Killin, with its hillsides covered in rich deciduous woodland, best seen in late spring and autumn.

At the head of the loch, before it feeds into the river Earn – the other great Perthshire tributary of the Tay – is the tiny resort of St Fillans, popular with dinghy sailors and water-skiers.

Some five miles downstream is the small town of Comrie, which sits right on the Highland fault line and claims to be the earthquake capital of Scotland.

For your average San Franciscan, the town’s modest surges would be something of a joke. But many millions of years ago there must have been some pretty serious vibrations going on beneath Comrie.

Further along you come to Crieff, the capital of this part of Perthshire known as Strathearn, and at one time a major ‘tryst’, or market, for cattle brought along the drove roads that criss-cross the Highlands.

For many Victorian visitors , Crieff was as far as they dared venture in. Once the west Highland train line was completed in the 1890s and the roads north improved, the county was no longer the final frontier.

It may not have quite the same “wildness” and “solitude” that so impressed Queen Victoria, but it has lost none of its charm.