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Issue 71 - The Fair City

Scotland Magazine Issue 71
October 2013


This article is 4 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 Fair City

?Charles Douglas takes us on a tour of the must see highlights of this great city

Motoring through the modern day City of Perth with its sometimes confusing one-way system, you cannot fail to notice that the “Fair City”, on the banks of the stately River Tay, has kept its historic integrity. Partly this is a result of it being flanked by two substantial green spaces, the South and North Inches.

Whether or not its historic distinction of “city” was genuinely justified (it became “official in 2007), this leafy and engaging old settlement has remained at the epicentre of Scotland's momentous history since written records began. Given Royal Burgh status by William the Lion in the early twelfth century, its inhabitants prospered significantly in the middle ages from its market town status and from trading with mainland Europe. In addition, there is its close proximity to Scone Abbey which from the ninth century housed the biblical Stone of Destiny upon which all medieval Scottish monarchs were crowned. Until the nineteenth century, Perth provided the lowest crossing point of the River Tay as it majestically snakes from Loch Tay in the distant west to the port of Dundee to the east where it meets the sea. Because of this, Perth has three Tay crossings. Nowadays, on the western side of the city, the M90 tracks south to Edinburgh, with the A9 continuing north to Inverness. Across the river, the A90 travels to Dundee and the Aberdenshire coastal road, with the A85 heading upwards toward Forfar and Blairgowrie.
Although some say that the story has to be apocryphal, it is claimed that in 1396, by Royal Decree, a clan battle was staged on the North Inch between the Clan Chattan Confederation and either followers of Clan Cameron or Clan Kay. Spectators included King Robert III himself, and Clan Chattan was triumphant in killing all of its opponents in the battle. Perth has certainly seen its fair share of drama over the past millennium. On a February night in 1437, James I , staying overnight at the Blackfriars Monastery, a Dominican Friary overlooking the North Inch, was murdered in a failed coup by his uncle Walter Stewart, Earl of Atholl. Fortunately, Queen Joan, although wounded, managed to escape to Edinburgh Castle where she was reunited with her son who succeeded his father as James II.

In 1559, following a sermon by the Reformer John Knox in St John's Kirk, the Scottish Reformation was launched after the religious houses of Greyfriars and Blackfriars were ransacked and destroyed by Knox's followers. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Perth was seized and occupied by Jacobite supporters during all three of the Highland Uprisings. For visitors and residents alike, modern Perth continues to be a busy hub of retail activity combined with a vibrant cultural life. On the High Street and in 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 clothes, antiques and collectibles, art and crafts, home furnishings, fine china and glass, leather goods and jewellery, both antique and modern.

In the city centre is the Royal Scottish Geographical Society's Fair Maid's House, Perth's oldest survivng secular building, which is now a visitor and education centre where the planet earth can be viewed from space. In the Rhynd is Elcho Castle, one of Scotland's best preserved sixteenth century tower houses. A descendant of the builder was created Lord Wemyss of Elcho in 1628 and Earl of Wemyss in 1633. Another compelling visitor attraction is Stanley Mills established as a cotton mill on a hairpin bend of the river in 1786.

On its western edge of the North Inch stands the Bell's Sports Centre which, prior to the building of the Greenwich Dome in London, was listed as the largest domed building in Britain. Enthusiasts for military history will certainly want to explore the adjacent Balhousie Castle in Hay Street which houses the splendidly refuurbished regimental museum of the Black Watch Regiment (see page 10).

There are several excellent restaurants to be enjoyed. For example, the Sante Wine Bar in South Saint John's Place; Kerracher's Restaurant in South Street; 63 Tay Street; The Bothy in Kinnoull Street and No 1 The Bank in St Leonard's Bank. These are just a handful. In the evenings, the Perth Theatre and Perth Concert Hall provide a choice of musical and drama performances. The latter establishment dates from 1817. A devastating fire destroyed the original theatre in 1924, but it was soon re-built and Hollywood stars such as Donald Sutherland and Ewan McGregor, not to mention UK greats such as Una McLean and her husband Russell Hunter, and Edith McArthur launched their careers here.

The Perth Museum & Art Gallery houses a series of remarkable collections of fine and applied art and natural history. In a former waterworks on Marshall Street is housed The Fergusson Gallery comprising a collection of the works of the J. D. Fergusson (1874-1961), the renowned Scottish colourist, and his wife, the pioneering dance chorographer Margaret Morris.

Lovers of gardens should find their way over one of the bridges to the Branklyn Garden on Dundee Street, managed by the National Trust for Scotland. In the summer months this is a blaze of colour from its plantings of rhododendrons, herbaceous and peat-garden plants. 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 offers curling, skating and bowling facilities. No visit to Perth can be complete without a visit to Scone Palace on the northern side of the River Tay and 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 thirteenth century), was returned to Scotland in 1996 and can now be seen on show at Edinburgh Castle. The Gothic-style “palace” that exists today, so called because it has a Royal assocation, 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 the Prince Consort witnessed a demonstration of curling upon the polished wooden flooring, and afterwards Prince Albert agreed to become the first president of the Royal Caledonian Curling Club. Although open to the public, Scone Palace remains the family home of the eighth Earl & Countess of Mansfield and 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 parkland is the Scottish Game Fair. Scone Palace is also a popular venue for visiting antique fairs.

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 in the time they have. 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 were 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 here there are fourteen animal and plant sculptures created by the chainsaw wood sculptor Pete Bowsher. On the summit is Kinnoull Tower, built in the eighteenth century for the ninth Earl of Kinnoull who claimed to have been inspired by the castles of the German Rhineland. Enjoy Perth. It is a lively, yet gentle and and friendly place far removed from the crowded and relentless bustle of so many other cities.