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Issue 91 - The Fair Land (Regional Focus: Perthshire)

Scotland Magazine Issue 91
February 2017


This article is 22 months 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 Land (Regional Focus: Perthshire)

Charles Douglas sets out on a journey around Perthshire

One of the most important aspects to bear in mind about the county of Perthshire is the sheer size of its hinterland, which extends from its borders with the County of Angus seaport of Dundee and the Carse of Gowrie in the east, to the Pass of Drumochter to the north, with Rannoch Moor in the west, and to Glen Devon in the south.

For centuries, the city of Perth served as a frontier town between the Scottish Lowlands and Highlands and was a flourishing marketplace for the cattle drovers of the north, south, east, and west of Scotland. Overlooked by Kinnoull Hill, at Perth the River Tay is divided by Moncreiffe Island before passing under the Friarton bridge at West Kinfauns, on the city’s eastern limits.

With open and historic green spaces known as the North and South Inches, modern Perth provides a compelling holiday location in addition to accommodating a lively local community. Its one-way traffic system can be daunting at first, but there are attractive shops, restaurants and bars to discover. The Perth Museum & Art Gallery houses collections of fine and applied art and natural history. In a former waterworks is housed the Fergusson Gallery, which showcases a collection of the works of J. D. Fergusson (1874-1961), the renowned Scottish colourist.

The Royal Scottish Geographical Society has transformed Fair Maid's House, known for featuring in Sir Walter Scott's novel The Fair Maid of Perth (1828), into an education centre. Visitors to the house can learn about cartography and geographical sciences. Enthusiasts of military history will want to visit Balhousie Castle in Hay Street as it houses the regimental museum of the Black Watch, a regiment that was famously raised by the British Government in 1739 to police the Highlands. Horticulturists will favour the Branklyn Garden on Dundee Road, managed by the National Trust for Scotland. Over the summer months this haven of greenery provides a blaze of colour from its plantings of rhododendrons, alongside herbaceous and peat-garden plants.

On the northern side of the River Tay is the Gothic-style Scone Palace, begun around 1803 and situated 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 stone used over the centuries for coronations of Scottish kings, is on display here. The ‘official’ original stone was only returned to Scotland in 1996, after being held at the Palace of Westminster since it was captured by Edward I in 1296, and can now be seen on display at Edinburgh Castle. However, some say that the ‘true’ original was replaced with a lump of red sandstone and removed for safekeeping at the time of Edward's 13th Century invasion and thus the status of the ‘official’ original is also in some doubt among scholars.

Scone Palace is the ancestral home of the earls of Mansfield and Mansfield (the title dates from two confirmations) and the red sandstone building has remained largely unaltered since its completion in the early 19th Century. In the Palace’s Long Gallery, in 1842, Queen Victoria and Prince Albert first witnessed a demonstration of curling upon the polished wooden floors. As a result, Prince Albert later agreed to become the first president of the Royal Caledonian Curling Club. The house is filled with priceless treasures such as fine Dresden and Sèvres porcelain, paintings, ceramics, clocks, and furniture acquired by this enormously influential sept of Clan Murray. Open to the public, the Palace and grounds are well worth a visit. Today, guests may even stay overnight in the palace's luxurious self-catering accommodation, which is located in its west aspect.

A number of acclaimed events are held annually in the palace grounds; these include the Scottish Game Fair, the Central Scotland International Horse Trials, and a series of energetic tournaments organised by the Perth & Dundee Polo Club. Scone Palace is also a popular venue for antique fairs and weddings.

From Perth, the A9 travels west into the Ochil Hills through Aberuthven to Auchterarder, which features a 1.5-mile long High Street and the prestigious Gleneagles Hotel Resort, with its three legendary golf courses. Just outside of Perth is Huntingtower Castle, once owned by the Ruthven family, and where Mary, Queen of Scots and her husband Lord Darnley stayed during the Chaseabout Raid. At Aberuthven there is a mausoleum containing the remains of James Graham, 1st Duke of Montrose, who was elevated to dukedom by Queen Anne as a reward for his pivotal role in creating the Act of Union in 1707.

The Gleneagles Hotel is, in fact, not in Gleneagles, fiefdom of the Haldane family, but in Strathearn, and took its name from the Victorian railway station. Also in Strathearn is Dunning where, legend has it, the 8th Century Saint Serf killed a dragon. The village was burned during the 1715 Jacobite Rising. The austere St Serf's Church, which dates from around the year 1200, contains a Pictish monument, dating from around AD800, that is known as the Dupplin Cross. Northwest of the village is a monument commemorating Maggie Wall, an unknown and possibly fictional woman, who was accused of witchcraft and supposedly burnt at the stake here in 1657.

On the south side of the River Earn is Forteviot; the present village was rebuilt in the 1920s by the 1st Baron Forteviot of the Dewar Scotch Whisky dynasty. The location was once inhabited by the Pictish kings of Fortriu and King Kenneth MacAlpin, the earliest on record of the ancient dynasty, is said to have died on Haly Hill.

Back in Perth, leaving the city centre via a bridge across the Tay there is the option of joining the A85 and then the A90, or the A93 travelling north to Blairgowrie and Rattray. The latter passes the world's largest beech hedge, which can be found on the Marquis of Lansdowne's Meiklour estate; the former journeys east to Inchture, Invergowrie, and Dundee. From the A90, roads finger north into the glens of Angus. At Blairgowrie and Rattray, which straddle the Ericht River, a visit to the Meigle Sculptured Stone Museum is recommended. From the road can be seen Craighall Castle, the dramatically situated ancestral fortress of the Rattray Clan. To the west of Blairgowrie is Ardblair Castle, seat of the Blair Oliphant family and setting for the annual Blairgowrie Highland Games in early September each year. Nearby is Newton Castle, home of the Chief of Clan Macpherson. At the Spittal of Glenshee is the ancient gathering ground of Clan MacThomas.

Skiing began here at Glenshee in 1957 when Dundee Ski Club built its first ski tow. The Glenshee Chairlift Company was formed in the 1960s and, despite the fact that climate change has interfered dramatically in the snowfall ever since, the sport still
flourishes on a seasonal basis.

For those choosing to motor west on the A85 from Perth, the road leads through Methven to Crieff, Comrie and Loch Earn. Crieff is the principle town of Strathearn and has been a popular holiday resort since the Victorian era. Situated in 900 acres, Crieff Hydro is one of Scotland's most celebrated health spas and dates from 1868. During the 18th and 19th Centuries, the town was one of Scotland's most important cattle ‘trysts,’ and the Crieff Visitor Centre features a Highland Drovers exhibition. Just outside the town is the Glenturret Distillery, which houses the Famous Grouse Experience. Also in the vicinity are the glorious gardens of historic Drummond Castle and MacRosty Park, which has many delightful specimen trees and children's play areas. Next stop is Comrie, which lies astride a geological fault line. But don't panic, tremors are very unlikely. Nevertheless, the ‘Shaky Toun,’ as it is sometimes known, boasts an Earthquake House that contains records from 1597. The surrounding area is superb walking country and a notable excursion is from Lednock to the Deil's Cauldron, a thrilling waterfall. Loch Earn and Lochearnhead village, where Perthshire spills into Stirlingshire, are superb destinations for angling and water sports enthusiasts. The remains of a 2000-year-old crannog are nearby.

Meanwhile, the A9 heads north from Perth and five miles up the road, at Bankfoot, is the home of the famous Bruadar Liqueur at the headquarters of Morrison & MacKay, producers of some of Scotland’s finest liqueurs. Continuing north, alongside the banks of the River Tay, one may stop off at the charming small towns of Stanley, Murthly and, the larger, Dunkeld. Murthly Castle is on the west side of Birnam Hill, which was immortalised in William Shakespeare's Macbeth, was once a royal hunting lodge and is owned by the Steuart Fothringham family. In close proximity is the little village of Birnam, which was beloved as a holiday escape by the children's writer Beatrix Potter. Dominating the town of Dunkeld is Dunkeld Cathedral, which allegedly once contained the relics of St Columba, and there is a castle museum housed within the grounds. Nearby is the Hermitage, which is accessed on the western side of the A9 and maintained by the National Trust for Scotland. Created by successive dukes of Atholl as a tribute to the mythical blind poet Ossian, this landscaped woodland park contains Ossian’s cave and a hall of mirrors.

At Ballinluig, the A827 leads to Aberfeldy, an attractive and busy market town that features the Dewar's Aberfeldy Distillery, which is open to the public. The bridge over the Tay here was built in the 18th Century by General Wade, as part of his strategy to police the unruly Highlands. The Birks of Aberfeldy, celebrated by the poet Robert Burns, consists of a gorge that is designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest and provides an enjoyable, scenic walk. At the mouth of Glen Lyon is the village of Fortingall, once a Roman settlement and alleged to be the birthplace of Pontius Pilate, whose father is thought to have served with its legions. From Aberfeldy, the B846 crosses to the north bank of the River Tay and swings past Castle Menzies, the hereditary home of Clan Menzies, which is open to the public.

The opening of the salmon season is celebrated annually in January at the village of Kenmore, on the eastern end of Loch Tay, which sits in close proximity to the magnificent Taymouth Castle, the ancestral seat of the Campbells of Breadalbane. It was here in 1842 that Queen Victoria and her consort Prince Albert stayed as guests of the Marquess of Breadalbane. Nowadays there is an 18-hole golf course in the grounds that is open to membership.

Both the Queen and her husband were inspired by the glorious scenery on all sides and returned to Scotland two years later to stay as guests of Lord Glenlyon at Blair Castle. Determined to have a home of their own in the Highlands, within six years they had purchased the Balmoral Estate.

Following the death of Prince Albert in 1861, the Queen set off on a picnic with her personal ghillie John Brown and the Royal party settled to enjoy the breathtaking view of Loch Tummel with the distant Glencoe hills in the far distance. This spot, which features on the road north, is known as The Queen's View in memory of this.

The earls and dukes of Atholl descend from a Flemish nobleman, Freskin, who came to Scotland in the 12th Century and was granted extensive lands by David I of Scotland for his services. He married into the old line of the Mormaers of Moray, from whom the family name of Murray originates. Over the many following years, Freskin's descendants consistently supported the Royal House of Stewart and are still in possession of the same lands, even though one of their number, Lord George Murray, the younger son of the first Duke of Atholl, played a prominent part in the 1745 Jacobite uprising. It is a classic example of a family backing both sides in a conflict.

In the 19th Century, the picturesque town of Pitlochry became a popular holiday resort. In 1947, a dam was built here as part of the Tummel Hydro Electric Power Scheme and since then a fish ladder and plant hunters' garden have been introduced. Both are popular visitor attractions.

The innovative Pitlochry Festival Theatre was opened in 1851 by John Stewart and the current building built at Port-na-Craig opened its doors in 1981. On its doorstep are Ben Vrackie and Schiehallion, the latter's summit is claimed to be at the very centre of Scotland.

There are two distilleries to be found here: Blair Atholl, owned by the global drinks corporation Diageo, and the picturesque, independently owned Edradour, which is one of Scotland's smallest distilleries. Both are open to the public. On the slopes of the Grampian Mountains can be seen the Murray stronghold of Blair Castle. Built in the 13th Century, it was the last castle in Britain to come under siege. Close by is the seductive House of Bruar, a luxurious retail village. It makes for a delightful stop-off point while travelling north from Perthshire onto Inverness, Morayshire and beyond.

A Journey From Ballinluig to Loch Tay

Distance: 25 miles
Approximate time by car: 50 minutes

Ballinluig (A9) Ballinluig Station closed in 1965, but prior to that it was where the branch railway line turned west towards Aberfeldy, a vital lifeline for the famous, homonymous distillery. From the A9, which is the main road to the north of Scotland, turn off to cross the River Tummel onto the A827.

Logierait (A827) Taking its name from the Gaelic Lag an Ratha (Hollow of the Earth), it sits on the confluence of the rivers Tay and Tummell. Close to the village church are two Pictish Stones. Alexander Mackenzie, Canada's second Prime Minister, was born here in 1822. This is Atholl Country; first held by the Stewarts, then by the Murrays and above the village is the seat of the ancient Mormaers of Atholl. A Celtic cross marks the spot, as a monument to the 6th Duke of Atholl (1814-1864).

Grandtully (A827) In Dull Parish, Grandtully sits on the banks of the River Tay. Grandtully Castle, ancestral home of the Steuart Fothringham family, dates from around 1525. The family are descended from Alexander, Lord HighSteward of Scotland, and the remains of an earlier castle are nearby. St Mary's Church in Nether Pitcairn was built circa 1533 and has a wooden tunnel vault that features a series of restored paintings of biblical scenes and 23 roundels.

Aberfeldy (A827) Sitting on the intersection of the A827 and the A826 to Crieff, this is a small market town that featured in Robert Burns' poem The Birks of Aberfeldy. In the 17th Century, General Wade instigated a bridge here, designed by William Adam (1689-1748). The town also features a memorial to the Black Watch regiment and an 18-hole golf course. A major visitor attraction is Dewar's Aberfeldy Distillery, which was founded in 1896 by John Dewar & Sons of Perth. The distillery has two wash stills with a capacity of 16,500 litres, and two spirit stills with 15,000 litres.

Croft Moraig Stone Circle (A827) This is a multi-phase stone circle which sits by the roadside and is well worth a look. Shards of Neolithic stoneware were found at the site.

Kenmore (A827) Located at the point where the River Tay gushes from Loch Tay. The village dates from the 16th Century, although it was originally sited on the Glentrool north side of the river. In 1540, Sir Colin Campbell of Glenorchy began to build Balloch Castle and the entire village was moved to a prominent headland on the loch shore. The settlement was transformed into a model village by his descendant, the 3rd Earl of Breadalbane, in 1760. The somewhat more grand Taymouth Castle was built on the site of the medieval castle by John Campbell, 2nd Marquess of Breadalbane, just in time for the visit of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert in 1842. Taymouth Castle now boasts a golf course in its grounds and is privately owned. In the village, the Kenmore Hotel dates from 1572, built on the site of an earlier tavern.

Loch Tay (A827) Over 15 miles long, 508-feet deep, and flanked by the imposing Ben Lawers Mountain Range, Loch Tay is Scotland's sixth largest freshwater loch and is fed at its head by the rivers Dochart and Lochay. It has been designated a National Nature Reserve. Now mostly lost beneath the water, the Crannogs of Loch Tay were 18 artificial Celtic island settlements built during the Iron Age. The largest, known as Eilean nam Ban-naomh (Isle of the Holy Women), is situated just north of Kenmore and was the site of a nunnery in the 12th Century. A recreated wooden Crannog can be visited on the loch's southern shore, by Kenmore.