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Issue 91 - The Twists and Turns of the Tay

Scotland Magazine Issue 91
February 2017


This article is 23 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 Twists and Turns of the Tay

Keith Fergus meanders alongside Scotland's longest river

The River Tay is huge in every respect. At 120 miles in length it is not only Scotland’s longest river, but also holds the largest volume of water of any river in Britain. The river’s catchment area extends over 2000 square miles and upon reaching the 23-mile long Firth of Tay, it carries more water than the Thames and Severn put together.

The River Tay has an unusual characteristic in that its source lies many miles from where its course actually begins. A small lochan at the head of Allt Coire Laoigh, some 700 metres up on the southwest slopes of Ben Lui, near Tyndrum, is regarded as the source. Although the slopes of Ben Lui had been considered to be the source since 1780, it took until 2011 for the exact location to
be pinpointed.

The rivers Cononish, Fillan and Dochart then flow for 18 miles into the southwestern end of the14.5-mile long Loch Tay. The River Tay then makes its first appearance as it spills from the loch’s northeastern fringes at Kenmore. It then twists and turns through Perthshire, a landscape characterised by dramatic wild mountains such as Ben Lawers and Schiehallion.

The countryside softens as the river crosses the Highland Boundary Fault Line at Dunkeld and after Perth it continues through some of the richest farmland in Scotland. The river eventually reaches the North Sea a few miles east of Dundee, where seals may often be seen basking on the tidal mud flats. Beyond the city, its mouth is bounded by Buddon Ness in Angus and Fife’s Tentsmuir Point. It is thought that the word Tay derives from the Brythonic word ‘tausa’ and means either strong, silent or flowing. The river’s remarkable journey inspired Robert Burns, William Wordsworth and JMW Turner, to name a few, and their resultant works encouraged many generations of tourists to discover its beauty for themselves.

Architecture, history and wildlife also come to the fore along its length. Red deer, red squirrel, osprey, kestrel, ptarmigan, kingfisher, stonechat, moorhen, water rail, damselflies, meadow brown butterfly, and common seals are just some of the wildlife that the landscape sustains, while striking buildings like Broughty Castle, Dunkeld Cathedral and Perth’s St John’s Kirk have many stories to tell the interested visitor.

The River Tay has had a long association with salmon fishing — a Mesolithic hunter-gatherer’s diet probably included salmon when they settled at Tentsmuir Point some 10,000 years ago — and today it is one of Scotland’s premier salmon rivers.

More definite roots were planted along its banks during the Iron Age and the clearest evidence of how people lived during this period can be seen when visiting the superb Scottish Crannog Centre on Loch Tay, near Kenmore. Here one can find a faithful and detailed recreation of a wooden loch dwelling that once would have been the home of an extended family. Generally circular in shape, crannogs were built on stilts and were accessed by long walkways that passed above the water. To date, the remains of 18 crannogs have been discovered under the waters of Loch Tay, alongside many other artefacts that give insight into the Iron Age way of life.

About 500 years ago a salmon industry built up around the river as the fish became a lucrative item to trade; this led to stake nets being established along the Tay estuary in the late 1700s. In fact, Britain’s largest salmon was caught in the Tay, near the small town of Dunkeld, in 1922 by Georgina Ballantine and weighed in at a rod-bending 64lbs (29kg)!

Around 1500 years ago the ancient people known as the Picts built several hill forts along the Tay and the best example adorns the summit of Moncrieffe Hill, on the outskirts of Perth. In AD83 the Romans paused their slow advance through Scotland at the confluence of the River Tay and River Almond; here they established a fort called Bertha. This settlement was the precursor of the city of Perth, which would subsequently spring up a little downriver. The Romans also had a presence some 20 miles to the east of Bertha, at Dundee Law, where they used the panoramic vantage point to their advantage.

For the city of Perth the river has been a blessing and a curse. The Tay reaches its highest navigable point here and, from medieval times until the early 20th Century, boats navigated their way from the Firth of Tay to Perth to conduct trade. As a result, a number of small shipyards were located here and the docks’ business helped the city to thrive.

Yet the river has also brought much anguish to the city. Major floods have been recorded as taking place as far back as 1210, but also occured much more recently in both 1990 and 1993 — since then major flood defences have been installed. The highest flood took place in 1814 when the river rose to seven metres above its normal level.

The River Tay also helped Dundee develop internationally as a sizeable port and, for some 150 years from the mid-18th Century, as a premier whaling hub. It was also one of the British Empire’s most prolific shipbuilding centres and its yards famously produced the last traditional three-masted ship to be built in Britain: the RSS Discovery. This ship famously took Captain Robert Falcon Scott, Sir Ernest Henry Shackleton and other notable explorers on their famous research voyage to Antarctica. The ship, which can be visited at Dundee’s waterside, has subsequently become synonymous with the city.

A thriving textile industry, primarily in the production of linen for sailcloth, was also a major employer in Dundee, but it was the city’s ‘three Js’ — jute, jam and journalism — that really drove the economy during the 19th Century. Jute, in particular, was vital to the city and at its height this industry employed over 50,000 workers in Dundee alone.

The jute mills are a now relic of the past, but the engineering, telecommunications, publishing, digital media and computer-programming industries have given the city a new lease of life in recent years.

From its source to the sea, the River Tay is one of Scotland’s best. Its wild mountainous terrain, woodland fringes, and importance to social history make it one that must be visited during any vacation in Scotland, even if only for a short while.

Top Five Places To Visit Along The River Tay

The Birnam Oak, Birnam
It is thought the Birnam Oak is the last remnant of the ancient Birnam Wood, immortalised by Shakespeare in his play Macbeth. The tree is sometimes known as Macbeth’s Oak.

Dunkeld Cathedral, Dunkeld
Dunkeld Cathedral was built between 1260 and 1501 on the site of an 8th Century monastery. The cathedral is dedicated to St Columba and a variety of associated relics are rumoured to be buried underneath the chancel.

The Crannog Centre, Kenmore
The Scottish Crannog Centre, on the banks of Loch Tay, allows the visitor to discover what life was like 2500 years ago within this unique reconstructed loch dwelling.

Camperdown Country Park, Dundee
Open to the public since 1949, Camperdown Country Park is Dundee’s largest park, covers over 400 acres and contains nearly 200 different species of tree.

Lindores Abbey Distillery, Newburgh
David, 1st Earl of Huntingdon, established the abbey during the 12th Century. A 1494 commission from King James IV to the friar of Lindores Abbey is the earliest record of Scotch whisky and, in honour of this, the grounds are soon to be home to a new distillery.

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