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Issue 93 - A Highland Safari

Scotland Magazine Issue 93
June 2017

 

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A Highland Safari

Christopher Coates sets out for the Appin of Dull and finds it anything but boring

Anyone who’s spent time travelling in Scotland will most definitely be familiar with the A9 road, which links Perth with Inverness and eventually Thurso on the country’s distant north coast. With the tourist town of Pitlochry, Blair Castle, Dalwhinnie Distillery, the beauty of the Cairngorms National Park, and much more waiting further north, it can be tempting to power on past the turn-off at Logierait — but try to resist the temptation at least once. You see, taking that left turn, at the point where the River Tummel meets the River Tay, opens up an oft-overlooked region of Perthshire that’s well worth exploring. Boasting verdant woodland walks, standing stones, the sprawling Loch Tay, historic castles, abundant wildlife, and a even a distillery, travelling in this spectacular area is a veritable Highland safari.

First stop on the tour is Grandtully (pronounced Grantly), a little village that’s home to the Scottish Chocolate Centre — headquarters of the renowned Highland Chocolatier. Here visitors will find a small multimedia exhibition tracking the chocolate-making process, a viewing window into the kitchen where Iain Burnett and his team craft their award-winning truffles, a gift shop, and a superb little cafe. It’s a great place to refuel after a long drive.

Feeling refreshed (or perhaps a little guilty if chocolate over-indulgence has occurred) the road continues to follow the route of both the River Tay and the Rob Roy Way walking route to the small town of Aberfeldy, which is home to a number of attractions including the Aberfeldy Watermill and a charming single-screen community cinema. The settlement was made famous by Robert Burns’ poem The Birks of Aberfeldy (1787), which describes a walk from the town that visitors can still enjoy today. Following in the footsteps of the bard, it’s easy to see what inspired him. A well-maintained footpath carries visitors through a woodland gorge for two miles to the spectacular Falls of Moness.

Also nearby is the historic Dewar’s Aberfeldy Distillery, founded in 1896 by the Scotch whisky company John Dewar & Sons during the great distillery-building boom of the late 19th Century. The distillery’s water source is the Pitilie Burn, which runs alongside the site and is famously rich in mineral deposits — including gold, supposedly! Nevertheless, it was liquid gold that Aberfeldy Distillery’s founders were after and its heather honey style of whisky is still in demand to this day, not least for use in the popular Dewar’s blended Scotch whiskies. In fact, although John Dewar & Sons remains one of the world’s largest whisky companies, the vast majority of their sales are of blends such as Dewar’s White Label and only about 1% of Aberfeldy Distillery’s production is bottled as single malt. That’s not to say that the single malt isn’t good, quite the opposite is true. Its survival over the years is undoubtedly a testament to the quality of the product produced there, which is hardly surprising as Sir Thomas ‘Tommy’ Dewar, son of the company's founder John Dewar Senior, was a known stickler for standards and once remarked that ‘nothing deflates so fast as a punctured reputation’.

Today, the distillery is open to the public and features a state-of-the-art visitor centre, which includes the use of iPads in its heritage exhibition that are programmed to recognise special ‘trigger points’ and offer up additional information, imagery, sounds, and video when held over them. Of course, after a tour visitors are welcome to enjoy a dram or two of the distillery’s spirit!

Next on our itinerary is a tour of the spectacular 16th-Century Castle Menzies, which was restored during the 20th Century by the Menzies Clan Society. For over 500 years this fortress was the seat of the Chiefs of Clan Menzies and endured many of the Highland’s historic dramas. It has hosted a number of prominent figures over the years, including Bonnie Prince Charlie (who rested at the castle on his way to Culloden in 1746) and, just four days later, the Duke of Cumberland (the commander of the Government forces). Lovingly restored after being rescued from ruin in 1957, visitors are encouraged to explore its chambers at their leisure.

Right next to the castle is the car park for the circular walk of Weem Wood, which is teeming with birdlife and at its highest point offers superb views of the Appin of Dull.

Which brings us to the Glen’s namesake settlement: the village of Dull. While the name is amusing to the modern ear, it is thought to derive from the Gaelic word for meadow or possibly another meaning ‘snare’, while the term ‘appin’ comes from an old term for ‘abbacy’ — abbey lands. However, the joke’s not lost on the locals and in 2012 the village was paired with the US town of Boring, in Oregon.

However, there’s no shortage of excitement in Dull as it is home to the tour company Highland Safaris and its superb Red Deer Centre. Founded over 25 years ago by husband-and-wife duo Donald and Julie Riddell, the centre is set in 15 acres and includes a delightful coffee shop (it’s a great place to stop for lunch), gold-panning experience, mountain-biking centre, and children’s play area. However, the stars of the show are undoubtedly the red deer that live on the site, presided over by the majestic stag named Rua. Visitors are welcomed into a special observation area, where they learn about these impressive creatures before being given the chance to get up close to the animals themselves and feed them by hand.

If that’s not enough, there’s then a meet-and-greet with a somewhat smaller (but no less beautiful) creature — a barn owl called Ossian. However, the main focus of Highland Safaris are their adrenalin-packed trips across the dramatic hillsides of the local area. Led by one of many knowledgeable, kilted safari rangers, visitors are invited aboard a Land Rover (larger groups get to ride in an impressive ex-military troop transport) and taken on a quest to seek out local wildlife amongst the woodland and shrubs of the surrounding wilderness. Each tour is different, depending on the season and what happens to come into view, but the trips are always insightful as guides share their knowledge of not just local animal life, but botany, history, and even folklore.

The Highland Safaris team’s passion for their local environment is clear from the outset and the focus of every tour is on education as much as fun, with responsible tourism and environmentalism very much a core value of the business. A new attraction for 2017 is the addition of Loch Tay Safaris, which sees visitors being given the chance to cruise the loch aboard a 12-seater boat and learn about the fascinating history that surrounds this majestic body of water.

If a slower pace is preferred, then the next stop will perhaps suit better. The Mains of Taymouth Estate is home to a number of attractions, including a gift shop, a 9-hole golf course and also a stables, from which visitors may partake in trekking the local area or even some lessons — ideal for those whose horse-riding skills are a little rusty. Dinner at their courtyard restaurant also comes highly recommended, whether for a romantic evening or family gathering. Moreover, the estate offers a number of luxurious, large self-catering properties and should definitely be considered as a place to stay while exploring the area.

Waking up refreshed, it’s time for a day of history. The first stop is the hamlet of Fortingall, which is home to one of the oldest living things in Europe: the Fortingall Yew. This ancient tree is estimated to be between 2000 and 3000 years old and back in 1769 was noted to have a trunk spanning a massive 16 metres. Today, however, the ancient heartwood has decayed and thus the tree has split into several smaller segments, which gives the impression of multiple small trees growing together. However, this natural progression of the tree’s life cycle hasn’t done anything to harm its health and it is thought likely to survive for many more centuries. A wall was erected around the tree in 1785 to protect it, but this doesn’t impede viewing as sections include fencing of iron bars. If visiting the area, be sure to take the trip and pay respects to this true ancient of the natural world.

Next stop is the famous Scottish Crannog Centre on the banks of Loch Tay. Crannogs were ancient lake dwellings built on either wholly or semi-artificial islands in lochs and rivers around Scotland and Ireland by prehistoric peoples. Their position, strategically placed far out into the water, offered not only some degree of safety from intruders but also a means by which to display status. There are between 350 and 500 crannog sites in Scotland (numbers that pale in comparison to the 1200 identified sites in Ireland), depending on the definition. The number varies so considerably as academics disagree on whether Hebridean examples should be classified as Crannogs or categorised as a different type of dwelling altogether.

Regardless, the recreated timber crannog on Loch Tay is an impressive sight to behold and offers visitors the opportunity to learn more about Scotland’s Neolithic history. Guided tours of the crannog are offered, along with many hands-on activities such as woodturning, wool spinning, and fire making. Throughout the year the centre hosts a number of exciting events, including an ‘Iron Age Village’ day in August and a celebration of the traditional Celtic festival of Samhain on Halloween.

Jump back in the car and follow the banks of the loch to the hamlet of Acharn, from where we begin our next woodland walk. The route to the Falls of Acharn is a steep one, but well worth the trip. A folly called the Hermit’s Cave meets walkers at the summit of the hill, through which access is made to a viewing gallery with superb views of the dramatic lower falls. The circular route can be completed comfortably in a couple of hours, but if time allows an extension to the route can be added that follows a short portion of the Rob Roy Way. This takes walkers past the northern edge of the Queen’s Wood, whereupon the path splits off uphill to a ring of ancient standing stones. This particular site may be the most impressively positioned stone ring in Perthshire, as it offers stunning views of Loch Tay, Ben Lawers and Schiehallion.

Our journey ends at the historic settlement of Kenmore, a quaint planned village established by the Earl of Breadalbane around 1755. The settlement was originally located on the opposite side of the Tay, until the Campbells of Breadalbane relocated it to the present location to make way for Balloch Castle — their seat until the building of Taymouth Castle, which remains habitable today. Kenmore’s waterside location makes it a popular destination for water sports enthusiasts and each year the official opening of the salmon fishing season on the River Tay is celebrated here.

The historic Kenmore Hotel, on the village’s main square, makes for an ideal place to end the day and this jam-packed itinerary. Dating from at least 1760, it is arguably Scotland’s oldest inn and has all the old-world charm and historic features to prove it. There are 40 cosy rooms and suites to choose from and it is particularly popular with keen anglers seeking to fish some of Scotland’s most salmon-rich waters.
The hotel’s Grill Room Restaurant offers hearty cuisine and delightful views over the River Tay from its panoramic windows and elegant terrace, which is perfect for dining al fresco when the weather allows. The hotel’s two bars, known as The Boar’s Head and the Poet’s Bar, are perfect spots to spend an evening. The Poet’s Bar boasts a particularly cosy atmosphere (it’s the open fire that does it) and a bar stocked with an impressive range of fine single malt whiskies.

Interestingly, during his visit in 1787 Robert Burns was so struck by the beauty of Kenmore that he composed a poem, which he proceeded to inscribe on the chimneybreast. Perhaps, while relaxing after dinner and reflecting on this Highland safari, you may just be sitting in the same spot that was once occupied by the national bard. What’s certain is that, although many years have passed, the area around Kenmore has lost none of its charm.