Best associated with the Lake District, it was long childhood summers in Perthshire that first inspired Beatrix Potter’s beloved animal stories
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Each summer, the Potter family would bundle the household, pets and all, onto a train from London to Perthshire. Benjamin Bouncer, the rabbit, squirmed the whole way. They would spend three months at a country estate, entertaining friends and allowing Beatrix, later of Peter Rabbit fame, and her brother Bertram to explore the countryside. Beatrix took Benjamin for hops on a lead.
The family went to Perthshire for 11 consecutive summers from 1870, as well as a couple of times in the early 1890s. Beatrix, who was four on the first trip, loved these holidays, calling the area “home sweet home”. How different it was from her privileged but lonely upbringing in Kensington, where her father Rupert, a barrister, and her mother Helen, a dominating force, would ensure she was always supervised. “I remember every stone, every tree, the scent of the heather, the music sweetest mortal can hear, the murmuring of the wind through the fir trees,” she recalled.
This might come as a surprise. Beatrix Potter is more often associated with the Lake District, where she wrote most of her 23 children’s books, but she didn’t visit the Lakes until her teens. Her ideas were formed in central Scotland around Dunkeld and Birnam, two villages on opposite banks of the Tay.
For a sense of the scenery Beatrix called “almost theatrical and ultra-romantic”, head to The Hermitage, a stretch of forest that once provided a playground for the Dukes of Atholl. Look out for Ossian’s Hall, an 18th-century folly decorated with mirrors, as well as beavers and red squirrels among the Douglas firs.
To explore both Dunkeld and Birnam, while seeing a little more nature, follow a three-and-a-half mile trail between the two. First, wander round Dunkeld with its Gothic cathedral built in grey sandstone in the 13th century, and colourful houses dating from just after the Jacobite defeat at the Battle of Dunkeld in the 17th century. Then, from the River Tay car park, start the Birnam Oak and River Tay 1.5-hour walk (the direct route between the two villages, over the bridge, takes just 20 minutes).
Here, you’ll see two of the most literary trees in history – the Birnam Oak and Birnam Sycamore, the remains of Birnam Wood, which Shakespeare mentioned in Macbeth – as well as Eastwood House, where the Potters stayed in 1893, across the river. The Victorian villa on the Tay’s banks has nine acres of grounds and is available to rent.
It was here that Beatrix, aged 27, composed the picture-letter that would become The Tale of Peter Rabbit. “I shall tell you a story about four little rabbits whose names were Flopsy, Mopsy, Cottontail and Peter,” she wrote to Noel Moore, the son of an old governess suffering from the mumps. Released 10 years later, her ‘bunny book’, as her publishers called it, has now sold 45 million copies.
This is an extract. Read the full feature in the January/February 2021 issue of Scotland, out on 18th December.
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