Perthshire – the fairest portion of the northern kingdom

A literary and historical overview of Perthshire, based on a 1959 article by Maurice Lindsay – there is a note about the origins of this piece at its conclusion.

“Amid all the provinces of Scotland, if an intelligent stranger were asked to describe the most varied and the most beautiful, he would name the county of Perth. A native, also of any other district of Caledonia though his particularities might lead him to prefer his native county in the first instance, would certainly class that of Perth in the second, and thus give its inhabitants a fair right to plead that – prejudice apart – Perthshire forms the fairest portion of the northern kingdom.”

Those are the words of Sir Walter Scott, in the preamble to his story The Fair Maid Of Perth. Many who know the country would consider it fair judgement. Rated by square miles, the traditional country of Perthshire is Scotland’s forth largest – stretching seventy miles east to west and fifty-eight miles north to south.

Scottish Field, February 1959

It is a county of huge contrasts, bounded north and west by mountains; watersheds and high passes provide its outline. To the south-east, the rolling Carse of Gowrie comprises some of Scotland’s most productive farmland. And through the middle of the county runs the mighty Tay, the country’s longest, and possibly loveliest river. Perthshire is where highlands and lowlands abut – the town of Comrie’s position on the highland fault causes it to experience more earth tremors than anywhere else in Britain. For a time, Perth was Scotland’s capital.

The ancient tribespeople of Perth are thought to have been the Daranii and the Horesti, but little is known of those pre-Roman people, here or anywhere in Scotland. The Romans did pass this way, and their presence recorded in such Caledonian ‘towns’ such as Alaunea (on the Allan), Lindun (near Ardoch) and Orrea (on the Tay). Romans marched through Perthshire both under Agricola and Severus. After the Romans departed, strong Pictish kingdoms developed around Abenethy and Forteviot. Some time after that, Scone became the centre of a Scoto-Saxon monarchy, and later still to capital of early-modern Scotland. The famous Stone of Scone (or something believed to be that stone) still forms a part of the crowning of British monarchs. Scone ceased to be the country’s capital in 1482, although Scottish kings continued to be crowned there until 1651, and the coronation of Charles II.

History’s more general course has been swayed by battles that took place in Perthshire. The location of the battle of Mons Grampius (to use the Roman name for the Grampian mountains) has never been precisely settled, but some scholars believe it to have been on the Gask Ridge, overlooking Perth. It resulted in the defeat of Galgacus by Agricola in AD 86. The Danes were heavily defeated by Kenneth III in AD 990 at Luncarty. And Edward Balior bettered Regent Mar’s vastly superior army  at Duplin (in the parish of Aberdalgie) in August 1332. Montrose’s victory over the Covenanters at Tippermuir was characteristically swift. Even more spectacular was Claverhouse’s victory over General Mackay, King William’s commander in 1689. At Sheriffmuir, the first Jacobite uprising was overthrown in 1715. The subsequent rising in 1745 convulsed much of the county. Save for clan feuding, however, much of the county’s political and administrative history has revolved around Perth itself.

PERTH

From even the most cursory glance, it is clear why Perth’s location has endured. It is at the foot of Strathtay and at the river’s highest navigable point, even if its still-busy harbour is less well-known.

The Carse of Gowrie opens up to the east. On one side Kinnoull Hill, the end of the Sidlaws, on the other Moncrieffe Hill, the Ochil’s terminal. It has probably been a settled point from earliest times. Certainly Agricola had it as his settlement ‘Victoria’. Indeed, according to Sir Walter Scott, the first Roman to espy Perth exclaimed:

“Behold the Tiber!” the vain Roman cried,
Viewing the ample Tay from Baiglie’s side:
But where’s the Scot that would the vaunt repay,
And hail the puny Tiber for the Tay?”

After the Roman’s departure the town that eventually reappeared was known as Sanct Johnstoun – from which would eventually emerge its medieval name St John’s Toun of Perth. The local football team, St Johnston preserves the nomenclature.

 According to the account of Blind Harry, William Wallace is believed to have had an affair with a girl there. As a result of that romance, he was betrayed to the English. That may be apocryphal, but Bruce’s time in the town certainly is not. Shortly after ascending to the throne, he was routed at Methven by Sir Aylmer Vallance, Edward I’s commander. In 1312 Bruce returned to beside the city, then governed by William de Olipaht. For six weeks he besieged the settlement. He returned in January 1313 to take the town by swimming the moat and climbing the defensive rampart at the head of his men. The city was won in 1332 by Edward Baliol, as a result of the Battle at Dupplin, mentioned above, where the Earl of Mar was routed. By 1319, however, the Scots won the city back for King David, under their High Steward.

Perth’s oldest building is the Kirk of St John, before whose alter Edward III killed his brother, the Earl of Cornwall. This happened after Cornwall had given an enthusiastic account of how he had enjoyed the hospitality of the Abbot of Lesmahagow, before murdering him and torching his Abby.

The Fair Maid’s House photo: user:kilburn

Among the other ancient buildings is the Fair Maid’s House, once part of Curfew Row and at one time part of a chapel dedicated to St Bartholomew. (It would later become an important meeting point for the medieval craft guild of glovers, or metal workers, and is today the Scottish Geographical Society’s visitor centre). The chapel was later form part of Blackfriars Monastery, a sometime meeting place for Scotland’s Parliament during the period when Perth was its capital city. It was here in 1437 that James I was murdered, notwithstanding the gallant attempt by Catherine Douglas to thwart the assassins by thrusting her arm through the staples of the door. The poet king’s untimely demise marked the end of Perth’s time as capital city, when the administrative centre was moved south of the Forth to be less accessible to Highland raiders.

That would not, however, be Perth’s last brush with national history. On May 11, 1559, John Knox, just back from the continent, chose St John’s Kirk to deliver a sermon that has been described as a discourse ‘vehement against idolatry” At its conclusion, a priest opened up a tabernacle. An ensuing scuffle degenerated into a riot, as a result of which the tabernacle was destroyed – thereby unleashing a great wave of destruction that was to characterise Scotland’s Reformation, and thereby change the temper of the country.

It was not to be the city’s last act of regrettable demolition perpetrated by the city’s civic leaders. Who now can but regret the destruction of Gowrie House, for example, where nobleman Alexander Ruthvan and his cronies tried without success to murder the young James VI in 1600. The city’s magistrates gave the house to the Duke of Cumberland in 1746 after Culloden. (He initially hoped that the Carse of Gowrie was included in the gift). He later sold it to the Government, who used it for barracks. When it came back into the city’s ownership, the ancient building was demolished to make way for the grand County Buildings. The earlier building is commemorated by a plaque in Tay Street.

It fared better, however, than Cromwell’s fortress on the South Inch, built in 1652. Much of it was constructed from materials looted by Cromwell’s men including:  walls from Greyfriar’s monastery, tombstones from the royal hunting park in Falkland, part of the bridge over the Tay, the High School, many surrounding houses and a large number of local fishing boats. Its plot was later used as a query and today the Edinburgh Road runs through the site. If you are looking for a fragment of those turbulent times, however, the Salutation Hotel maintains the room where Prince Charlie slept.

Nevertheless, modern Perth has much to recommend it – still the county town and now the centre of the larger unitary authority of Perth and Kinross. After a brief interregnum, its status as a city was reaffirmed in 2012 and it has a population of nearly 50,000. Its biggest employer is the local authority and Perth is home to the headquarters of the transport group Stagecoach. Insurance company General Accident had its headquarters in Perth until its merger with Norwich Union in 2000 (it is now part of CGU plc).

To the east of the city is the Carse of Gowrie – an area of rolling, productive farmland that unsurprisingly caught Cumberland’s eye. It has been improved by more recent draining, but even in the 18th century, this was highly productive land.

The A9 to Stirling and Glasgow lies to the south-west. Today it bypasses long villages such as Auchterarder and crosses into Stirlingshire behind the old Cathedral town of Dunblane. Almost on the county line is possibly the world’s most extraordinary railway hotels – Gleneagles. Built by the Caledonian Railway in 1924, as a golf resort, it was a nationalised asset for much of the British Rail era. Today it is celebrated as one of the locations at which the Open is played as well as an exclusive hotel.

Dunblane Cathedral by dvdbramhall is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

In Dunblane itself, the Culdee St Blane had a cell, overlooking the banks of the Allan Water. His remains are thought to lie in the Cathedral, which was constructed around 1240 by Bishop Clement. It took a battering during the Reformation, but was resorted during the nineteenth century by the architect Rowland Anderson. 

That Cathedral provides a final resting place for a number of notables. Stirling of Keir, for example, who some think was the mysterious stranger who mortally stabbed James III and hacked off the arms of Meldrum of Cleish, lies in a vault by the nave. And Margaret Drummond and her sisters are buried beneath the chancel – all died mysteriously. Margaret was the lover of James IV, and was mother to his daughter. Their union seemed threatening to their rival families as well as making more difficult relations with England. After they died in unexplained circumstances at Drummond House, they were interred with considerable haste.

The battlefield Sherifmuir is on highland above Dunblane. There, in November 1715, after an initial skirmish, the Jacobite Earl of Mar and the Duke of Atholl both ran away from each other!

West of Dunblane is the strath within which lies the ancient district of Menteith, the name of which derives from the River Teith, whose course takes it through Loch Vennacher before running into the Forth.West of Dunblane, by about three miles, is Doune Castle arguably Scotland’s finest ruined fastness. Today’s fragments date from the 14th century, although it is probably the site of an earlier fortress, given the strategic importance of the site, on a spit of land dividing the Ardoch from the Teich. Owned by the Earls of Moray, there is an associated ballad about a ‘bonnie earl’.

“Lang may his lady
Look frae the Castle Doune,
Ere she see the Earl o Moray
Come soundin through the toun”

It is sung here by the Comrie Folk Trio and Paddy Bell.

The stronghold was besieged by the Regent Lennox during Queen Mary’s reign, and at the time of the ’45 uprising, it was used as a prison by the Jacobite army. Here was imprisoned the future dramatist John Home, author of the play Douglas. He famously escaped, with a group of students, lowering himself by a rope tied from blankets over the walls.

As one progresses up the road leading to the banks of the Teeth, the mountains close in and we are entering the country of Scott’s Lady of the Lake. It is rich, mountainous land where golds and browns are in riot come Autermn. By the time we reach Callendar, there is an unmistakably Highland atmosphere, with a heavy scent on the air. To one side is Uam Var (today known as Umah Mohòr) , to the other, Ben Ledi (879m). Scott has his stag flee “to the wilds of Uam-var”, in the first canto of Lady of the Lake. The hero of Robert Louis Stephenson’s Kidnapped, camped near its summit.

Soon the road winds into the Pass of Leny, but not before a turning to the left that Coilantogle Ford (another feature in Scott’s poem), and on past Loch Vennacher and towards Brig O’Turk. The Trossaches and Loch Katrine lie beyond.

The casual mixture of cultivated strips here and there, and the majestic profusion of hills, rivers, lochs and wooded patches, give this part of Perthshire its individual charm.

It was Scott’s posey that made well known these charms. Indeed, such was the power of his words that it is hard for a literate Scot to view these Trossach scenes with dispassion, such was the romantic aura that the poet cast over these parts. 

At the Pass of Leny’s head is Loch Lubnaig, with shores abundant with birch and larch. At the foot of a little glen on its Eastern shore is Ardchullarie Mor, where James (Abyssinian) Bruce retired to write up his travels. Across the water, at the farm of Laggn, Rob Roy’s wife Helen MacGregor was born. “Bonnie Strathyre” truly is Rob Roy county.

Among Balquidder’s quiet and lovely braes, Rob Roy himself is at his final resting place, beside the kirk. Just beyond the end of Loch Earn, the road climbs to the lonesome Pass of Glen Ogle, whereafter lies Breadalbane country, from which the rugged river Dochart descends upon Killin.

As the Dochart flows into Loch Tay, it divides around Inis Buidhe, the ‘Yellow Island’, historic burial site of Clan Macnab. The lands hereabout has been associated with that Clan for centuries. Near by is Kinnell House, their ancient seat, with which is associated a particularly grim clan tale.

The Macnabs had been preyed upon for some time by neighbour. This culminated in an insult laid, and theft of provisions by a group of MacNishes at the start of a Macnab clan party. Considering their sparse banquet table, the Macnab said to his twelve sons: “Tonight is the night if the lads were the lads”.  Off went the sons and in due course returured bearing the severed head of the clan MacNeish’s chieftain. “Tonight is the night and the lads are the lads”, said the pre-eminant son. “Dread naught” (fear nothing) said the Macnab. His words became family motto, and family members wear signet rings engraved with a representation of the detached enemy head to this day.

The last of the original lineage of Macnab’s to possess this Highland heritage was the subject of one of Raeburn’s portraits, pictured in all his feudal glory. The estate of Kinnell later passed to the Earl of Breadalbane. A Macnab bought the house back and it became the re-established clan chieftains home for many years, before being sold again in recent decades.

Raeburn’s 1802 The Macnab, the 12th Laird Macnab

Killin, at the other end of the Loch, is said to take its name from Fin, the Celtic hero, whose burial place is said to be close by the village. The Breadalbane-Campbells built Finlanrig castle as long ago as 1523. A story relating to Black Duncan, said to be that Clan’s founder, gives some sense of the subservience of the peasantry to its founder. A clansman who had disobeyed his chief was dispatched to be hung from the Doom Tree. He approached his end, with his wife at his arm. Seeing the rope, with its noose, however, he hesitated. “Just another step – to please the Laird”, she said as he dithered.

Loch Tay’s silvery waters could once be considered from the decks of a steam cruiser. Lindsay stated that this was aboard the Countess of Breadalbane – a ship with an extraordinary history, but not one that involved Loch Tay. To sail today in the lee of Ben Lawyers requires you to have your own boat.

To the east of Lawers, a road leads up Glen Lyon (inspiration for a beautiful Gaelic lament) towards Fortingall – home of Scotland’s oldest library, and a yew tree reputed to be more than two thousand years old. The tree flourishes yet.

Further down Loch Tay is another burial island. On a small wooded isle, within the ruins of a priory, are the remains of the daughter of Henry I, the wife of Alexander I. The isle was once a Campbell garrison, but was taken by Montrose in 1645.

Loch Tay’s crannog

Loch Tay is also home to the Scottish Crannog Centre – a recreated stilted dwelling, of a kind that there were once several on the Loch, that now serves as a fascinating visitor attraction.

The first of several bridges to span the Tay in Killin inspired Burns to start one of his verse: “Admiring nature in her wildest grace, These Northern scenes with weary feet I trace…..” doubtless a compliment to the inn-keeper beside whose mantlepiece he sat. Wordworth too knew the area. He and sister Dorothy visited Kenmore in September 1805. She noted: “When we came in view of the foot of the lake, we perceived that it ended as it had begun in pride and loveliness.”

Taymouth Castle nz_willowherb is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

Closely by, surrounded by elaborate grounds is Taymouth Castle, the extraordinary nineteenth century palace built by the descendants of Black Duncan. Its enlargement and the creation of some of the most elaborate interiors in these isles, was driven, in part, by the the Second Marquess of Breadalbane’s hope to his home on Queen Victoria, who was then house hunting in the Highlands. Her visit in 1842 was the occasion of one of the most lavish events ever staged. It was Deeside and Balmoral that eventually caught the eye of Victoria and Albert.

Taymouth became a hotel in the 1930s, owned in part by the housebuilding MacTaggarts of Glasgow. After war requisition, it served as a civil defence training centre, private school, and briefly as a drama college.

Few of these enterprises lasted long, and for many years the MacTaggarts maintained the fabric. It eventually sold in 2005, and plans were approved by Perth and Kinross Council for its conversion into a ‘six star hotel’. Since then, work has been flattering and the castle has gone through several, fairly colourful, owners. Today, Taymouth’s renaissance seems as far away as ever.

The road linking Killin with Aberfeldy provides many wonderful views of Ben Lawyers and its rare mountain plants. Like Schiehallion, the fairy mountain, it is now a protected place. No belief in fairy is required to appreciate the awe and magic of the latter, nor to see how it inspired our ancestors. Aberfeldy is famous for being the birthplace of the Black Watch and being the site of one of General Wade’s bridges. It was also here that Burns set “The Birks O’ Aberfeldy”. The title is also now the name by which is known a delightful set of paths that leads off from the town, that criss cross the Moness burn and its many waterfalls. (Burnsian purists are fond of pointing out that there are no, actual birks (birch trees) at Aberfeldy and that the bard possibly reworked an older poem that had been based elsewhere).

A little further down the road, Grandtully is of special interest because it was the prototype for Scot’s Tullyveolan in Waverley.

Follow the Tay’s course seaward and there are various minor settlements – Ballinluig and Strathtay among them. When it reaches Dunkeld, a fine Telford bridge (1809) spans the river – still the town’s main crossing. Its 14th century cathedral is beautifully sited on its banks. Destroyed during the Reformation, in 1600 the structure was part re-roofed to serve as parish church. Some recent (1970s) restoration work by the National Trust for Scotland, has significantly enhanced its townscape’s reputation as one of Scotland’s most complete examples of an 18th century country.

On the far side of Schiehalion lies the valley of the Tummel, the waters of which now provide the motive force of a significant hydro-electric scheme.

Far up the strath, past Kinloch Rannoch is the Moor of Rannoch, a desolate, marshy extant of bleakness far removed from the lush majesty of the rest of the county.

On its way to join the Tay, the Tummell flows past Pitlochry, branching into the ‘new’ Loch Faskally, just before the town. Just below the dam that contains the electricity producing turbines is the Pitlochry Festival Theatre, a well-loved cultural destination since its conception in the 1940s.

Slightly north of Pitlochry, the Garry flows from its own strath to join the Tilt, near Blair Castle, ancient seat of the Atholl family. It is arguably the finest of Scotland’s old houses and remains the family seat, as well as operating as a busy visitor attraction.

Its oldest part, Comyn’s Tower is thought to have been built in 1269 by the ninth Earl of Atholl. James V and Mary Queen of Scots both visited Blair during a hunting excursion to Glen Tilt. Montrose mustered much of his army who he led to victory at Tipermuir in 1644 in these parts. And part of the castle was destroyed by a Cromwellian force in 1653. Claverhouse made it one of his garrisons in 1689.

Indeed, after ‘Bonnie’ Claverhouse fell at Killiecrankie, it was here that he body was brought.

Prince Charlie spent several days here; and George Murray (Atholl’s brother) besieged it when Sir Andrew Agnew held it on behalf of the Government in 1746.

Ben Vrackie

Following the siege, the castle lost its top two stories. It was perhaps this that led Queen Victorian and Prince Albert to note that they found Blair Castle merely “a large, plain white building” when they visited in 1844. Today, without whitewash, it is a grascious, aristocratic home full of fine pictures and objects d’art – a bastion of civilised living beneath the rugged slopes of Ben Vrackie 

Blair must be the conclusion of our circumnavigation of Perthshire. At least as much is omitted from this survey as included. No space to mention the pretty town of Crieff. Alyth to the east is left out, likewise Aberfoyle and Loch Ard to the south. In a county so large and so varied, uncomfortable editing is always required. In the end, my hope is that this paper survey will stir up happy recollections in the hears and minds of Scots across the seas and move Scots nearer home to come to Perthshrie and sample its charms for themselves.

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This article mirrors the content and structure of one by the poet and writer Maurice Lindsay published in the Scottish Field’s edition of February 1959. Written surveys of this type are seldom published in periodicals today. It has considerable value and charm, nonetheless, particularly for a visitor unfamiliar with the county. Were it not a copyright work, I would have republished the original. This is not, however, Lindsay’s text. I have completely rewritten the piece, reworking every sentence. In several places, I have updated the information included – The Fair Maid’s house took on its current use fairly recently and General Accident ceased being an independent company long after Lindsay’s original work. I have not, however, augmented the original flow of the piece.

The map of Perthshire that is this post’s featured image is taken from the Association of British Counties County-wise Map.
Contains border data provided by the Historic County Borders Project © Historic Counties Trust.
Contains OpenStreetMap data © OpenStreetMap contributors.
Contains Ordnance Survey data © Crown credit and database right 2014–18.
Contains National Statistics data © Crown credit and database right 2014–18.

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