A leafy walk from the ancient Perthshire town of Dunkeld
leads past 18th century follies to Shakespeare’s Birnam Oak
On the north bank of the River Tay, nestling in a wooded landscape surrounded by hills, stands the picturesque town of Dunkeld. Known as the Gateway to the Highlands, it occupies a strategic site guarding one of the main passes from the lowlands of Scotland to the highlands.
The tiny community’s rich history started with a Pictish stronghold called the King’s Seat, dating from AD443. In the 6th century, a monastery was established nearby. In the mid 9th century, it became the ecclesiastic capital of Scotland for 100 years. Today’s town, with 1,200 residents, dates mainly from the 18th century. The original buildings were lost to fire during an early Jacobite rebellion.
This 7½-mile walk follows a route from the main square to Dunkeld Cathedral, across its 19th century bridge and along the riverside. It goes through The Hermitage, an 18th century woodland pleasure ground, before returning past
the Birnam Oak, made famous by Shakespeare’s Macbeth.
Rebellion and restoration
The walk begins in the small cobbled 18th century town square surrounded by thepicturesque Little Houses. These were built in the early 1700s after most of the original town was destroyed during the Battle of Dunkeld in 1689. Jacobites, who supported the return of the Catholic King James to the throne, had rebelled against the rule of William and Mary. A month earlier they had been victorious at the Battle of Killiecrankie 18 miles away. Now they were defeated by the Cameronian Regiment. Holes made by musket balls can still be seen in the walls of the cathedral. Together with three houses, it was one of the only buildings to survive.
The Little Houses fell into disrepair in the early 19th century. It was not until 1954 that 20 were repaired by the National Trust for Scotland. The work won a Saltire Society Award for Reconstruction in 1958. The remaining 23 were restored by the local council. Most are private residences but one, the Ell Shop, is open to visit. This takes its name from an iron ell, the weaver’s original measure for cloth, on the wall outside.
In the centre of the square stands the still-flowing Atholl Memorial Fountain, built in 1866 in memory of the 6th Duke of Atholl. The Duke was an important local figure, living at Dunkeld House. He created a piped water supply into the village. He also impressed Queen Victoria greatly with his regiment of Atholl Highlanders during her visit in 1844.
As a result, she gave the regiment official status, making them Europe’s only private army recognised by the law.
From the square, a narrow cobbled street runs to the gates of Dunkeld Cathedral. This semi-ruined building stands alone in a beautiful open space.
The original surrounding buildings were removed by the dukes of Atholl. They took advantage of the need to rebuild after 1689 and moved the village to the south. This left their home, Dunkeld House, with an uninterrupted view of the cathedral ruins.
Work started on this building in 1127 and continued for 200 years. It is the last in a long series of religious buildings here.
The first was a monastery dating from approximately AD570. In AD843, a portion of the relics of St Columba were brought there by Kenneth MacAlpin.
This was the man who united the Scots and Picts into one kingdom.
The Irish abbot and missionary Columba is credited with spreading Christianity in Scotland. The presence of his bones made the community the capital of the Christian church in Scotland. A church was built to the saint’s memory, eventually becoming the cathedral.
This was destroyed during the reformation in the 16th century. In 1600, the choir was re-roofed to serve as the parish church. The rest of the building remains in ruins.
The river bridge
Leaving the cathedral grounds behind, through the gate, a sharp right turn leads to the river. After a quarter of a mile,
steps go up to Thomas Telford’s Dunkeld Bridge. Opened in 1808, it replaced several earlier wooden ones. The Tay is a wide river that carries the greatest volume of water of any in the British Isles.
For centuries, crossing it was perilous. Floods washed away the wooden bridges, and using one of the two ferry crossings was a risky business. In 1766, six people drowned when one of these ferries sank.
Telford’s bridge is regarded as one of the greatest engineering feats of the
19th century. It measures 685ft (209m) with seven spans. The central one is 90ft (27.4m). There is no solid rock in the river bed, so Telford built the piers on rafts of timber 5ft (1.5m) below the surface.
A variety of trees line the riverbanks in both directions. Their leaves take on the colours of autumn, in rich golds, bronzes and reds.
Once over the bridge, stone steps go back down to the riverside. A left turn at the bottom leads to a footpath lined with
a mix of trees, from very old oaks to green coniferous trees. Rosehips and holly berries add splashes of colour to the already vibrant scenery. Crisp yellow and golden leaves lie on the ground. Gaps in the tree line allow for wonderful views across to the bridge and the cathedral.
After approximately a third of a mile, the path turns to pass under the A9. Dunkeld is no longer visible. A wooden bridge crosses the narrower River Braan to the signposted Inver and Fiddler paths. The route passes a caravan park and Forestry Commission office. A handful of small stone houses clustered around a red phone box constitute the small hamlet of Inver. The route briefly follows a road. From here, after taking a right turn at
a T-junction, it is just over 100yds (91.4m) to The Hermitage.
The Hermitage is an 18th century pleasure ground, largely built by John Murray, the 3rd Duke of Atholl. He wanted guests to Dunkeld House to walk through the woodlands to see the falls over the River Braan. On the way they passed various natural-looking, albeit manmade, follies. This kind of development was fashionable at this time. It was a way of providing natural and romantic landscapes to entertain visitors to country estates.
Those who came to The Hermitage included William Wordsworth, John Turner, Felix Mendelssohn and Queen Victoria. Today, it is cared for by the National Trust for Scotland.
The wide path leads past some of the tallest Douglas firs in Britain. Several of these trees date back to 1757, although most were planted in the 1920s. The trail winds its way slightly uphill, following the fast-flowing, rocky River Braan.
The surroundings are peaceful, with birds singing in the trees. There is always the chance of a sighting of the woodlands’ red squirrels. They are particularly active in autumn, searching for nuts to stock up for winter. Grey herons fish in the river.
After 10 minutes’ walk, one of the tallest trees in Britain can be seen on the opposite bank. This is another Douglas fir, 211ft (64.3m) in height and believed to date from 1875. To its right, an old stone bridge crosses the Braan. Staying on this side of the river, a few stone steps appear.
They lead to a circular grey stone building, a folly known as Ossian’s Hall. The name came from the blind bard Ossian, the purported author of a cycle of ancient epic poems in Gaelic. He was a popular character at the time, thanks to the poet James Macpherson. He claimed to have gathered the work from old sources, then translated the poems in his 1760 Fragments of Ancient Poetry. Contemporaries debated the authenticity of the work, but that did not stop their huge popularity in the 18th century.
A wooden door has been made to appear like stone from the outside and looks locked. However, it opens with
a simple push. Once inside, the hall overlooks dramatic falls on the River Braan. There were originally mirrors around all the inside walls which reflected the waterfalls seen through a window.
The result was to make visitors feel as if they were surrounded by the water.
However, the folly was blown up in 1869 as a protest against tolls levied on travellers crossing Dunkeld Bridge. The current building dates from 1951 when
the National Trust for Scotland asked architect Basil Spence to rescue what he could and rebuild the hall.
Since 2007, mirrored artwork has been put up showing Ossian the bard. A balcony allows for wonderful views over the falls, where salmon may be seen jumping in autumn.
Leaving Ossian’s Hall behind, the path becomes narrower, zigzagging its way through the trees. These are now a mixture of deciduous trees and conifers. Birch and beech trees line the paths, covering everything in a colourful carpet of yellow, orange and copper.
After 650ft (200m), a dark entrance looms ahead. This is Ossian’s Cave. Another folly, it is made from rocks, covered with grass and ferns. In 1869,
a local Hermitage guide called Donald Anderson used to dress up to entertain visitors. He donned a long beard of lichens and clothes made of animal skins.
Fungi and fruits
From the cave the path continues through the woodland, turning away from the river. The Hermitage is home to more
than 270 species of fungi, many eaten
by the red squirrels that can be seen here.
At a T-junction, a left turn takes the path over a small bridge to a field gate. The trees are left behind as the landscape opens up. At a height of 640ft (195m), views are visible from Deucharry Hill to the north and Birnam Hill to the south. Pheasants roam freely in the fields, while both roe and red deer can be spotted here.
Late wild raspberries can be picked along the narrow path to another gate.
A single-track road leads to the Rumbling Bridge. This can be heard long before it is seen, due to the sound of water falling into the deep gorge below it.
On the other side of the bridge, a small footpath turns left into another woodland of deciduous trees. The ground is covered in clover and mosses. A short boardwalk helps to avoid a muddy area.
After a gentle ascent, the path crosses the busy A822. The land once again opens up to fields, and very few trees stop the autumn sun from spreading its rays. After slightly less than half a mile, a path, signposted to Inchewan and Braan, leads to an old silver birch wood.
Lichens cover the old trees. Following the orange way marked “trail”, the path narrows before crossing a small bridge over a narrow burn. A variety of trees appear, mixed with broom and ferns. The path goes through a metal gate before reaching another T-junction. The Inchewan path meanders through the pine woods to Birnam, just under one mile away.
The route leads through Birnam, before going down steps to the Tay. Huge old trees are visible ahead. A very large and aged sycamore tree is passed, then the ancient Birnam Oak appears.
Thought to be approximately 300 years old, this is the last surviving tree of the old Birnam Forest made famous in Shakespeare’s Macbeth. The oak has
a girth of 24ft (7.3m) and two of its huge branches rest on crutches. It is indeed possible that Shakespeare visited this area, most likely in 1599 with a troupe of touring players. This tree though is not old enough to have been there then.
The route continues past the oak along the riverside. Once again there are colourful views across the river to the autumnal woodland opposite.
It is now a short walk back to the town square. Unlike the late 18th century guests of the Dukes of Atholl, today’s walker can safely cross the Tay on Telford’s bridge. But much of this walk through golden autumnal woodland follows in the footsteps of those early visitors. More than 200 years later, the creations of men still continue to enhance the exquisite natural beauty of this peaceful place.
A tale’s inspiration In Birnam, the walk passes a small garden dedicated to Beatrix Potter. As a child, the author spent her summers holidaying here with her family. Her journal revealed her love for Perthshire and the people she met.
It was here that she was inspired to write her stories about Peter Rabbit and his friends. In 1893, when Beatrix was aged 27, she wrote a letter from here to the son of her former governess, first mentioning Peter Rabbit.
Words: Marieke McBean