Dunkeld and Birnam, Helen Rose’s Outdoor Diary February 2020

Macbeth Oak

Train from Glasgow

Birnam and Dunkeld are twin villages situated north east of Glasgow in Perthshire – 2hours 40 minute train journey from Queen Street Station in Glasgow to Dunkeld and Birnam Station. Although I have been there in the past, I have never really explored the area. However, recently, I had the opportunity to go there on a walk with the Glasgow Ramblers. The train conductor asked me in jest if I had my parachute to alight from the train as either the train track is high or the platform is low?! It was a bit of scramble to descend and ascend the train as the carriage doors were not in alignment with the wooden steps!

Beatrix Potter

We stopped off at the Birnam Institute and saw the Beatrix Potter Garden and exhibition. Whilst Beatrix Potter is most often associated with the Lake District she had a long and fruitful relationship with Dunkeld & Birnam and the surrounding area. Born into a wealthy London family in 1866, Beatrix had a privileged, yet lonely, upbringing. As a child she became interested in the natural world and spent much of her time drawing and sketching. It was her family’s long summer breaks in nearby Dalguise, usually from May to the end of the salmon season in October, that were to be one of the most enduring influences on Beatrix’s development both as an artist and scientist. Here she was free to explore the countryside around her and indulge her interest in the natural world.

Shakespeare and Macbeth

We set off in the walk along the River Tay to see the Birnam Oak and its neighbour the Birnam Sycamore – these trees are thought to the sole surviving trees of the great forest that once straddled the banks and hillsides of the River Tay. This forest is celebrated in Shakespeare’s Macbeth as the famous Birnam Wood. The prophecy of Shakespeare’s three witches did come true, with the branches of trees from great Birnam Wood, nearly 1,000 years ago, camouflaging the advancing army against Macbeth. It is believed that Shakespeare got inspiration for this section of `The Scottish Play` during his visit to Perth, Birnam and Aberdeen in 1599 as one of a troupe of comedians. The visit was arranged after King James VI of Scotland sent a request for entertainers to Elizabeth 1 of England. Both trees look medieval. The lower branches of the gnarled and ancient Birnam Oak rest on crutches and the first three metres (10ft) of the trunk are hollow. The Birnam Sycamore, alongside, is thought to date back around 300 years and has particularly impressive buttress roots. Both trees appear in the list of the one hundred Scottish Heritage Trees.

Dunkeld Bridge

We continued along the River Tay to the Dunkeld Telford Bridge. Prior to the construction of the present bridge, there had been many wooden bridges over the River Tay at Dunkeld. The bridges were regularly demolished when the river was in spate. By the start of the 19th century, the advantages of a more solidly constructed bridge became so obvious that an Act was passed to build a road bridge at Dunkeld and the necessary approach roads to it. Thomas Telford, the famous Scottish engineer, was commissioned to build a bridge that was both functional and elegant and the present bridge opened on 29th March 1809. The sandstone for the arches was quarried at Gellyburn on the nearby Murthly Estate. Construction costs were estimated at £15,000 and the Government provided a grant of £7,500. Unfortunately, the actual cost was around £40,000 and the greatest part of the difference was met by the 4th Duke of Atholl, who was allowed to levy a road toll in order to recover his investment. Then, as now, road tolls were not popular and there were periodic Toll Riots, with the toll gates being lifted and thrown into the river on several occasions. Road tolls were paid until the bridge was taken over by the Country Roads Authority in 1879 and the large white toll gate was then removed. The Town Jail was once situated under the bridge on the Dunkeld side and the door can still be seen today.

Hermitage and Ossians Cave

The Hermitage is actually a waterfall and is managed by the National Trust for Scotland.  The Douglas Fir Trees here are among the tallest trees in Britain. The Black Linn Falls are best viewed from Ossian’s Hall where there is  a purpose built viewing platform. The falls were certainly thundering as we have had very wet weather over the last month. The walk alongside the River Braan had a wonderful smell of earthy woodland and pines.

Nearby was Ossian’s Cave which with Ossian’s Hall was built as a folly and forms the centrepiece of the Hermitage. The hermit’s cave was built around 1760 for the third Earl of Breadalbane, who unsuccessfully advertised for a permanent eremite. The guide in 1869, Donald Anderson, dressed up with a long beard of lichens and clothes of animal skins.

Rumbling Bridge

Rumbling Bridge is an old stone bridge high above a dramatic gorge with waterfalls below. It was the site at which J.E. Millais painted one of his most important landscape works ‘The Sound of Many Waters’ viewed by the Tate Gallery in London  as ’a masterpiece of observation and a large scale ambition’. It is one of the most important landscape paintings of the pre-Raphaelite era. The site has been unchanged since Millais painted it and is an iconic image used on local products and tourist pamphlets.

Ladywell Plantation

This was a circular walk and we walked back to Birnam over the Ladywell Plantation on an excellent track looking over the woodland to distant hills and straths; finally picking up a path along the River Inver and back to our starting point at the train station. En route we stopped off at the Birnam Institute for welcome refreshments.

Thanks to Maria, the walk leader, who gave me the opportunity to explore the many interesting aspects of the area. The weather being kind was an added bonus.

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