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Dunkeld, for most of the year a little sleepy town about 15 miles north of Perth along the A9, is one of my favourite places in central Scotland (although I suspect that technically it's possibly already in the Highlands).
Dunkeld lies low on the banks of the Tay. You need to cross a very picturesque, high bridge to get to the main part of the town, and it's worth slowing down on the bridge to have a look at the river and the setting of the town.
You can also still take a train (the station is called Dunkeld and Birnam), as Beatrix Potter used to when she came on holiday here with her family (of which, briefly, later).
Dunkeld has a rich historical heritage - it was the original seat of the bishopric of the kingdom of the Picts and the site has been a place of Christian worship since 6th century. The Celtic missionaries - the Culdees - built a monastery here. In the 9th century, the first king of Scots, Kenneth MacAlpin (who united the kingdoms of Pictland and Dalriada to form Alba, and who, incidentally, died in the tiny hamlet of Forteviot where we are now living) built the original stone Cathedral to house the relics of St Columba moved from Iona. Under King David I it was the Centre of Scottish Christianity.
The reformation mobs sacked the cathedral in 1560, and the town of Dunkled itself was destroyed during the Jacobite uprising, after the battle of Killiecrankie in 1689. Thus, most of the historic buildings of the current Dunkeld date to late 17th and early 18th centuries.
The town itself is also rather pleasant, with a good deli, one or two art galleries worth a glance and not-too-tatty selection of gift and craft shops.
But the main main attraction of Dunkeld is undoubtedly the cathedral.
The cathedral has been rebuilt and extended a few times up to the 15th century and thus the architecture of the current building has Gothic and Norman elements. Part of the nave (the original choir) is still a functioning (Church of Scotland) church, while the main nave and the tower remain a picturesque and well preserved ruin.
The Cathedral is located in extensive grounds on the banks of the river Tay. For this as well as the centre of town, I like to park in the large Dunkeld North car park (it's free out of season), which is to the left of the main Atholl Street, just past the main shopping drag, and then make my way round the park to the side gate to the cathedral. It's a nice little walk in itself, through a wooded parkland area, with views to the hills north of the town.
The cathedral is managed by Historic Scotland and as with many of their lesser properties, the entrance is free. A leaflet guide as well as a free audio tour is available inside. The Chapter House (small chamber adjacent to the church) houses a very informative small exhibition about the history of the town and its connection with the Dukes of nearby Atholl,
There is an active Friends of the Cathedral organisation, and their members are often present in the church to offer a information and answer question. To me, this is such a very British thing, the old genteel ladies (and sometimes men) in beloved historic churches to welcome, and guide the visitors: from Canterbury to Dunkeld, we have been informed and enlighten by such volunteers as much as any guidebooks or printed materials.
I really like the Dunkeld cathedral. The site has a fantastically beautiful setting, between the banks of the fast-flowing Tay and the wooded hills, and the building itself is both interesting and attractive to look at. But there is also a tremendous sense of history here, and despite the battles and sackings, there is also peace. The church itself but particularly its grounds, wooded and with grassy banks sloping towards the river, bring about a contemplative mood,
I find that many old religious sites have this kind of feel, and I wonder whether it's my spiritually denied soul that's trying to tell me something, or whether there is something in the lie of the land, often connected with rivers or hills, that strikes a natural chord , or maybe it's just my semi-conscious awe in the face of the accumulated thousands-years' of people coming to those places to worship.
Whichever it is, and even if you are immune from such vibrations, Dunkeld cathedral and grounds are well worth visiting.
Opening times (cathedral and grounds):
April-September 9.30am - 6.30pm
October-March 9.30am - 4.00pm
If you have children with you, leave the cathedral grounds by what seems to be the main gate, towards the centre of the town called The Cross, turn down a small wynd off Cathedral Street and walk to the river between the wall of the cathedral and the houses on the left. You will see a rather unusual pair of musicians standing in one of the gardens, and on turning left a riverbank walk will take you to a reasonable play park with swings, roundabout and other play equipment. From there you can walk back to The cross or take stairs towards the bridge. From here it's about half a mile walk to the neighbour town on the other bank of the Tay, Birnam (you would have come that way if you came by train, as the station is in Birnam).
Birnam doesn't have any sights comparable to Dunkeld Cathedral, although it has a wider claim to fame through the Birnam Wood featuring in the witches' prophecy in "Macbeth".
A tree from that wood is still reputed to be standing near the Tay (the ancient Birnam Oak behind the Birnam House Hotel). This is undoubtedly an old tree, and is now supported by metal crutches, but obviously the whole Macbethian connection is just sheer conjecture.
Birnam has a very Victorian feel - it's less sleepy, less historical, and less touristy than Dunkeld. The reason to visit Birnam is the excellent Birnam Institute, now Birnam Arts and Conference centre, dating back to the 19th century but recently provided with a large-scale modern, attractive expansion that now houses a 230 seater theatre, meeting and display facilities, library, a very decent and not too pricey modern cafe and the Beatrix Potter exhibition.
The range of courses, shows and exhibitions is very impressive for such a small town, and the Centre feels really like a focus of community life while maintaining a little bit of an urban feel that isn't perhaps that easy to find in the Land of the Twee that tourists' Scotland has a tendency to become.
I am not a fan of rabbits in suits, but there was more to Mrs Potter that meets the eye of the casual modern observer. It was during her Scottish holidays as a child that she met Charles Macintosh, a local postman and naturalist, and a fascinating figure in his own right, and it was from here that the letter that became the first Peter Rabbit story was written.
The exhibition is housed in a rather lovely space to the side of the centre, with huge windows (more like glass walls, really) and a clean, modern feel to it.
The exhibition combines attractive but seriously educational displays about Potter's life and work with a variety of imaginative features that make it a very attractive space for children - I would say aged approximately two to ten - to spend anything from 20 minutes to an hour. On our most recent visit to the Centre with my two and a half year old, I left the lights on in the car, thus having had to spend rather more time in the Beatrix Potter world than I originally planned while I waited for the nice young man in the RAC van, but it was possible to find enough to do to occupy the time.
The games and activities are either related to Beatrix Potter stories and characters or are designed to bring to life Victorian times (within reason: no slums or child labourers make appearance).
There is a cupboard full of costumes for dressing up as Mrs Tiggy-Winkle, Peter Rabbit and Jeremy Fisher. There is a fishing game with buckets and rods, wooden models of steam trains big enough to ride on, an old-fashioned shop with plenty of play food and baskets, dolls, a post office, and a mock-up Victorian school with slate tablets.
Plenty of pen and paper activities are provided, with colouring, rubbing panels and drawing as well as a cosy area full of bean bags and cushions with a selection of Beatrix Potter (and Beatrix Potter inspired) picture books on nearby shelves. I also saw a large screen which presumably shows appropriate video material, but neither we nor any other visitors switched it on.
A couple of miles north-east beyond Dunkeld towards Blairgrowie there is a Loch of the Lowes Wildlife reserve with nestling ospreys (and an extensive network of walking paths). It's a five minute drive, or a forty minute walk around the golf course (ugh!). I have not been yet, as we tend to go to Dunkeld out of the high season, and the reserve only makes sense in the warmer months, but I am told it's well worth visiting.
Together, Dunkeld, Birnam and Loch of the Lowes make a very pleasant day trip from Perth, and each of them could be accommodated as a detour on the way up or down the A9.
Highly recommended for all.