In Birnam Wood

“Macbeth shall never vanquish’d be until Great Birnam Wood to high Dunsinane Hill Shall come against him.” – William Shakespeare

I stepped off the ScotRail at the Birnam station one grey morning, with coffee on my mind. It was August, and I was entering the Highlands where August mornings could be chilly already. The sun would warm things up, but hot coffee would fix me up right now. My breath hung in the air.

The train station is on the far side of the A9 from the village proper. Pedestrians have to follow steps and a gravel path that go down hill from the train station platform and turn right, going under the tracks and the highway overpass to get to Birnam. It’s a walk, especially with rolling luggage on the gravel, but when you get there, you are greeted by a charming garden along a charming village street, Perth Road.

Partly the inn (in the distance,) partly residences, Perth Road.

It was after eight o’clock in the morning, but there was nothing open that would be serving coffee in sight, and few signs of life. The Birnam Inn was open, not serving anything, but he – the desk clerk – pointed me down the road to a place that was open and, as far as he knew, serving coffee, tea, and some food. The lock-down in Scotland still had many things closed, especially smaller establishments.

The clerk also deserves mention because he said yes to letting me stash my luggage there while I visited, even though I was not a guest of the Inn. It was a very nice thing to do.

The place he pointed me to was open, and had places outside to sit while you drank your beverage and nibbled on the nibbles they were serving. People in line were a “unicorn apart,” and wearing masks. From the conversation and demeanour, I gathered I was the only tourist – these were people who were acquainted. While I waited for my mocha, I noticed the sign that said “Post Office.” It explained everything.

The Birnam Post Office & Tea Room, the official name. Obviously, it’s much more!

After coffee and a pastry, I walked further down Perth Road, just to see what was there – houses, mainly, and the occasional car – so I walked back toward the inn to take a look at the garden.

The garden is called the “Beatrix Potter Garden” because her family, the Potters, stayed at the nearby Dalguise House during summer holidays for ten summers, 1871 – 1881, from the time Beatrix was five years old until she was fifteen. Not connected to the garden per se, there was an exhibit about Beatrix keeping a diary, starting at age fifteen, that she wrote in code. In her later years, she couldn’t read it anymore, and it wasn’t until after she died that the papers were given to a university student who cracked the code. Just FYI.

The garden is small, with neat flower beds, and relaxed edges. The visitors’ shed was closed, of course, but the garden was open. There were, interspersed among the plantings, characters from Ms. Potter’s various stories. I spotted Mr. Jeremy Fisher, Mrs. Tiggy Winkle, and Mrs. Rabbit, who was trying to corral Flopsy, Mopsy, Cotton-tail, and Peter. I didn’t see Farmer MacGregor – the designer may have decided that visitors supplied enough human intrusion.

Mr. Jeremy Fisher – he’s there, but you have to look closely!
Mrs. Tiggy Winkle, hiding inside her house.
Mrs. Rabbit, Flopsy, Mopsy, Cotton-tail, and Peter.

The “woods that were” are Birnam’s main claim to fame. There are still many trees, but the old growth forest, the Great Birnam Wood, that used to line the banks of the River Tay is gone, save for one very old oak that still lives on the edge of the river, the Birnam Oak.

The Birnam Oak is not as old as the 11th century, which would have been the time of MacBeth, but it is one of the last trees of the ancient Birnam Wood. It is 24 feet (7 metres) around, estimated to be something over 600 years old.

There are signs along the path to where it grows that are designed to help visitors – many of them city dwellers who don’t necessarily know one tree from another – get to the right tree:

“It’s not me, I’m a sycamore.”
“Not me, either…keep going!”
And here it is, The One. Another visitor kindly posed for me to give an idea how big it is.
It’s had some help staying upright. The trunk is hollow for the first ten feet – you’d think that would kill it, but the nutrition it needs travels upward through the bark and outer layers. Trees like this provide habitat for insects and birds.

Tradition has it that Shakespeare was inspired to write Macbeth after visiting the area as an actor. Records show that a company of English strolling players were given permission to stage a play in Perth in 1589, but no names are listed in the entry. So, a “definite maybe.”

“The Young Pretender” is a sycamore, but, even though very large, it is half the age of the older oak. Sycamores are not native to Scotland. They give “excellent white hardwood” that does not taint food, so it’s good for cutting boards and rolling pins, in case you ever need to know, but best of all, bees like them!

Walking through the village, following the river, I found the bridge that leads to Dunkeld. The two villages face each other across the river; Dunkeld is larger, or at least, so it seemed to me.

The bridge had an interesting sign on it:

“Toll Riots.” Really?

The toll keeper’s name was Peter Murray, was deemed a “peaceable man:”

Toll Keeper Peter Murray

Peter Murray lived in this house:

And the house was on the bridge that crossed this river, the River Tay:

The River Tay.

An act of Parliament in 1803 gave the Duke of Atholl authority to build a bridge across the river at a cost not to exceed 18,000 pounds. The Duke was allowed to be repaid this expense from the tolls and “pontages,” meaning “a duty or tax paid in lieu of personal service for the building and repairing of bridges,” (Merriam-Webster,) plus an additional 1,500 pounds to be invested to support maintenance. When the 19,500 pounds was collected, the Act provided that “all right and title of the said Duke and his heirs…to demand tolls…shall cease, determine, and forever be extinguished.”

Work started on the bridge in 1805, and finished in 1809, although the bridge was opened to the public in 1808.

By 1853, forty-five years later, the paying public was beginning to feel that, surely, the debt owing to the Duke had been paid off. There were rumblings.

Not rushing into anything, it was 1867 when the congregation of the Free Church requested that the Duke forgo collecting tolls from the members of all denominations when proceeding to and from church on Sundays. The Duke refused this request. That was when the public meetings began….

Alexander Robertson became the “Convener” of a small committee to fight the bridge tolls. The committee didn’t make much progress, and so Robertson held meetings to rally public support for their position. These meetings took place over the next couple of years, but after an “incident on the bridge,” Robertson was imprisoned for assault.

Alexander Robertson

A flyer for one of the meetings.

The situation continued to deteriorate, with lawsuits filed against the Duke, and the Duke filing counter suits. The gates were ripped off and thrown into the river. Gates were replaced. Gates were ripped off. Things got so bad that the Black Watch regiment showed up to keep the peace.

Finally, in 1878, some seventy years after the tolls were first imposed, the Roads and Bridges Act removed the tolls, a victory for “the people,” and ending the Toll Riots. The gates were removed. This time the gates were stored under the bridge, not in the river, and stayed under the bridge until 1942, when they were hauled out and given to the Wartime Drive for Salvage.

One of the early Jacobite uprisings came to Dunkeld. Fought right on the heels of the Glorious Revolution, the Battle of Dunkeld took place in 1689, and was so furiously fought that it destroyed virtually the entire village, including Dunkeld House, home to the Dukes of Atholl, and the Bishop’s Palace, belonging to the Dunkeld Cathedral.

Dunkeld House, the home of the Dukes of Atholl prior to the 17th century, had been surrounded by different gardens, glass houses, arbors, and clipped hedges. This had been the style for the previous two or three hundred years.

But styles change, frequently prompted by new discoveries or explorations, and both were taking place as the “New World” was discovered and explored by Europeans.

From the 17th century right up to the early 20th century, the landscaped setting of the big, important houses, such as the Dukes’ Dunkeld House, which was rebuilt a little further up the river, was as important as the house itself. “Designed landscapes” became the fashion. Some of Scotland’s designed landscapes are protected as historic examples of the trend.

Where the old Dunkeld House had manicured gardens, the desire by the 1700s was for a more natural look. Plant hunters and botanists were traveling the world and bringing back the seeds of exotic new plants.

The Dukes of Atholl liked to plant trees, and they planted a lot of them. They played a big part in trying to revive the timber-based industry in Scotland.

On Dunkeld’s tree trail is an historic larch tree, the “Mother of Millions, the Parent Larch.” Five larch seedlings were planted in 1738 by the 2nd Duke of Atholl. One was cut in 1789 to become the axles in a mill; two were cut in 1809 to become ships; a fourth was cut in 1905 and became part of a great lodge. The fifth still stands today.

The Parent Larch

The “Planting Dukes” of Atholl made Perthshire the “cradle of Scottish forestry,” planting over fourteen million larch trees over a hundred years, 1815 – 1915. They turned Scotland’s rocky hillsides into Scotland’s first large-scale managed forests, and turned a profit as well. (After all, they didn’t have the bridge tolls anymore.)

The American tree with the Scottish name, too tall for a single frame!

Another tree that caused a sensation in Scotland and England was the Douglas fir. This tree is native to the Pacific Northwest part of the United States – Washington, Oregon, northern California, and, in Canada, the province of British Columbia. Douglas firs are extraordinarily large trees, in an area of other extraordinarily large trees, such as Redwoods and Sequoias.

This type of fir tree was first described to science in 1792 by Archibald Menzies, a Scottish doctor and plant-hunter, who sailed to North America with the Royal Navy. Menzies was a Perthshire native from Aberfelly.

In 1827, another plant-hunter, David Douglas, introduced the species to Britain. Douglas was raised in the village of Scone, near Perth, and trained in his field at the Glasgow Botanic Gardens.

Both men are commemorated in the names of the tree. Menzies’ name is part of the scientific name, “Pseudotsuga menziesii,” and Douglas’ name in the common English name, “Douglas Fir.” This tree, while popular as a specimen, did not become the commercial success that the larch did.

Another Douglas Fir

The trees grow around the Dunkeld Cathedral, which is now a parish church and still in use. There is not much known about the history of this church, only the “Vitae Episcoporum Dunkeldensian,” written by Abbot Alexander Myln around 1515, wherein he describes the elaborate interiors.

The bell tower is at the rear of the structure. There was going to be a large window in the arched opening next to it, which would have been at the rear of the nave.

After the Protestant Reformation of 1560, adornment was frowned upon, and austerity became the style of the day. The choir section of the cathedral became the parish church, and the nave section, no longer used, deteriorated so much that the roof fell in, creating the “romantic ruin” of today.

The roofless nave – some restoration work is going on, as you can observe from the scaffolding on the interior. The bell tower would be to the right, the choir to the left.

Dunkeld itself derives its name from a large tribe of Caledonians. The Gaelic “Dun Chailleann” means “fort of the Caledonians,” according to the signs. In the 790s, Constantine, the son of Fergus, king of the Picts, built a monastery here for Christian monks, the “Culdees,” or “companions of God,” according to a different sign, both from historical sources.

The choir section, at the front of the building, used as the current parish church, which was closed because, pandemic.
The door to the Chapter House, now used as a sacristy, to the side of the choir section.
In the corner of the grounds around the ruin was this stash of slate pieces used, I assume, to make repairs to the current church roof.
I included this photograph to indicate the size of this place – it is huge. Those are people in the lower right corner of the photo.

Relics of Saint Columba were brought here from Iona in 849 by Kenneth MacAlpin, the first king of both the Picts and the Scots. The relics were brought to safeguard against Viking raids, but they also made the monastery a place of pilgrimage. Around 1114, Cormac became the Bishop of Dunkeld, and a “medieval age of peace and prosperity” followed. Construction of the cathedral began in the 1200s with the choir section, and continued over the next three hundred years.

The Protestant Reformation of 1560 caused the cathedral to decay, and the Jacobite uprising, manifested here as the 1689 Battle of Dunkeld, destroyed the Bishop’s palace along with most of the village and Dunkeld House.

The Old Rectory

That’s why the Old Rectory, originally a manse, is Dunkeld’s oldest surviving (intact) house. The blue Heritage sign tells you that fiddler Niel Gow and …wait for it…poet Robbie Burns entertained here in 1787.

Other parts of Dunkeld are charming, and I spent a very lovely afternoon here, lunch in the village, window shopping the main street, and enjoying the views into the closes along the way, before gathering my luggage from Birnam Inn, and catching the train to Pitlochry, further into the Highlands.

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