Mid-afternoon, when I arrived at Pitlochry, is the warmest part of the day in the Highlands. It takes a while for the sun to get high enough, and another while to warm things up, but when it does, it makes a lovely day. I turned my face toward the sun to soak myself in it for a minute.
Pitlochry is a tourist town, a popular place to spend a weekend among Scots, Brits, and other tourists because of the outdoor recreation opportunities. This year, however, the pandemic precautions had closed some popular activities early on, and since it was now mid-August, in the Highlands, some of those businesses had written off the season. The advice was always “call first.”
As I walked from the train station to my hotel, it seemed as if there were as many restaurants closed as open, and the same with shops. Smaller hotels, inns, and B&Bs were allowed to serve food to their guests only. Pringle’s, a store selling clothing in traditional plaids, and the Edinburgh Woollen Mill had closed their shops for the duration in many places across Scotland.
Foreigners were staying home, even though Scotland was trying to open its businesses. As a result, there were a lot of Scottish tourists roaming the streets, looking for food, drink, and shopping. The open restaurants were busy. I was able to find a table at Hettie’s after a short wait to have tea and Victoria sponge, and a break before hauling my luggage up hill to the hotel.
I choose hotels, inns, and B&Bs by location, price, and discernible character. As one travel guidebook phrased it, “The less you pay, the more you see.” The Rosemount is a good example. It was comfy, not glamorous, and staffed mainly by the owners. But I enjoyed the twisty-turny, step-up, step-down, hallway that led to my room in the far corner upstairs, where I could look out on real people (not tourists) walking to and from the center of town, since the Rosemount was on a residential street.
The husband-owner was feeling expansive while I waited at my table for dinner to arrive that night. They had established The Rosemount years ago in Pitlochry, though they themselves came from Perth. Much of their business was from locals and nearby hotel guests who came to eat or drink here. Pre-pandemic, they had live music on weekends and a lively business. Ah, the good old days. In my mind, I pictured a local watering spot, friends and neighbors including travelers in their revelry, all in the good natured Scots way. They had a bright, lovely room where they served lunch and afternoon tea, and a darker, wood-panelled bar and dining room on the other side of the hall, with space for musicians. He and she were both older now, and the husband’s face, shining bright in reminiscence, lost the shine as he told me that he and his wife had planned to sell the hotel and retire this year, but now they weren’t sure when that would be possible. I didn’t know what to say to reassure him. Dinner arrived, and in the moment, I tried a cheery “We’re all hoping this will be over soon.” It didn’t seem enough.
The next day I headed out to the Pitlochry Dam, to see what I could see. Others had made the same decision, but it wasn’t a crowd, and we smiled and nodded and wished each other a “Good morning” as we walked at our respective paces, socially distanced, along the road to the dam. The morning warmed up quickly.
Dams in Scotland are a major source of electricity. The Pitlochry dam alone generates enough power for fifteen thousand homes. The Tummel Valley area was being developed for hydroelectric power in the 1930s, and these early power stations were later integrated into a network. Here, the same water is used to generate power five times as it runs from source to sea.
Scotland invested in hydro-electric power beginning with the Hydro Electric Development Act of 1943. The network created by the Act consists of fifty-four power stations, seventy-eight dams, and one hundred eighty miles of tunnels throughout Scotland.
The Pitlochry dam, as it exists now, was begun in 1947. It was very unpopular with the public because there were concerns about the spa business that had brought visitors to Pitlochry since Queen Victoria’s day, and concerns about the salmon that annually swim up the river to spawn. Sport fishing was, and is, big business in the Scottish Highlands. The dam went forward anyway, and was completed in 1951 despite delays caused by winter flooding and a workers’ strike over the poor quality of food they were receiving.
This dam, like many dams in Scotland, incorporated a fish ladder. It may not be the ideal fish habitat, but they still have salmon. The time to see fish moving through the ladders is between November and April. There is an underwater room to see the fish in the water, although the above water observation deck is supposed to be equally as good, possibly better, according to locals.
Rather than walk back the same way, I saw a path that followed the Tummel River downstream, and chose that. The walk was cool and shady, and a footbridge across a narrow part of the river came into view. On the other side were a few streets with houses that Google maps identified as Port Na Craig. When the footbridge met the side of the river where I was, the path turned left toward the village, and I found myself back in Pitlochry. I wandered a little along the main street before heading back to the Rosemount.
The weather had turned hot and humid, occasionally raining. It didn’t dampen the activity, until late afternoon. While traveling, in Scotland, I had become accustomed to eating dinner early. The hotels could serve food to their guests into the evening, but none of the hotels, restaurants, or pubs that were open could serve alcohol after six p.m., so the restaurants and pubs generally closed up.
I walked down the hill to the Cafe Biba, an Scottish-Italian restaurant on the main street whose menu had looked interesting. I’m not sure why, but the Cafe Biba was below the street level. I stepped down from the sidewalk by two steps in order to enter the building.
The staff was watching the rain, which fell heavier and heavier, and louder and louder. I ordered the scampi provençal, passing by the haggis pizza and the burger and chips.
Lightning flashed as the server brought my dinner, and thunder crashed on top of the lightning. Rain was not just falling from the sky, it was aggressively pelting the village. It was a deluge. I was eating my very good scampi when water started pouring into the restaurant. The water came from the sidewalk and gushed under the doors – the building was old. Time and settling had loosened the fit of the windows and doors.
My bag was already on a chair. I pulled my feet up to escape the water. Luckily the floor drains did their job. In a few minutes, the rain subsided a notch, just enough so it no longer came into the restaurant.
Lightning continued, along with the thunder, while I worked on my glass of wine. I dawdled until the lightning and thunder became more distant, and then walked back to the Rosemount.
The next morning, the hotel had no internet service and lighting came by way of their generator. After breakfast, I went down the hill to the main street, where the situation was the same – little power and no internet. After all the merchant signs that requested “contactless payment,” i.e. by phone or credit card, they could only take cash. This was a problem because most people had very little cash because no one had wanted it because of virus transmission, and now the banks’ systems weren’t working, either, so no ATM service. My African experience, where internet systems worked, but unreliably, had taught me to always keep some cash on hand. Internet service was back by around 5 p.m., though, so at least people could eat.
The violent storm and deluge of water had left mud slides and debris on the tracks going west. Sadly, one train was derailed and the engineer was killed. The train routes would have gone to Perth first, so I decided to go to Perth, which was still intact, and stop there for a day or two.
Perth, in Perthshire
In Perth, I stayed in the Rowanlea Guest House, uphill from the historic area downtown. As soon as I was settled in, meaning right after I took the photo below, I went off to explore Perth.
“Vennel” is a word that originated in the royal burghs that were created by David I in the 12th century. Remembering that the royal courts of that era often spoke French, it makes sense that “vennel” is derived from an Old French word, “vennelle,” meaning alley or lane. Unlike a “close,” a vennel was a public alley leading from a high street or ground to open ground. The Latin form is “vennella,” which is related to our English word, “funnel.”
Perth’s source of prosperity was its location on the River Tay, the highest navigable place on the river. As the city and the ships who traded with her grew larger, the port moved slowly down river where there was less population and deeper water. Perth tried to establish trade with North America, but could never seriously compete with the western Scottish ports. Perth’s importance as a port declined as ships grew bigger, but when diesel engines were developed, which in turn allowed shallower drafts, there was a brief resurgence. However, steel ships grew larger as diesel engines grew, and Perth’s importance declined again. There still exists a lively trade with countries around Britain’s east coast – Scandinavian, Baltic, and the Low countries, as well as England’s east coast.
Shipbuilding was an important industry for Perth in the 18th and 19th centuries. Timber was floated down the River Tay from places like Dunkeld and Birnam to the many small shipyards along the river. Shipbuilding declined for Perth, however, after steel ships with diesel engines became a more economical choice than wood for ships.
John Bellany painted this in 1962, while he was a student at the Edinburgh College of Art. It shows a fishing boat named “Good Hope,” with the registration number LH-321, which would have been Leith, a town near Edinburgh. “Bellany” is the name on the stern.
Bellany was born into a fishing family, and grew up surrounded by the fishing life in Port Seton, also near Edinburgh. Boatbuilding scenes such as this would have been very familiar. I thought perhaps the artist was depicted in the painting – I found the man with eyeglasses in the upper left a possibility, but the notes accompanying the painting did not indicate it.
The Perth Museum was well worth the visit, filled with Scottish paintings and local natural history, with a gallery or two of classical art as a nod to the larger world.
In 1993, after “days of wintry weather,” a sudden warming caused major snowmelt and then major flooding of the city of Perth. The flood dumped over 450,000 gallons from the swollen River Tay into the collections storage and offices of the museum. The Royal Navy helped pump water out of their storage areas, and staff waded through the flood waters to salvage art works, photographs, and other artifacts.
The event resulted in losses, but a great deal of cleaning, conserving, and preserving was done, and the museum constructed an entire exhibit to communicate the efforts being made and to educate their public about what those efforts entailed. Today, their activities are mainly conserving and cleaning, but the staff still works where visitors can watch and learn. In non-pandemic times, there will be more communication – when I was there, we spoke very loudly through the glass.
The Scone Palace
Outside of Perth is the Scone Palace, pronounced “skoon,” that is the ancestral home of the Murrays, who became the Dukes of Mansfield.
This is where the kings of Scotland were crowned, or at least, many of them, including MacBeth in 1040 AD. The line from Shakespeare’s play, written about five hundred fifty years later in 1606, gives one an idea of how entrenched the tradition was, especially since MacBeth was not the first.
The earliest monarch to be crowned king of Scotland at Scone was Kenneth MacAlpin in 834 AD. Tradition says that it was Kenneth who brought the “Stone of Destiny” to Scone, but there are some who believe it was earlier. The Stone was stolen in 1296 by the English King Edward I, who took it to Westminster Abbey. England’s “Coronation Chair” had a special shelf underneath the seat that held the Stone of Destiny. The Stone was returned to Scotland in 1996. The stone at the Scone Palace is a replica. (At the end of the post, there is information about how to learn more about the Stone’s story, which is pretty interesting.)
King Kenneth’s Scotland was comprised of the Pict and Scot tribes, and did not have the boundaries of today’s Scotland, but it did represent a “trans-tribe” entity. It was about three hundred years later that King David I united the tribes into a nation that would be more familiar to us.
Reading the signage at the Scone Palace, one would get the impression that it was the Murray clan that “hosted,” so to speak, the crowning of the monarchs, but that’s not really the story. The Murrays had a castle built in 1580, that was replaced in the 18th century by the current palace. It just happens to be right by “Moot Hill.”
Moot Hill is the area upon which the Stone of Scone sat. Tradition says that the nobles who would serve the king, brought one of their boots filled with earth from their lands. They poured this earth onto the hill and swore their oath of allegiance and service to the king. No one explained why it is called “Moot Hill.” (My brain kept trying to call it “Boot Hill,” which even made sense, given the tradition.)
Scone was the site of Pict gatherings, and later of early Christian cults, beginning possibly as early as 700 AD. It is known that a priory was founded at the site around 1114 AD, but between 700 and 1114 AD, the early medieval Christian cult called the Culdees, meaning “Companions of God,” succeeded an earlier cult. The Culdees were succeeded by the Scone Priory, a house of Augustinian canons, and later the priory became the Scone Abbey.
It is likely that the religious activity made it a place where monarchs were crowned, and this tradition was established before the Murrays’ castle was built on the site. The abbey’s buildings no longer exist, but there is a graveyard at the site of the abbey.
There is a chapel on the grounds of the Scone Palace, behind Moot Hill, that is the resting place of several family members.
The Dukes of Mansfield were also interested in trees and botany in general. Apparently, the Dukes of Mansfield are from the same Murray family who were the Dukes of Atholl, the “planting dukes,” but the relationship is unclear. At any rate, it was a member of the gardening staff who guided tours through the gardens.
The Stone of Destiny has its own story, which is interesting and only takes a few minutes to read the “20 facts.” Go to the website, historicenvironment.scot, then enter Stone of Destiny into the search field on the top right of the page. It will produce several links, but when I did it, “20 facts revealed…” was the top link returned. Just click on the link to read about when the Stone was stolen from Westminster Abbey, how it was returned, and the efforts made to return the Stone in 1996 to Scotland.