A picturesque historic town on the banks of the River Tay, Dunkeld is an excellent base for exploring the southern Highlands
Dunkeld grew up around its cathedral, once the most important in Scotland. Little of this early community survived as the townhouses were almost all destroyed in 1689 after street-fighting and fire-raising in a battle here during the first Jacobite uprising.
Dunkeld was gradually rebuilt thereafter, and gained in importance after the bridge across the River Tay was built in 1809. This handsome structure by Thomas Telford still stands. Restoration of the town’s ‘Little Houses’ by the National Trust for Scotland gives the community its period air today. The main street with its hotels, bistros and cafes, art galleries and other interesting little shops represents one of the most attractive small town frontages anywhere in Scotland. The riverside walks by tall trees and the mellowed walls of the ancient cathedral add to the atmosphere.
Accommodation in Dunkeld:
There is an excellent choice of hotels in Dunkeld and Birnam, including country-house type accommodation. Guest house and B&B accommodation is available both in Dunkeld, Birnam and in farmhouses nearby. Self catering properties are widely available both in Dunkeld, with farm and estate cottage accommodation, as well as log cabins and NTS properties. There is also a riverside caravan park close to Dunkeld.
A walkway behind the cathedral brings the visitor to the ‘Parent Larch’ – the survivor of the five seedlings that the Duke of Atholl planted here more than 250 years ago. Seed gathered from this tree helped establish a forest of larch trees across much of the Atholl Estates. The tree theme continues with the Birnam Oak, the last survivor of the ancient Birnam Wood, as in Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Birnam is associated with Beatrix Potter, whose animal characters such as Peter Rabbit were inspired by her holidays here. There is a Beatrix Potter exhibition at the Birnam Institute, and a Beatrix Potter Garden nearby.
Dunkeld makes an excellent base for low level woodland walks. Angling is also popular, with the Rivers Tay and Braan closest, and Butterstone Loch also nearby. Dunkeld golf course is a picturesque heathland course. Dunkeld Park, part of the Hilton Dunkeld, offers pony trekking and many other outdoor activities.
Building of a cathedral here got under way in 1325, on a site which had already seen around seven centuries of worship. The first King of Scots Kenneth MacAlpine made Dunkeld the centre of the Celtic Church in the 9th century. Dunkeld Cathedral was destroyed during the Reformation, and its choir re-roofed in 1600 to serve as the parish church, then variously modified and further restored in 1908.
Loch of the Lowes lies 2 miles to the north-east of Dunkeld. The Scottish Wildlife Trust reserve here is most famous for its nesting ospreys. There are hides with loch views and an informative visitor centre open in summer. As well as the star-attraction ospreys, various duck and grebe species are also to be seen, along with woodland birds and red squirrels. The walk between Dunkeld centre and the loch is just one featuring in an informative local paths leaflet.
In the care of the National Trust for Scotland, these walks through woodland beside the River Braan were the 18th-century pleasure grounds of the Dukes of Atholl, one of whom built the folly known as Ossian’s Hall, on a rocky ledge above the Black Linn waterfall. There are also some very tall Douglas Firs nearby, including one specimen amongst the very tallest in Scotland. The main woodland walk from the carpark by the A9 leads on to an extensive network of local paths.
Weekly handbell ringing in the cathedral and a fiddle week are some of the local events in Dunkeld. The Birnam Arts and Conference Centre also runs its own events programme. Other area highlights include the Neil Gow Festival in March to celebrate Perthshire’s famous fiddler, Etape Caledonia, the open cycle race in May, and the Birnam Highland Games at the end of August.