History, tourist information, and nearby accommodation
HERITAGE HIGHLIGHTS: 14th-century Dunkeld Cathedral
Dunkeld is a very pretty Perthshire town on the north bank of the River Tay 15 miles north of Perth. Stroll along the riverbank, enjoy historic Dunkeld Cathedral and take a short walk across Thomas Telford's bridge to the Birnam Oak, the last vestige of Shakespeare's Birnam Wood.
Dunkeld grew up along one of the main transportation routes from the Scottish Lowlands to the Highlands. Its strategic location made it a natural place for both Picts and Romans to settle. However, the town really began to develop in the 7th century when St Columba began his mission to spread Christianity in Scotland.
The real boost to Dunkeld's prosperity came when Kenneth MacAlpin (AD 810-858), the first king to unite the Scots and Picts, made Dunkeld his capital and the seat of the Celtic church. One surviving artefact from this early period is the 9th-century carved cross slab known as the Apostle's Stone, preserved in Dunkeld Cathedral's chapter house.
The cathedral was established by Alexander I in 1107. Nothing remains of Alexander's church and the oldest part of the present building dates to around 1325.
The cathedral is really a church in two parts. The east end, including the chancel and chapter house, survived the Reformation because it was converted to serve as a parish church for Dunkeld. The entire west end of the church including the nave and aisles was left to crumble into a roofless ruin. The west end is cared for by Historic Environment Scotland.
The cathedral chapter house has been transformed into a heritage centre. Here you will find the Apostles Stone as well as a magnificent 1703 memorial to the Marquess of Atholl. There is a curfew bell dated 1688 and the gravestone of Niel Gow, the famous 18th-century fiddle to the Dukes of Atholl. Gow is actually buried across the river in the graveyard of Little Dunkeld Church but his gravestone was moved here for preservation.
In the choir is the effigy of Alexander Stewart, Earl of Buchan, known to history as the Wolf of Badenoch. Near his tomb is a headless effigy thought to be that of William Sinclair, Bishop of Dunkeld, who died in 1337.
Dunkeld Cathedral is one of the finest pre-Reformation churches in Scotland, even though so much of it is in ruins.
Battle of Dunkeld
Dunkeld's darkest hour came in 1689 when armed soldiers supporting the Protestant William of Orange met Jacobite followers of the exiled James II and VIIth in a bloody battle that raged through the streets of Dunkeld and into the fields near the cathedral.
The Battle of Dunkeld was one of three battles in the abortive uprising aimed at restoring James Stewart to the throne. The first was at Killiecrankie, north of Pitlochry, where the Jacobites defeated the government army their leader Viscount Dundee was killed.
Unfortunately, they replaced Dundee with Colonel Alexander Cannon, rather than the more experienced Sir Ewen Cameron of Lochiel. Cameron was so insulted that he left the Jacobite army, taking some of his men with him.
The government feared that the Highlands might be lost, and ordered the Cameronian regiment under Lieutenant Colonel William Cleland to hold Dunkeld at any cost. Dunkeld had no town walls, so Cleland ordered his men to take cover in the cathedral, which at least offered the protection of a perimeter wall.
The battle should have been a rout, for the Jacobites outnumbered the government soldiers by roughly four to one. It started well for the rebels, and they pushed the Royalists back into the narrow, winding streets of the town. In such confined quarters, however, the Highlanders could not launch an all-out charge as they had with success at Killiecrankie.
Colonel Cleland fell early in the fighting and said to have pulled himself out of sight so his men would not be disheartened at seeing their leader fall. He is buried in the cathedral.
After sixteen ferocious hours of battle, the Highlanders withdrew, leaving the Cameronians in command of Dunkeld. From that point of view, it was a government victory, though more Royalist soldiers were killed in the fray. In reality, it was probably a bloody draw, though the Jacobites suffered far more simply because the Battle of Dunkeld stalled the momentum of their uprising.
What is more certain is that the town itself suffered badly in the conflict. Many houses were burned, and it is said that the Cameronians stripped the lead from the cathedral roof to make ammunition after their own supplies had run out.
The cathedral escaped heavy damage, though you can still see holes made by musket balls in the cathedral's east gable. The town was so badly damaged that it was abandoned and rebuilt in its current location east of the cathedral.
An information panel on the north side of the churchyard looks out over the field where the battle raged.
Atholl Memorial Fountain
The centre of Dunkeld is The Cross, where High Street meets Cathedral Street. Here you will find Dunkeld's iconic Atholl Memorial Fountain, an ornate water fountain built in 1866 in memory of George Augustus Frederick John, 6th Duke of Atholl, who had introduced a piped water supply to Dunkeld. The townsfolk were so grateful that they paid for the fountain by public subscription.
Before the Duke paid for piped water all water had to be carried up from the River Tay by hand. That explains the 'wynds' or alleys leading down to the Tay from High Street and Cathedral Street.
The Duke, who died in 1864, served as Grand Master of Masons for Scotland for 21 years and the fountain is covered with traditional Masonic symbols as well as native Scottish birds and animals. The 10th Duke of Atholl gave the memorial fountain to the National Trust for Scotland in 1991. The Duke served as President of the Trust until his death in 1996.
The fountain was designed by CS Robertson and stands on the site of an earlier market cross. In fact, it could be mistaken for a traditional market cross given its shape.
A local legend says that when the fountain was being repaired in the 1970s a bottle of whisky was placed inside the hollow top of the spire. In 2014 the fountain was restored after it was damaged by vandalism but the stonemasons working on it found no evidence of a whisky bottle!
They did, however, leave a little something behind for future generations - a time capsule containing a memento from the NTS, an item commemorating the 150th anniversary Birnam Highland Games, a Glasgow Commonwealth Games relay baton and 'a wee something for future stonemasons'.
Dunkeld's Little Houses
The National Trust for Scotland also owns 20 delightful 18th-century merchant's houses on Cathedral Street and High Street, known collectively as the 'Little Houses'. These houses were part of the town rebuilding scheme launched after the Battle of Dunkeld in 1689. Most are let out as private accommodation.
The Little Houses were given to the Trust by the Duke of Atholl and have been sympathetically restored to their original 18th-century appearance. It is the Little Houses that give the town centre so much of its traditional ambience and appeal. Many of the Little Houses have heritage plaques commemorating the building's history.
For example, No. 9 Cathedral Street was the childhood home of Alexander Mackenzie, the first Liberal Prime Minister of Canada (1873-1880) while No. 19 was the manse for the Cathedral Treasurer. It survived damage inflicted by Parliamentary troops in 1654.
The Dunkeld Ell
On the corner of Cathedral Street is the Ell Shop, restored by the National Trust for Scotland and now a Trust shop selling local woollens and crafts aimed at visiting tourists.
Affixed to the corner of the building is the 'Dunkeld Ell' an iron rod with forked ends. A Scottish ell is a unit of length, standardised at 37" long (940mm). Merchants had their own ell sticks for measuring, and these merchant ells were tested against an official ell in market towns. In 1824 Parliament imposed the English system of measurement on Scotland and the ell faded from use.
Next to the Ell Shop is the Atholl Arms Hotel, built in 1833. Queen Victorian had lunch at the Atholl Arms on 11 September 1844. The occasion was marked by a gun salute fired from Stanley Hill, also owned by the NTS. You can climb the hill and take in an ancient ice house, used in the days before refrigeration to keep perishable items cold.
The Queen also visited the Royal Dunkeld Hotel on Atholl Street, built in 1805. Another visitor was the exiled Maharaja of the Punjab.
In 1802 engineer Thomas Telford was given the task of surveying the Scottish Highlands and suggesting ways to improve transportation routes. Telford's first recommendation was that a bridge should be built across the River Tay at Dunkeld and linked to improved roads on both banks. This would help improve the main route between Inverness and Edinburgh.
The Duke of Atholl agreed to pay half the cost and the government agreed to bear the other half. The initial estimate for the work was the sizeable sum of £15,000. Unfortunately, just like modern construction projects, initial estimates proved wildly inaccurate.
The actual cost of building the bridge was closer to £40,000. The government refused to pay more than their original 7,500 pounds share, so the Duke was forced to pay the remainder.
To recoup his cost the Duke instituted a toll. Though this was not popular, it was at least understandable since he had been forced to pay over £20,000 more than expected. However, the toll was not removed when the specified repayment period had expired. Local residents were outraged, and rioted, throwing down the toll barrier.
As for Telford's bridge, it is a marvel of engineering, a testament to Telford's renown skill as a draughtsman and engineer. The bridge is supported on five arches over the water and a further arch on either side, making seven arches in total. The centre arch is the largest, with a 90-foot span. The width is 28 feet 6 inches including the roadway and pedestrian pavement on each side.
At the south end of the bridge (the Little Dunkeld side) you can still see one of the 1809 toll houses erected by the Duke of Atholl to recoup his expenses.
A short stroll along the south bank of the River Tay opposite Dunkeld brings you to an ancient oak tree, thought to be the last vestige of Birnam Wood, made famous by William Shakespeare in Macbeth. According to the play, Macbeth can never be defeated unless Birnam Wood comes to Dunsinane Hill. Since forests can't move, Macbeth feels safe. But Shakespeare's plot twist has Macbeth's enemies carry branches cut from the trees of Birnam wood so that Macbeth's sentries cannot see them approach.
While we don't know if there is any truth to the tale, we do know that a large forest once covered this area of Tayside. The Birnam Oak is the last tree of this forest. The oak was not standing in the 11th century when Macbeth ruled, but it was probably standing in the late 16th century when Shakespeare is thought to have been one of a troupe of English comic actors who performed at nearby Perth. He may have heard a local tale about Macbeth and embellished it his own dramatic ends.
Little Dunkeld Church
On the south bank of the River Tay, opposite Dunkeld, lies the village of Little Dunkeld. Though it may be little compared to Dunkeld itself, for centuries it was part of one of the largest parishes in Scotland. A reminder of that historic past is Little Dunkeld Church, a short stroll from Telford's bridge. The present building was erected in 1798 and is at least the fourth of this site.
In the churchyard is Niel Gow's grave (see above) and a pair of 18th-century 'Adam and Eve' gravestones. Inside the church is a 9th-century bell.
Just outside Dunkeld is The Hermitage, an 18th-century designed landscape created as a pleasure ground by the Dukes of Atholl for their home of Dunkeld House. The Hermitage takes in 33 acres of mixed woodland and includes Scotland's tallest Douglas fir tree. The woodland centres on the River Braan and Black Linn Falls. Overlooking the spectacular waterfall is a romantic folly built in 1758, known as Ossian's Hall.
Dunkeld is easily reached off the A9 just 15 miles north of Perth and 12 miles south of Pitlochry. There are two major paid parking areas in Dunkeld. One immediately over Telford's Bridge on Boat Road (the A984) and the other off Atholl Road (the A923). Both parking areas are within an easy walking distance of The Cross and Dunkeld Cathedral.
About Dunkeld, Perthshire
Address: A923, Dunkeld, Perthshire, Scotland
Attraction Type: Town
Location: Just off the A9 between Perth and Pitlochry. Signposted paid parking on Boat Road and Atholl Road.
Photo Credit: David Ross and Britain Express
NEARBY HISTORIC ATTRACTIONS
Heritage Rated from 1- 5 (low to exceptional) on historic interest
Dunkeld Cathedral - 0.2 miles (Cathedral)
Little Dunkeld Church - 0.3 miles (Historic Church)
The Birnam Oak - 0.5 miles (Countryside)
The Hermitage - 0.9 miles (Countryside)
Stobhall - 8.3 miles (Historic House)
Stanley Mills - 8.4 miles (Historic Building)
Meikleour Hedge - 8.7 miles (Garden)
Dunfallandy Stone - 9.9 miles (Prehistoric Site)
Nearest Accommodation to Dunkeld, Perthshire: