It’s safe to say September was hectic. In the space of ten days, we clocked up 1,000 breathtaking kilometres in Iceland (sans The Wee White Dug) and five breathtaking Hebridean islands (con The Wee White Dug). Did we stop on day eleven to draw breath and put our feet up? Hell no, we headed to Big Tree Country aka Perthshire for a spot of country living.
Exploring in and around Dunkeld and Birnam
First stop – The Hermitage
You can’t visit Big Tree Country without seeking out big trees, so we kicked-off our Perthshire foray at The Hermitage near Dunkeld. Designed for the Duke of Atholl in the 18th century, it’s managed by the National Trust for Scotland and is the perfect place to immerse yourself in Big Tree Country.
Dwarfed by Douglas Firs, we followed a woodland trail along the shore of the River Braan to an 18th century folly known as Ossian’s Hall.
We passed through the dimly lit inner chamber of the folly into a second, magical and slightly surreal room known as Ossian’s Hall of Mirrors. From there we watched Black Linn Falls thundering into the river below. Apparently we also watched salmon leaping up the falls, but that didn’t become apparent until I was editing photos for this post (see the remarkable leaping fish at the bottom right of falls photo below).
Ossian the blind bard
Ossian was a blind, bard who lived in the 3rd century. In the 18th century, writer James Macpherson documented Ossian’s epic verse from word-of-mouth accounts. MacPherson claimed the poems were part of Gaelic oral tradition, and had passed down the generations for hundreds of years. The consensus is that Ossian didn’t exist, and the poems were Macpherson’s retelling of old folk tales.
Hidden in the trees a short distance from Ossian’s Hall is Ossian’s Cave. The part natural, part man-made cave also dates to the 18th century. It’s said to have had an inscription of Ossianic verse inside, but it’s long since worn away.
The boy was in his element exploring Ossian’s Hall, but he wasn’t so keen on his cave. He peered inside, hovering by the entrance before deeming it boogeyman free and entering.
A heavy shower started as we were walking back to the car. It was a great excuse to pop the boy’s new jacket on. Waterproof, and made from natural cork, he looked a right little ‘corker’ wearing it. With signs of autumn’s arrival all around us, he blended in like a chameleon.
A dog friendly lunch
Dunkeld is a pretty town with an iconic bridge, nice independent shops and plenty of choice when it comes to good places to eat.
Hungry, we perused several lunch menus before settling on The Meeting Place Bistro, part of the Atholl Arms Hotel. We were greeted with a warm welcome and ushered towards a table in the hotel’s lounge area.
A big fuss was made of the boy, and within seconds of us sitting down he’d been given a mat, bowl of water, treats and lots of attention. He was delighted.
Not content with eating his body weight in fish soup in Iceland, Mr G had Cullen skink and an egg mayo sandwich for lunch – both were devoured with gusto. I had a tasty spaghetti Bolognese. I rarely eat a main course for lunch, but I’m glad I did on this occasion.
Dunkeld Cathedral, the heart of historic Dunkeld
After lunch we pottered around Dunkeld, and being a die-hard history geek I gravitated towards the historic cathedral. Dogs aren’t allowed in the cathedral grounds, so Mr G and the boy went off to walk a loop of the perimeter, while I geeked out.
In 849 St Columba’s relics were moved from Iona to Dunkeld to protect them from Viking raiders. From then on Dunkeld became a significant place of Christian worship. The earliest remaining part of the current cathedral dates to the 12th century.
I could hear music playing inside, so I popped in for a nosey. It was the church organist. I wandered around admiring stained glass and carved stonework as she played.
Peeping behind the choir (where the clergy and choir sit), an impressive stone tomb caught my eye. I rushed towards it and found myself in the presence of the notorious Wolf of Badenoch, aka Alexander Stewart, 1st Earl of Buchan (1343 – 1394). He’s one of Scottish history’s thoroughly bad eggs. Amongst his many wrongdoings, he burned the towns of Forres and Elgin and destroyed Elgin Cathedral. Bad egg or not, he was the son of King Robert II so was laid to rest in an ornate royal tomb.
I’m not sure how long I gawped at his tomb, but it was long enough to receive an exasperated text from Mr G enquiring what was taking me so long. When I texted back to explain The Wolf of Badenoch, he wasn’t impressed and I was ordered to “get a move on”.
The Beatrix Potter Garden
When I finally tore myself away from the nasty wolf dude, we crossed the River Tay into Birnam for our final stop of the day.
The Beatrix Potter Exhibition & Garden at the Birnam Arts Community and Conference Centre is worth visiting if you’re a fan of the author.
Beatrix Potter spent happy childhood holidays in Birnam and Dunkeld, and Perthshire is known to have influenced her works.
As we had the boy in tow, we skipped the exhibition and headed into the Beatrix Potter Garden.
It was a peaceful haven, where we met some of the author’s sweet, little characters. The boy was quite taken with Mrs Tiggy-Winkle, who we found hiding in a wooden shed.
He rubbed shoulders with Peter Rabbit too, but was put out to discover that Peter was taller than him.
With check-in time at our country house digs approaching, we said goodbye to Peter and friends and headed back to Dunkeld.
Country living at Dunkeld House Hotel
Dunkeld House Hotel sits amidst 280 acres of leafy, loveliness on the banks of the River Tay. Built in the late 19th century, it was once the summer home of the Duke of Atholl. The grand, Victorian pile is the epitome of Scottish country house. Think tweed clad ghillies, gun dogs bounding through heather and leaping salmon.
I stayed at the hotel several times in the 1990s and loved it. I remember feeling oh, so sophisticated drinking my welcome whisky and trying not to grimace. Back then I was no fan of whisky, but at Dunkeld House Hotel I was determined to live like the lady of the manor (for a night or two at least).
Fast forward 20+ years and I’m back – two owners and extensive renovations later. Dunkeld House Hotel is still a traditional country house hotel, but it’s been brought bang up to date with a bold, modern twist.
We stayed in Fisherman’s Cottage, an annex and one of the hotel’s ten suites (two of which are dog friendly). Although dogs are permitted in the hotel grounds and some guest rooms, they’re not permitted inside public rooms or resident lounges. Dunkeld House Hotel falls into a category I’d describe as dog tolerant. I knew this before our stay, so it’s not a criticism – I’m always delighted when hotels operate a pet-friendly policy. I also appreciate not all guests are comfortable around hairy beasties. It’s just something to consider if you prefer to wine and dine informally, in hotel bars with your four-legged friend by your side.
Our country house lodgings – Fisherman’s Cottage
Our suite was accessed through a vestibule – perfect for placing muddy wellies after country dog walks. From the vestibule a beautiful stained-glass door led into a large lounge area/open plan hallway. At the rear of the suite there was a bathroom and good-sized, double bedroom.
The newly refurbished interior was marvellously Victorian retro. It suited the cottage, and the history of Dunkeld House perfectly. I loved the dark, muted tones, bold wallpaper prints, paintings of local scenes and pillows plumped to perfection.
What appeared to be an antique telephone at first glance, turned out to be a modern working one.
The bathroom, although Victorian in style benefitted from a plentiful supply of hot water thanks to 21st century plumbing.
Large flat screen TVs in the lounge and bedroom were the only obvious nod to the digital age.
With the late afternoon sun casting a warm glow through the lounge window, it seemed like a good time to sit and unwind with a nice glass of wine.
Our lounge doubled as an excellent wildlife hide. We watched delighted as deer arrived to graze on our lawn before scampering off.
Dinner is served – Riverside Restaurant
When 7:30pm arrived we were dressed in our glad rags and ready for dinner. Leaving the boy snoozing, we headed to the hotel’s Riverside Restaurant.
We were seated at a comfortable booth table for two. Low-lighting and a pianist tinkling on ivory gave the restaurant a relaxed ambience.
It was difficult to choose, but we eventually selected dishes from the mouthwatering menu.
With a bottle of Prosecco chilling on ice we drank a toast to a lovely evening ahead.
Our starters arrived quickly. Twice baked goats cheese soufflé, pine nut crust and macerated greens for Mr G, and sweet pea panacotta, pea salad and white truffle dressing for me. Mr G was delighted with his choice. Mine was delicious too, and one of the nicest starters I’ve had in a while.
Next came, lemon seared fillet of crispy skin sea bream for fish lover Mr G, and roast breast of corn-fed chicken, turnip fondant with a red wine and thyme jus for me. Our empty plates showed we’d chosen well.
By the time dessert arrived the pianist has worked his way through an impressive repertoire of tunes spanning decades. Sometimes live music can be a bit intrusive when you want to sit and chat, but in this case it really enhanced the evening.
Dessert was another winner. We both chose bitter chocolate mousse, passion fruit marshmallow and raspberry meringue. We both loved it.
The service throughout dinner was friendly and efficient. The restaurant staff were a credit to the hotel.
After dinner we retired to Fisherman’s Cottage with a nightcap. My Laphroaig malt whisky was the perfect tonic for a good night’s sleep.
A poetic ramble – Corbenic Poetry Path
We woke the next morning to a clear blue sky. After a post breakfast jaunt in the hotel’s stunning grounds it was time to say goodbye.
Our trip to Big Tree Country ended as it began – walking amongst big trees. Corbenic Poetry Path is located a few miles west of Dunkeld (dogs on leads are welcome). It climbs uphill through pine forest, across open countryside, then back downhill to follow the tree-lined shore of the River Braan.
There are lots of interesting art installations and poems to be discovered along the way. It’s a scenic and thought-provoking walk, and despite only being 3 kilometres long, you finish feeling like you’ve had a decent ramble.
Ever inquisitive, the boy enjoyed his poetic walk every bit as much as we did.
We stayed at Dunkeld House on a complimentary dinner, bed and breakfast basis, however all opinions are my own.
Until next time ….