Perth and Points North

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Perth and Points North

You're travelling along the Firth of Forth, the river running halfway across Scotland. Firth is from an Old Norse word, fjorthr, nowadays fjord.

Forth Road Bridge was opened in 1964, replacing the old car ferry which used to be the only way for autos to cross. It is supposed to be one of the strongest in Europe, and was largest until recently when the Tagus Bridge in Lisbon was completed. It was built in five years at a cost of 16 million pounds, the bridge is 1 mile, 588 yards long, 220 feet above the river, and has Europe's longest suspension span.

The Rail Bridge is an iron masterpiece finished in 1890, a monument of engineering and Victorian design (its survival depends on constant and costly repainting). Like the Eiffel Tower in Paris, it shows the pinnacle of technology and beauty reached at the end of the C19. The engineers were Sir John Fowler and Sir Benjamin Baker, also responsible for the earliest parts of the London Underground. (It was Baker who designed the Aswan Dam in Egypt.) These were Englishmen, but the construction work was done by local people. Over 54,000 tons of steel were used, held together by 6-1/2 million rivets, and the whole thing came to only $12 million. Travellers taking the overnight train from London to Aberdeen would make a special point of getting up early to peer out the window at these massive girders, thinking themselves at the dawn of a new technological age (which they were). The bridge is a mile long.

Kingdom of Fife  Across the Forth of Forth this is now the county of Fife, still anachronistically called the "Kingdom of Fife." It is one of Scotland's proudest counties, having been indeed a separate kingdom in Scotland's early days. Its ruling earls were first among Scottish nobility, and they placed Scotland's crown on the head of each new monarch. Because of this early prestige and wealth, many monasteries were founded in the kingdom (eg. St. Andrew's), and almost every village has its tales and legends of early greatness. The capital of the Kingdom of Fife was Dunfermline (birthplace of Andrew Carnegie), a few miles off to the west. Many Scottish kings are buried in Dunfermline Abbey, including Robert the Bruce.

Kinross  When you reach the town of Kinross (population 2,000), just off the motorway to the right, you enter a new county, Kinrosshire, the smallest county in Scotland at just 82 square miles. The town of Kinross lies on the west bank of Loch Leven. This little lake is famous for its excellent trout fishing. International angling matches take place here. Loch Leven is full of miniscule islands of which the best known is Castle Island. The ruins of the castle remain. In that castle, Mary Queen of Scots was imprisoned for a year by the rebellious Scottish noble Douglas, and was forced to surrender the throne. But she managed to make a daring escape on the evening of May 2, 1568. The story goes like this. Mary, still only 26 years old and very attractive, won the heart of young Willie Douglas, a child of the family imprisoning her, and a lad of 16. Willie helped her escape by securing a small boat, setting the other boats adrift, locking the castle gates (to keep pursuers inside), and throwing the keys into the lake. Willie also lent her some of his clothes as a disguise. Mary made one more attempt to regain the throne at the Battle of Langside (near Glasgow), but was defeated and fled south into the waiting arms of Queen Elizabeth I of England, who kept her confined in various castles for 20 years.

Perth (Population: 45,000)  One of Scotland's most historic cities, and its former capital. It is known as the "Fair City" because of its setting on the River Tay and the surrounding hills and woods.

A Little History  Perth started out as a Roman camp, and the name "Perth" comes from an old Pictish name for camp, Bertha. The early Scottish kings made the city their capital, which meant that the city was fought over by rival clans each claiming to be the ruling family of Scotland. The Scottish King James I was assassinated here in 1437, and subsequent kings, fearing the same fate, moved their court to Edinburgh, where Edinburgh Castle offered better protection. But in the early days as capital, Perth enjoyed much wealth. Perth is the headquarters of the Black Watch, a famous military regiment whose insignia is Black Watch plaid. This regiment was probably at more battles and was more decorated than any other such regiment. The fiery reforming preacher John Knox gave a famous sermon at St. John's Church in 1559, denouncing idolatry (i.e. Catholic rituals, vestments, church ornaments), and this set the townspeople ablaze; they destroyed four monasteries in the city and other priceless works of religious art. For this reason, little of medieval architecture survives in the town. Sir Walter Scott's novel, The Fair Maid of Perth, popularised the town for visitors and is set here. (One of the landmarks of Perth is the Fair Maid's House - though the Fair Maid is a fictional character.) Two lovely parks in the town are called the North Inch and South Inch. ("Inch" = an isolated piece of land, such as a hill or island, from the Gaelic innis, island.) In the North Inch, in 1396, a famous tournament was held, described by Scott in Fair Maid of Perth and called the "Battle of the Clans." Thirty warriors of the Clan Chatton fought with 30 of the Clan Kay before a great crowd of townspeople. The warriors killed and wounded each other until one survivor was left. Poets for years afterwards said the grass grew greener there because of the blood spilt. (Today it's a golf and race course.)

Perth today: the main industries are whisky distilling (the famous brand of Dewars was developed by a man of this name in Perth — Perth water was excellent for whisky, and the barley grown in nearby valleys made a superior brew), cattle auctions, and ropemaking. Cattle raising, by the way, is a major activity in this part of Scotland — something in the grass makes for superior stock, so cattle raisers in Argentina or Texas periodically improve their herds by coming to Perth to buy bulls and cows — the famous breed of Aberdeen-Angus (bred over years to produce lean beef), jet black and hornless.

Golf, though associated with St. Andrews, was actually born in Perth, when, it is said, the invention of gunpowder put the local bow-and-arrow makers out of work, so they turned to making golf clubs instead. Scottish rulers actually tried to outlaw golf, because they thought that the defeat of Scottish archers by English archers was due to Scots' spending their time golfing instead of practising archery. Many of the people you see in Perth are farmers or cattle raisers in from the country, and you're likelier to see the tartans (plaids) actually worn here than in the big cities. Though a market town, Perth is known for the high sales resistance of its people. It's said that if you're a salesman, the local man of Perth will listen to your pitch without expression, and then say, clearly and without elaboration, either "Nae" or "Aye" - most likely "Nae." Homely Scottish dialect words like "bonny," "braw," "lassie," or "awfu" will be heard in Perth.

Scone  Two miles north of Perth is the abbey-palace where Scottish kings were crowned, seated on a stone, the Stone of Scone. In 1297, the English King Edward I (the "Hammer of the Scots") captured it and brought it back down to Westminster Abbey, where it was used for the coronation of English kings. On Christmas Eve 1950, the stone was stolen from Westminster Abbey by young Scottish nationalists, but recovered and returned. In 1997 it was finally returned to Scotland, 700 years after it was first taken by King Edward. The abbey-palace is little more than a ruin today.

Perth to Fort William (via Dalwhinnie)  As you approach Dunkeld from the south, and rising among woods is Birnam Hill, where, in Macbeth, Malcolm's soldiers cut branches to disguise their approach to Dunsinane, some 14 miles away. (Macbeth was a real king of Scotland, whose reign was characterised by the internecine warfare described in the Shakespearian story. Whether or not there is any truth in the story of Birnam Wood coming to Dunsinane is another matter.) Dunkeld itself (population 900), on the River Tay, is an ancient town, one of the centres of Pictish tribes. In 848, Kenneth McAlpin, King of the Scots, brought certain sacred relics here from the island of Iona to preserve them from raiding Norsemen. (Iona was the early centre of Scottish Christianity.) One of the relics was part of the body of St. Columba, the saint from Ireland who brought Christianity to Scotland. Thus, the cathedral in Dunkeld was dedicated to Columba. Bishops ruled the town for much of the Middle Ages; envious Highland clans would raid the town regularly to get the gold and silver vessels.

Pitlochry (population 2,500)  The name of this town comes from the Gaelic tongue-twister Pit-clochaire. The "Pit" prefix, meaning dwelling, is common to a number of Scottish towns, and may suggest a connection with the Picts. Clochaire comes from the Gaelic word for stone. Pitlochry is a fairly modern town in appearnce, set on the River Tummel, and is very popular for visitors in summer. It is claimed that the town sits on the geographical centre of Scotland. West of the town, the River Tummel has been dammed, but to enable the salmon to make it upstream, a series of "fish pools" runs like stairsteps from the bottom of the dam to the top. The salmon, always good leapers, jump up from pool to pool.

Blair Atholl  This is a modern village at the foot of Glen Tilt, where River Tilt joins River Garry. North of the town of Blair Castle, former seat of the dukes of Atholl and open to visitors. The forces of Cromwell occupied the castle during the English Civil War, and there has been fighting here several times since. During the campaign of Bonnie Prince Charlie (1745), the prince's allies besieged the castle; this made Blair the last castle in the British Isles to suffer siege. The Atholl Highlanders form the Duke's private army, the only one left in Britain and the last reminder of the ancient clan system. (They're local volunteers, and their role is entirely ceremonial.) At the time of writing, the future of the Atholl Highlanders is uncertain since the last of the Dukes of Atholl died without heir in 1996.

Grampian Mountains  You now start to climb a great chain of mountains, known as the Grampians, which run across Scotland from SW to NE. The name "Grampians" was given to the mountains in 1520 by Hector Boece, a Latin scholar who was infatuated with the Roman historian Tacitus' account of Roman campaigns in Scotland. Agricola reached as far as these mountains, which he called Mons Graupius, and where he defeated a tribe of Picts (84 A.D.), leaving forts behind. Tacitus and other Romans continued to call the mountains by this name; hence "Grampian." The mountains are covered by grass and heather in the summertime, and they rise in places to over 3,000 feet. Skiing is popular in places in the winter, but mainly it's summer visitors who drive through to enjoy the wild scenery — some of Europe's last virgin land.

Drumochter Pass  (This marks the border between the counties of Perthshire, which we're leaving, and Inverness-shire) This is one of several important passes through the Grampians. It was used by the general Agricola, and by English knights on their expeditions into Scotland. For this reason, famous battles have been fought here or nearby over the centuries, in spite of the isolation and seeming military unimportance of the site. Whoever controlled these passes controlled the Highlands. The Drumochter Pass reaches a height of 1,484 feet. This is the highest point reached by the British railroads. If your name is Robertson, McInroy, or MacPherson, this is your territory — the seat of the clans by these names.

Dalwhinnie  A tiny Highland village (population 180) located in the wildest of the wild country. On each side of the road are miles of uninhabited land, with no roads, no villages, no telephones for lost mountaineers. This area is as isolated as the Highlands ever get. Dalwhinnie is becoming ever more popular for winter skiers: the hills around the village have long slopes ideal for skiing. Dalwhinnie has a distillery with curious Chinese-capped towers (what Highland town of any size doesn't have its distillery?) South of the village is an obelisk war memorial. The village sits at the end of the Loch Ericht, which extends SW for 15 miles. The lake is famous for its bull trout, and fishermen flock here in summer. North of here the mountains get even higher, and now is often visible in mid-summer.

Dalwhinnie to Spean Bridge  Loch Laggan is long lake to the left (where the road climbs to 900 feet), followed by Loch Moy. Before coming into Spean Bridge, you enter the Great Glen at its southern end. This glen is the backbone of the Highlands, a huge rift caused by a splitting and sliding apart of two land masses. Along this rift are long, pencil-shaped lakes, connected by rivers. This pattern of "sausage-link" lakes can be seen all over the Highlands. The Great Glen has other such glens branching off from it, but it is the most popular to drive through. Roy Bridge is the town you come to a few miles before Spean Bridge. The town is situated on the Roy river and nestles in Glen Roy, where there is a series of parallel "roads" (so-called), actually parallel ledges on the hillsides. These are the effects of earth movements during the Glacial Age (when the Highlands came into being). The ledges are beaches of former lakes which rose and fell at various periods.

Spean Bridge on the turbulent River Spean. The bridge of three arches was built in 1812 by the engineer Telford; the town exists as a major road jucntion.The Commando Monument, west of the town, designed by Scott Sutherland, honours the commandos who trained in these hills during WW II. The commandos are shown looking toward Ben Nevis (4418 feet, the highest mountain in the British Isles), of which this view is one of the most famous.

Ben Nevis, which you continue to see to the left, is the highest point of a horse-shoe-shaped chain, a massive hump of granite, schists, and lava rock. At the top are the ruins of an old observatory built in 1883 and afterwards used as a hotel (no road for cars; guests made it on foot), abandoned in 1904. Only a footpath goes to the summit today, and is popular for hikers. It is said that a Land Rover made it to the top in 1963, with much bumping and even pushing; if so, it's the only vehicle ever to stand on the "Roof of the British Isles."

Fort William  Population 3,000. This is a very popular holiday resort in the Highlands, and the main starting point for hikes up to Ben Nevis. On Thursday, June 22, 1654 building began on an earthen fort to maintain Cromwell's authority over the area, and this date marks the founding of the town. About 50 years later, the fort was rebuilt of stone and re-named Fort William for the new English King William III (who reigned with Mary). The fort was besieged twice in the C18 by Jacobite forces, and the English actually maintained a garrison in it until 1855. The fort was demolished in 1864 except for the gateway. Aside from tourism, the town's major activities are distilling, of course, and a large aluminum factory, which receives water from Loch Treig (15 miles away) brought by tunnels running under Ben Nevis. (Aluminum manufacturing depends on clear, pure water, and the lakes of the Highlands have some of the purest). The local museum is in a C18 house in the town square; its collection has many objects associated with Bonnie Prince Charlie, whose forces attempted unsuccessfully to capture the fort in 1745. Inside the museum is the famous "secret portrait" which makes sense only when seen in a mirror. At the end of July Highland Games take place in the Town Park of Fort William. Sailing on Loch Linnhe and Loch Eil is popular. Glen Nevis is Fort William's own glen, one of the Highlands' most beautiful, and reached by a road in the north part of town. Several waterfalls and footpaths meandering in all directions make for spectacular and wild scenery.

Fort William to Glasgow  Loch Linnhe to the right, is a "sea loch" 35 miles long (sea water). A popular way to enjoy its scenery is by boat, which takes you down to the pretty resort of Oban. Rocks on the other side are famed for their bright colours: red, brown, blue, green, yellow.

Glen Coe  In the opinion of many, this is the most majestic of the glens, and the wildest. It figures in early Celtic folklore, in tales told by the Celtic bard Ossian, who lived in a cave of the glen. But Glen Coe is chiefly remembered for the massacre of 1692, the most tragic event, some say, in Highlands history. (Glen Coe means "Glen of Weeping.") At the time, this glen was inhabited by the Macdonald clan, shepherds who had gained a bad reputation for thieving and cattle rustling. They were Catholics, nominally, and thus out of sorts with the surrounding Protestant clans. In 1688, King James II of England, a Catholic, was driven from the country and replaced by William and Mary, Protestants. Many Highland clans refused to acknowledge the new king and rose in rebellion. The Macdonalds joined the rebellion, which succeeded at first, and after defeating English forces at the Battle of Killiecrankie, the Macdonalds returned to Glen Coe. On the way back, they stopped off to plunder the lands of the Campbell clan, bringing their horses, cattle, sheep, goats, and household goods back to Glen Coe with them. End of Chapter One: the Macdonalds are back at Glen Coe, flushed with their success, and the Campbells are seething for revenge.

Chapter Two: In 1691, William III, at war with France, and not wanting any more trouble with the Scots, offered full pardons for rebellious Highland clans provided that they signed an act of submission by the end of the year. The head of the Macdonald clan waited until December 31, and then went up to Fort William to sign. But the right magistrate wasn't at Fort William, and he was told to go down to Inverary, 50 miles south, and make his submission there. He did so, in a snowstorm, but didn't arrive until January 2 (1692); the right bureaucrat wasn't there, and Macdonald had to wait until January 6. The papers were sent down to Edinburgh. But enemies of Macdonald wanted to make an example of him and his clan, and secretly removed his name from the list of those who had submitted. Orders arrived to "deal with the Macdonalds in the appropriate way." Robert Campbell, head of the Campbell clan, marched up to Glen Coe with 120 men of the Argyll regiment. They gave as their excuse for being there the need to collect taxes, and the Macdonalds took them in and entertained them with typical Highlands hospitality for 12 days. At 5:00 a.m., February 13, 1692, as the Macdonalds still lay in their beds, the Campbells struck. Macdonald was shot in the heart as he sat up in bed; his wife was raped by the Campbells and died soon after. The Campbells burned all the Macdonald houses to the ground and took their cattle. About 38 Macdonalds were actually killed, but they were the leading members of the clan. Many other Macdonalds fled to the snow-covered hills, but froze or starved.

The massacre horrified the Scots, even those hostile to the Macdonalds. It wasn't the slaughter so much as the violation of hospitality that offended them. It betrayed the old Celtic code of honour; i.e., that hospitality to the stranger should be reciprocated. This caused a furor, so King William was forced to conduct an investigation and the act was officially declared a crime. But Glen Coe was never the same again, and remains still largely uninhabited. It is said that the Scots still shudder with horror when they meet anyone named Campbell.

Argyll County  Though lightly populated, this is one of Scotland's largest counties: 3,000 square miles, no part of which is more than 11 miles from the sea or a sea-loch. Its coastline is rugged and uneven, punctuated by sea lochs and inlets. Innumerable islands, some large, some small, lie offshore and are popular with tourists. Argyll is part of the old Scottish kingdom of Dalriada, whose most famous ruler was Somerled, who is supposed to be the ancestor of the lords of the offshore islands.

Tyndrum is a popular holiday centre for visitors wanting to look at mountains around on all sides. Near the town is a spot where Scotland's king, Robert the Bruce, was ambushed by the treacherous MacDougall clan and almost killed. But he lost his cloak and a brooch, called the Brooch of Lorn, which remains with the chief of the MacDougall clan in Oban.

Loch Lomond  (See separate entry).

Dumbarton (Population 24,000) brings you to the banks of the river Clyde and the outskirts of the industrial area around Glasgow. The main industries here are shipbuilding, manufacturing of aircraft. It is the county town of Dunbartonshire (only in Scotland: the town is spelled with an "m", the county with an "n"). Commanding the town on Castle Rock (250 feet) is Dumbarton Castle, used in the C13 as a royal residence. During wars with the English, the castle changed hands many times.


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