Dunkeld and Birnam

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Dunkeld and Birnam
Dunkeld Market Place and Fountain - geograph.org.uk - 633061.jpg
Dunkeld Market Place and fountain
Dunkeld and Birnam is located in Perth and Kinross
Dunkeld and Birnam
Dunkeld and Birnam
Dunkeld and Birnam shown within Perth and Kinross
Population 1,170 
OS grid reference NO027425
Council area
Lieutenancy area
Country Scotland
Sovereign state United Kingdom
Post town DUNKELD
Postcode district PH8
Dialling code 01350
Police Scottish
Fire Scottish
Ambulance Scottish
EU Parliament Scotland
UK Parliament
Scottish Parliament
List of places
56°33′52″N 3°35′06″W / 56.564341°N 3.584886°W / 56.564341; -3.584886Coordinates: 56°33′52″N 3°35′06″W / 56.564341°N 3.584886°W / 56.564341; -3.584886

Dunkeld and Birnam are two adjacent towns in Perth and Kinross, Scotland. They lie on opposite banks of the River Tay, and were first linked by a bridge built in 1809 by Thomas Telford.[1] Dunkeld and Birnam share a railway station, (Dunkeld and Birnam railway station) on the Highland Main Line.

Dunkeld (Scots: Dunkell,[2] from Scottish Gaelic: Dùn Chailleann, "fort of the Caledonians")[3] is about 15 miles (24 km) north of Perth on the eastern side of what is now the A9 road into the Scottish Highlands.[4] Birnam lies on the opposite bank of the River Tay.

On the western side of the A9 is The Hermitage, a National Trust for Scotland site. Dunkeld Cathedral is on the north bank of the River Tay.

Early history

The name Dùn Chailleann means Fort of the Caledonii or of the Caledonians. The 'fort' is presumably that on King's Seat, slightly north of the town (NO 009 440). Both these place-names imply an early importance for the area of the later town and bishop's seat, stretching back into the Iron Age.

Dunkeld (Duncalden and variants in early documents) is said to have been 'founded' or 'built' by Caustantín son of Fergus, king of the Picts (d. 820). This founding likely referred to one of an ecclesiastical nature on a site already of secular importance. Probably originally constructed as a simple group of wattle huts, the monastery - or at least its church - was rebuilt in the 9th century by Kenneth I of Scotland (reigned 843–858). Caustantín of the Picts brought Scotland's share of the relics of Columba from Iona to Dunkeld at the same time others were taken to Kells in Ireland, to protect them from Viking raids. Dunkeld became the prime bishopric in eastern Scotland until supplanted in importance by St Andrews since the 10th century.

The 'Apostles' Stone', an elaborate but badly worn cross-slab preserved in the Cathedral Museum, may date to this time. A well-preserved bronze 'Celtic' hand bell, formerly kept in the church of the parish of Little Dunkeld on the south bank of the River Tay opposite Dunkeld, may also survive from the early monastery (replica in Cathedral Museum). Cináed mac Ailpín (843-58) is reputed to have brought 'to a church that he built' (early church or monastery) a part of the relics of St Columba from Iona. The relics were divided in Kenneth's time between Dunkeld and the Columban monastery at Kells, Co. Meath, Ireland, to preserve them from Viking raids.

The dedication of the later medieval Cathedral was to St Columba. This early church was for a time the chief ecclesiastical site of eastern Scotland (a status yielded in the 10th century to St Andrews). An entry in the Annals of Ulster for 865 refers to the death of Tuathal, son of Artgus, primepscop (Old Irish 'chief bishop') of Fortriu and Abbot of Dunkeld. The monastery was raided in 903 by Danish Vikings sailing up the River Tay, but continued to flourish into the 11th century. At that time, its abbot, Crínán of Dunkeld (d. 1045), married one of the daughters of Máel Coluim mac Cináeda (1005–34) and became the ancestor of later Kings of Scots through their son Donnchad (Duncan I) (1034–40).[5]

The Middle Ages

Engraving of Dunkeld by James Fittler in Scotia Depicta, published 1804

The see of Dunkeld was revived by Alexander I (1107–24). Between 1183 and 1189 the newly formed diocese of Argyll was separated from that of Dunkeld, which originally extended to the west coast of Scotland.[6] By 1300 the Bishops of Dunkeld administered a diocese comprising sixty parish churches, a number of them oddly scattered within the sees of St Andrews and Dunblane.[7]

The much-restored Cathedral choir, still in use as the parish church, is unaisled and dates to the 13th and 14th centuries. The aisled nave was erected from the early 15th century. The western tower, south porch and chapter house (which houses the Cathedral Museum) were added between 1450 and 1475.[8] The Cathedral was stripped of its rich furnishings after the mid-16th century Reformation and its iconoclasm. The nave and porch have been roofless since the early 17th century. They and the tower in the 21st century are in the care of Historic Scotland.

Below the ceiling vault of the tower ground floor are remnants of pre-Reformation murals showing biblical scenes (c. 1490), one of very few such survivals in Scotland. The clearest to survive is a representation of the Judgement of Solomon. This reflects the medieval use of this space as the Bishop's Court. Within the tower are preserved fragments of stonework associated with the Cathedral and the surrounding area, including a Pictish carving of a horseman with a spear and drinking-horn, and a number of medieval grave-monuments. The presentation and interpretation of these monuments has recently been improved by Historic Scotland (open 9.30am-4.00pm October–March, 9.30am-5.00pm April–September).

The Cathedral Museum is housed in the former chapter house and sacristy, on the north side of the choir. After the Reformation this chamber was used as a burial aisle by the Earls, Marquises and Dukes of Atholl, and contains a number of elaborate monuments of the 17th-early 19th centuries. Also preserved within the Museum are two early Christian cross-slabs, a number of communion and other items, and a display on the history of Dunkeld and the Cathedral. In June 2005, there was a major theft from the Cathedral Museum. Items stolen included a quaich, communion cups, and 'a cast-bronze beadle’s bell with a wooden handle, that was used in the cathedral from the 17th century.'

The Battle of Dunkeld (1689)

Most of the original town was destroyed during the Battle of Dunkeld when, in August 1689, the 26th Foot (Cameronian Regiment) successfully fought the Jacobites shortly after their victory at the Battle of Killiecrankie. Holes made by musket-ball strikes during the battle can still be seen in the walls of the Cathedral.


The main street of Dunkeld

The rebuilt town is one of the most complete 18th-century country towns in Scotland. Many of the harled (rough-cast) vernacular buildings have been restored by the National Trust for Scotland (NTS). The present street layout of the older part of town consists of a 'Y-shaped' arrangement, parallel with the River Tay, comprising a single street (Brae Street/High Street) sloping down from the east into the long 'V' of the market place, known as The Cross. Closes (lanes) leading off this main street give access to the backlands of the houses (a traditional arrangement in Scottish towns). On the site of the traditional market cross, the fanciful neo-Gothic Atholl Memorial Fountain (NTS) was built in 1866, as a monument to George Murray, 6th Duke of Atholl (1814–64). The Fountain is notable for its heraldry and Masonic symbolism, the 6th Duke having been Grand Master of the Grand Lodge of Scotland, 1843-64.

At the west end of The Cross is the Ell Shop (NTS), built 1757, which takes its name from the iron ell (weaver's measure) fixed against one corner. This building is said to have been built on the site of the town's medieval hospital, dedicated to St George. At the north-west corner of the same row is the Duchess of Atholl Girls' School, erected 1853 in neo-Gothic style, designed by R & R Dickson.[9] It is generally known as the Duchess Anne after its founder Anne Home-Drummond (1814–97), spouse of the 6th Duke of Atholl and Mistress of the Robes to Queen Victoria. The building is used for exhibition and other purposes, notably the popular annual Dunkeld Art Exhibition in summer.

Historic view of Dunkeld from The London Magazine, January 1777

The left arm of the 'Y' leads along Cathedral Street to the medieval Cathedral, and the right arm (now largely blocked off) originally led to Dunkeld House, built by Sir William Bruce in 1676-84 for the 1st Marquis of Atholl. Demolished in 1827, this was one of Scotland's major 17th-century mansions. A neo-Gothic replacement was begun on the same site but never completed (no visible remains). The area around the Cathedral was the original focus of settlement in Dunkeld in medieval (and doubtless earlier) times. Here stood the manses of the Cathedral clergy, with the Bishop's Palace to the west of the church. This was also the position of the medieval bridge over the River Tay.

The alignment of the town was radically altered in 1809 by the building of a new stone bridge over the River Tay by Thomas Telford at the east end of the town, and the laying out of a new street (Bridge Street-Atholl Street) at right angles to the old alignment. This street, which retains much of its Georgian appearance, was part of the main route north to Inverness until Dunkeld was bypassed in 1977, along with Birnam, by the A9.

There is an ancient tree, the Birnam Oak, standing a few hundred metres from the centre of Birnam on Murthly Estate. Traditionally, it was known as "The Hangman's Tree".[10]

The Perth Road drill hall was completed in 1894[11]and the High Street drill hall was completed in 1900.[12]

Surrounding countryside

Ossian's Hall of Mirrors stands in the Craigvinean Forest near Dunkeld.

Dunkeld is situated in an area of Scotland called Perthshire Big Tree Country. Famous for its "big trees", the countryside is well known for the woods named by Shakespeare in his play Macbeth, and "Neil Gow's Oak." The latter is known as the tree under which Niel Gow, a fiddler under contract to the 4th Duke of Atholl, composed many of Scotland's famous strathspeys and reels. Surrounded by hill country, with forested lower slopes and heather-covered upper slopes, Dunkeld is well placed for exploring the countryside.

The 404-metre summit of Birnam Hill (on Murthly Estate) lies 1.5 km south of the railway station and is easily ascended from there, or from a car park to the east.[13] About 2 miles (3 km) to the northeast of the town is the Loch of the Lowes nature reserve. From the town or from a roadside point about 500 m south-east of the Lowes visitor centre, it is possible to reach a 317-metre high point, Newtyle Hill, 2 km to the east of the town, via a series of tracks and paths that lead to a location (NO046420) 400 m west of the summit (NO050419). But to reach this location, a high gate must be scaled, and the summit area is rough, devoid of paths and defended by wild heather.

Hilton Dunkeld House

The Hilton Dunkeld House & Country Club is based on a summer house built by George Murray, 6th Duke of Atholl. The author Beatrix Potter spent a lot of time writing there. On 4 September 1893, Potter drafted her first book, The Tale of Peter Rabbit, at Eastwood House while writing a story and picture letter to child friend Noel Moore.

Glen Birnam by John Everett Millais


Birnam is approximately one hour from Glasgow and Edinburgh airports, and two hours from Inverness by car.

There is access by rail at Dunkeld and Birnam railway station, on the London to Inverness route.

There are regular bus and coach services to Birnam and Dunkeld.

In 1977 Birnam along with Dunkeld was bypassed by A9.


John Everett Millais, who painted many local landscapes, and Beatrix Potter, with her family, often visited Birnam.

Frances Anderson, biological mother of comedian Mark Steel was originally from Dunkeld, and owned the village deli.[14]


Birnam has The Beatrix Potter Exhibition and Garden, and The Birnam Arts and Conference Centre, a community run arts and performance centre with library.

The Birnam Highland Games is where the World Haggis Eating Championships are held.[15]

See also


  1. ^ "History of Dunkeld and Birnam". Dunkeld and Birnam Tourist Association. Retrieved 7 September 2016. 
  2. ^ Scots Language Centre: Scottish Place Names in Scots
  3. ^ Ainmean-Àite na h-Alba
  4. ^ "Blairgowrie & Forest of Alyth", Ordnance Survey Landranger Map (B2 ed.), 2008, ISBN 0-319-23121-6 
  5. ^ See Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland (RCAHMS), South-East Perth, Edinburgh: 1994, 89-90, for a summary of the early history of Dunkeld, and descriptions of the 'Apostles' Stone' and other early sculpture.
  6. ^ RCAHMS Argyll, Volume 2: Lorn, Edinburgh 1974, 160.
  7. ^ McNeill, P G B & MacQueen, H L (eds) Atlas of Scottish History to 1707, Edinburgh 1996, 353.
  8. ^ RCAHMS 1994 (op cit), 124.
  9. ^ Dictionary of Scottish Architects
  10. ^ Smout, T. C., MacDonald, R. and Watson, Fiona (2007) A History of the Native Woodlands of Scotland 1500-1920. Edinburgh University Press. ISBN 978-0-7486-3294-7. p.78.
  11. ^ "Birnam, Perth Road, Drill Hall & Armoury House". Canmore. Retrieved 24 June 2017. 
  12. ^ "Dunkeld, High Street, Scottish Horse Museum". Canmore. Retrieved 17 December 2017. 
  13. ^ Walk Highlands
  14. ^ http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b08drbx2
  15. ^ "Scot claims haggis eating crown" BBC. Retrieved 31 August 2009.

External links

  • Dunkeld and Birnam Tourist Association
  • Dunkeld & Birnam at VisitScotland Perthshire*Engraving of a view of Dunkeld by James Fittler in the digitised copy of Scotia Depicta, or the antiquities, castles, public buildings, noblemen and gentlemen's seats, cities, towns and picturesque scenery of Scotland, 1804 at National Library of Scotland
  • Engraving of Dunkeld in 1693 by John Slezer at National Library of Scotland
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