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Dunkeld - Nineteenth-century Gothic

The fashion for things Scottish and Highland which had been begun by the novels and poems of Sir Walter Scott and continued by the Prince Regent’s patronage of Edinburgh was revived again by Queen Victoria, and in Birnam we have a perfect example of nineteenth-century Gothic. The village sprang up with the placing of the railway station at Birnarn in 1856. For a few years Birnam was the terminus of the railway, and though this only lasted for seven years it was long enough to make it a
fashionable holiday centre. Queen Victoria’s first visit to Dunkeld was in 1842, when triumphal arches were reared along the road between Perth and Dunkeld, and thousands of people crowded into the town to see the
Queen passing through to her picnic on the site of Dunkeld House. By that time Dunkeld had something of its present lay-out. In 1809 Telford’s bridge had been flung across the Tay, and the new Bridge Street crossed the ancient road that ran from the West Ferry just beyond the Cathedral, half-way up the brae and down past the powder magazine to the road by East Ferry. In 1842 the bridge still had its white toligates, which were beginning to be something of a grievance to the inhabitants. When the railway came to Birnam the feeling was heightened. Everyone going to or from the station had to pay toll. Still more exasperating was it for the Free Kirk members in Birnam to have to pay away part of their collection before they could get to church at all.

By 1860 people had forgotten the days when they had to cross the Tay by ferry; they argued that the toll had more than paid the Duke of Atholl for the cost of building
the bridge and that it was time that it was thrown open. The bridge riots began, and rose to such a height that in 1868 a detachment of the Royal Highianders was sent to Dunkeld to keep the peace. They were so hospitably received that they reported the inhabitants to be peaceable, law- abiding people, and after that the struggle was chiefly pressed on by litigation. The principal spokesman of public opinion was the chief of the Dundonochy Robertsons, a descendant of that William McPatrick McAllister McRobert McDonoquhy who was such a thorn in the side of Bishop Brown. In 1879 his point was gained, and the bridge was taken over by the country, but he was almost ruined in the process.

In the meantime Birnam was making the most of its opportunity. Before the time of the railway there had been no village of Birnam. The name belonged to Birnam Wood, Hill and Glen. Little Dunkeld was a parish of considerable antiquity. The Celtic bell which it now possesses may well have been there since the Augustinians dispossessed the Culdees at the Cathedral. Before Bishop Brown’s day the parish had been eighteen
miles long and nearly as broad, lying on both sides of the Tay. At the end of the eighteenth century it stretched from Caputh and Kinclaven at one end to Amulree and Grantully at the other, with only a chapel of ease at
Lagganalachie. The church was described in the Statistical Account as ‘mean, uncomfortable and ruinous’. There were some houses near the church, there were Easter, Wester and Middle Inchewen, a hamlet at
Torwood and a larger one at Inver, already famous for its musical tradition, but Birnam proper is a true piece of Victorian Gothic, solidly constructed in good stone, but in the curiously elongated, pinnacled style of the period. St. Mary’s Towers, built by Lord John Maners, and now in ruins, was a perfect example of it. Birnam Hotel was on the same style, but it was burnt down in 1911, and replaced by something rather less ornate though equally solid and comfortable. Birnam Institute is an example of the social planning of the period, though its date is a little later than that of the City Hall and old reading room in Dunkeld. it continues to play a useful part in the life of Birnam.

The nineteenth century was the florid age of Scottish architecture. The passion for building which surged over eighteenth-century England spread to Scotland nearly a century later. The Duke of Atholl, Sir John Stewart of Murthly and the Marquis of Breadalbane vied together as to which should produce the most magnificent castle. The only survivor of the rivalry is now Taymouth Castle, at one time a hotel and now unoccupied. The stones of the Duke’s unfinished building went to build the City Hall and the Bridge Street houses in Dunkeld. New Murthly Castle, a magnificent pompous conception in the Italianate style, long stood unfinished and unglazed for lack of funds, and was blown up in 1950 for the value of the lead on its roof. Sir John Stewart had intended to pull down the old Castle as soon as the new was completed,
and since the new was designed rather for magnificence than comfort his heirs may well be glad that the money to finish it ran short. Sir William Stewart, Sir John’s brother and heir, was a man of equally lavish notions. He ran green drives through the six miles of his Murthly
estate, planted lavishly, and imported buffaloes from America, who every now and then escaped from the Buffalo Park and held up the stage coach on its way to Dunkeld.

It was a picturesque time. The Duchess of Atholl inhabited St. Adamnam’s Cottage, said to be on the site of St. Adamnam’s cell, between the Cathedral and the river. The river bank was gay with rhododendrons and azaleas, and every morning the visitors at the hotels hastened out to the bridge to hear the Duchess’s piper, George Macpherson, playing his morning air, as he paced outside her dining-room window. It was a second era of the picturesque. The Hermitage was re-furbished and a wild garden planted on Craigiebarns. But the Duchess took a pratical interest in agriculture as well. She had a model farm at Newtyle, where Queen Victoria was once entertained to tea, and later built Rotmel, overlooking
the Tay Valley looking more like an Italian convent than a farm. She had a magnificent herd of Ayrshires. The access to their dairy was by one of the wynds to the north of the Cross, and the inhabitants of Dunkeld were welcome to fetch an almost unlimited supply of milk at a nominal price.

Though Dunkeld was dwindling in size, the markets, steadily declining in importance, continued till the end of the century. The number of considerable houses around still brought trade to the town. The drapers both in Dunkeld and Birnam were able to keep both men and women steadily at work making liveries for the menservants and dresses for the maidservants of the local gentry. National events made their mark on the
place. Mr. Gladstone was an occasional visitor to the neighbourhood. The last descendant of Prince Charles Edward, General Stuart Count Roehenstart, is buried in the Cathedral grounds. He died in Dunkeld in 1854 from a coach accident. One of the nine people rescued by Grace
Darling and her father from the Forfarshire was Thomas Buchanan of Dunkeld. The Dunkeld minister, John Robb, who perished in the wreck, is buried in the Cathedral.
By the beginning of this century the closely packed wynds and squeezed- in houses between the Square and the river were little better than a slum, and a clearance revealed many strange things. The days of the old
‘characters’ were not yet past. In one house, not demolished but opened up, there lived a mad woman who had kept her daughter in one room for fifteen years, telling her that she might meet ‘blue thunder’ if she went out.

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