Having spent twenty years researching my family tree, the fun now is in discovering what places were like at the time my ancestors lived there and trying to interpret the clues embedded in old photographs. One such photograph in my possession is a Victorian-era image of my grandmother as a small girl with a bucket and a spade at the side of a river. My grandmother was brought up by friends of the family after her own mother died when she was an infant.
Although all the families involved came from Dundee, there are many images of my grandmother as a child taken at locations across Perthshire that suggest her surrogate parents had connections with the area. I have never discovered what those connections were. Thanks to the bridge in the background of the faded photograph I managed to trace this location to a crossing over the River Tay between Dunkeld on the north bank and Little Dunkeld and Birnam on the south bank. The original image dates to around 1900, and the bridge remains to this day. Keen to learn more about the history of where the photograph was taken, my starting point was Birnam Arts.
Birnam Arts has a history dating back to 1880 when it was known as the Birnam Institute and was founded as a community facility for ‘education and entertainment’. The original stone building was extended in the early 2000s to form the The Birnam Arts and Conference Centre.
Rachael Livingston is Shop Manager and Manager of the Beatrix Potter Exhibition that is housed there. Standing before an ornate 18th-century stone column rescued from the grounds of nearby Dalguise House Livingston explains, “Many people are familiar with the stories created by the children’s author Beatrix Potter and are aware of her connections with England’s Lake District. Less well known is her link with rural Perthshire and the decade of summers spent at Dalguise House. The young Potter would have been familiar with this column having spent many hours playing in the garden where this was located.”
Perusing the excellent exhibition, I learned that Potter was born in London in 1866. She enjoyed a privileged upbringing, but her parents were wealthy socialites and her childhood was a rather lonely one. During the summer months the family escaped London to take lengthy breaks at the beautiful but rather isolated Dalguise House. Throughout her formative years this was Potter’s summer playground, and it was here amongst the wildlife of the woodlands and riverbank that she let loose her imagination. In subsequent years she returned on several occasions and in 1892 she met local postman Charles Macintosh. Together they explored a mutual fascination with fungi leading Potter to further develop a growing interest in the natural sciences and conservation. In that same year she sent an illustrated letter from Scotland to the son of her former governess. This letter is acknowledged as the forerunner to her first book – The Tale of Peter Rabbit. Further books such as The Tale of Jeremy Fisher and the Tale of Mrs Tiggy-Winkle also have their roots in rural Perthshire. My visit to Birnam Arts culminated with a walk through the Beatrix Potter Garden inspired by the characters Potter created.
“Of course,” noted Livingston, “Potter wasn’t the only writer to have been influenced by this part of rural Perthshire. Birnam Wood on the banks of the Tay was central to William Shakespeare’s Macbeth.” I thanked Livingston for an enlightening tour and took a short walk to the river in search of the Birnam Oak.
Perthshire is known as Big Tree Country, and Birnam Wood is one of the pivotal aspects of Macbeth for it is when the titular character meets the three witches that they predict –
‘Macbeth shall never vanquish’d be until
Great Birnam Wood to high Dunsinane Hill
Shall come against him.’
Later in the play, Birnam Wood does indeed move toward Dunsinane Hill when the English army cuts off branches from the trees to use as camouflage during their advance on Macbeth’s castle. It is believed that Shakespeare got his inspiration for this part of his play following a visit to Birnam in 1599. The Birnam Oak is a Sessile oak and, given its size and girth, it is estimated to be around 600 years old. At that age it would have been a mature specimen at the time of Shakespeare’s visit. I found the iconic tree on a strip of land by the riverbank. It’s ancient branches, gnarled and heavy are now propped on timber supports for fear the trunk can no longer support their weight. To see the last remaining tree from the wood that existed when Shakespeare visited was a moving experience. Before leaving I took a photograph and as I looked through the camera lens it felt rather like watching an aged relative leaning awkwardly on a walking frame. I didn’t feel there was much chance of this specimen advancing anywhere and so I left it in peace and headed for the bridge. Before crossing into Dunkeld, I paused to admire a statue to Niel Gow – the legendary 18th-century Scottish fiddle player and contemporary of Robert Burns whose tunes influenced the airs of many of Burns songs. There is now an annual Niel Gow fiddle festival held in the town.
Dunkeld is a fine example of a Scottish country town; its mainly two-story buildings of simple, vernacular design punctuated with some fine traditional shopfronts and rooftop dormers line each side of Bridge Street. I head down High Street to the impressive, ornately carved Mercat Cross – or Atholl Memorial Fountain. Here the street widens into a large triangular space with many of the buildings having been sensitively restored by the National Trust for Scotland. One such building is the Ell Shop. Affixed vertically to the corner of the building is a metal rod approximately 45 inches (1.14M) in length. This historic unit of measurement is known as an ell and this piece of metal memorabilia was likely used in a tailor’s shop when cutting cloth.
Further west, by the gentle, grassed banks of the Tay lies Dunkeld Cathedral. Around 730AD the first monastery was built here by Celtic missionaries and the site has remained one of Christian significance since then. The relics of St Columbus were moved here from Iona in 849AD following concerns about Viking raids on the Western Isles and consequently Dunkeld became the religious center of Scotland. The current building constructed between 1260 and 1501 is now a church of two halves – with the west end an historic ruin and the restored east end a functioning church. The cathedral and Dunkeld have suffered badly on two occasions in the past – once during the Reformation when anything considered ‘Catholic’ was destroyed and again in 1869 during the first Jacobite rebellion. Having defeated the Royalist forces at the Battle of Killiecrankie to the north the Jacobites advanced on the Cameronians based at Dunkeld. The battle was a brutal and significant one that saw the Jacobites defeated and the town destroyed by fire. The Dunkeld that exists today was mostly rebuilt in the 18th-century and the early 19th-century.
I take a stroll along the river, head back toward the bridge, and find the exact spot where the photograph of my grandmother was taken over a century ago. The view is just the same as it was back then. When I look at old photographs, it is easy to miss simple clues that can reveal more. Looking closer I note that the women in the photograph are wearing large hats decorated with what appears to be flowers and ribbons. Could this have been an Easter excursion with the ladies dressed in Easter bonnets? Although my grandmother is smiling, I know that she had a rather lonely and isolated childhood perhaps not dissimilar from the loneliness felt by the young Beatrix Potter. As I ponder the scene before me there are rabbits running along the riverbank and I wonder if my grandmother saw any Easter bunnies that day or perhaps got a glimpse of Peter Rabbit himself.