Birnam and Dunkeld. Dunkeld and Birnam. Two towns so close together that they share road signs, a website and a local newsletter. They’re both known as hubs for the creative arts and crafts, as well as for their Highland beauty and community spirit.
So, for our first Day Out from Perth, we couldn’t visit one without the other! They’re only a 20-minute drive from Perth, which is ideal for a day out from the city.
We set out on a mild February day to see what was on offer. And, as 2017 is Scotland’s Year of History, Heritage and Archaeology, we’ll make sure that we include some historical sights.
9.40am – Leave Perth City Centre
The weather is a little drizzly as we head along the A9 and it later turns out to be rainy, cloudy and finally sunny with bright blue skies. So I’m glad we have a mix of indoor and outdoor activities planned!
10.00am – Chattan Tea Room & Post Office, Birnam
We start our day out in Birnam, a pretty town established in the Victorian era on the bank of the River Tay. If you studied Shakespeare’s Macbeth at school, you’ll remember Birnam Wood striking fear into the heart of our tragic hero – more on that later.
Our first stop is Chattan Tea Room, a quirky “trading post”-style building which also serves as the village post office. Owner Kelly Annets and her staff welcome us warmly when we arrive, and we order coffees, scones and pancakes.
We ask for jam and, to our delight, we’re brought a selection of three classic home-made conserves – delicately flavoured apple-and-clove jelly, zingy lemon curd and smooth, tangy rhubarb jam. I feel like I’m back at my great-auntie’s house in Deeside 30 years ago.
The scones are satisfyingly large (nobody wants a small scone!) yet light and delicious. The pancake gets a resounding thumbs-up from our daughter.
As well as being a café and post office, Chattan also sells gifts, crafts and jewellery, local eggs, greeting cards and old-fashioned sweeties in jars.
10.45am – Birnam Arts and Conference Centre
Energised by our lovely snacks, we move on to our next stop. Birnam Arts contains an exhibition space, a theatre/concert/cinema venue, meeting rooms, a popular café, a shop and a library.
Meeting Peter Rabbit
It’s home to the permanent Beatrix Potter exhibition and garden, so we start there. Beatrix spent summers at Eastwood House in nearby Dunkeld as a child, and grew to love the surrounding area, sketching the fungi, flowers and wildlife. On one holiday there in 1893, Beatrix brought to life the characters of Peter Rabbit and Jeremy Fisher, beloved by millions of children ever since.
The exhibition is an entrancing glimpse into the fictional worlds that Potter created. We dress up as Peter, Jeremy and Mrs Tiggywinkle (sorry, we must have deleted those photos!), put on a puppet show, read books, do jigsaws, and play in the pretend shop, washroom and Victorian classroom. We then wander round the little garden and spot the bronze sculptures of Peter and his animal pals.
Moving Minds: the lives of Gypsy/Travellers in Scotland today
Next in Birnam Arts we go upstairs to Moving Minds, an engaging exhibition about the lives of Gypsy/Traveller people in Scotland. Described by broadcaster Lesley Riddoch as “an antidote to My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding”, it’s a mix of personal stories, artefacts and photographs of loved objects. It offers genuine and moving insights into the lives, loves, work and everyday challenges of modern-day Travellers.
The exhibition runs until Tuesday 28th February and is free of charge.
11.45am – The Birnam Oak
We have time before lunch for a walk with the dog, so we go in search of the Birnam Oak and its neighbour the Birnam Sycamore.
It’s an easy five-minute stroll from the main road – just follow “Oak Road” behind the Birnam Inn to the riverside (wear your wellies if it’s rainy).
When we approached these two trees, we were so taken aback by their size that we just stopped and stared. The Birnam Oak is so large that at least five of its mighty boughs are held up by wooden crutches like telegraph poles. The Birnam Sycamore is over 300 years old and the Oak is much older, although its exact age is unknown.
These trees are thought to be the sole survivors of the great forest that once straddled the banks and hillsides of the River Tay. The forest is celebrated in Shakespeare’s Macbeth, when the three witches prophesise, “Macbeth shall never vanquished be / Until Great Birnam wood to high Dunsinane Hill / Shall come against him”. Macbeth laughs this off, but he is defeated when the advancing army camouflages itself with the branches of trees from the wood.
12.30pm – The Taybank, Dunkeld
After all that exploring it’s time to head to Dunkeld, Birnam’s next-door neighbour, for lunch. We cross the famous Dunkeld Bridge, designed by Scottish engineer Thomas Telford, and go round the corner to The Taybank, a bar and kitchen well-known for its live music.
There’s outdoor seating near the river, but as it’s February we stay inside by the wood-burning stove and order warming soup with a delicious selection of cheese and biscuits. The Taybank is dog-friendly and the barman kindly brings ours a bowl of water.
The waitress tells us that the Taybank is undergoing some renovation to add a new restaurant and music room upstairs, so we’ll be back soon to see how it’s all turned out, and hear some great live music.
1.45pm – Going Pottie, Dunkeld
The little person in our party (and, let’s admit it, the big people too) loves any kinds of arty-crafty activities, so we stroll to nearby Cathedral Street where we find our next destination.
Going Pottie is a charming workshop where you can paint a ready-made pottery piece in acrylic or glaze paints. There’s a wide selection including ornaments, mugs and goblets, clocks, hanging decorations and money-boxes.
There’s another group of four in the workshop – it can comfortably hold 12 – so we settle down next to them and choose our pieces to paint. Owner Julie brings us a tray of over 30 coloured acrylic paints, a jar of paintbrushes, some painting pinnies and a hairdryer (Yes, really! It helps the acrylics to dry quickly).
It’s a lovely relaxing experience, and soon we’re all absorbed in our designs. We end up with a sea turtle, a brown cat and a slightly sinister-looking duck (see photo).
When we finish, Julie asks if we’d like to add glitter to our ornaments. Of course we say yes, and she covers them with a sparkly lustre at no extra cost.
Prices start at £6 per piece – for an activity that can keep everyone amused for up to an hour, I’d say that’s great value for money. We’ll definitely be back, as I spotted a star decoration that’d be great for the Christmas tree…
2.30pm – Dunkeld Cathedral and riverside stroll
The sun has come out for us, so we walk along the street to the grand and beautiful Dunkeld Cathedral.
Built in stages between 1260 and 1501, the cathedral was partly destroyed during the Reformation in 1560 but the chancel is roofed and is now the parish church for Sunday worship. There’s a little museum, with some interesting artefacts including a Pictish stone dating from the 800s. The rest of the cathedral is ruinous and is in the care of Historic Scotland.
We take a look inside the cathedral at the beautiful stained glass East Window, the intricately card wooden fretwork and the magnificent tomb of Alexander Stewart, 1st Earl of Buchan, known as the Wolf of Badenoch.
After our visit we stroll along the river enjoying the afternoon sun shining through the evergreen trees.
3.45pm – The Birnam Reader
It’s nearly time to head home, but earlier in the day we’d spotted a sign for an independent bookshop near Birnam Arts. As we’re all keen bookworms we decide to pop in.
The Birnam Reader opened just before Christmas 2016 and sells a wide selection of second-hand books and CDs at very reasonable prices. As if that wasn’t enough, you can also buy a coffee and cake while you’re browsing and reading.
We all choose our books (owner Beth Ross-Gillies even allows our daughter to read the kids’ books with no pressure to buy) and flick through them as we tuck into our delicious coffees and cakes (vegan and gluten-free options often available!).
It’s the perfect way to finish off our Day Out from Perth.
4.30pm – back to Perth
We’ve had a fantastic day in Birnam and Dunkeld – a rich mix of history, fun, culture, the outdoors and, of course, food and drink. The short drive back to Perth means we’re home before 5pm.
And there’s still a lot more to do and see in the area – see “Other things to do”, below, for a selection.
We’ll be back soon with a brand-new Day Out from Perth – so watch this space!
Sightseeing and activities
Corbenic Poetry Path, near Dunkeld