Welcome to Perth
Perthshire occupies the heart of Scotland, in more ways than one. The county lies in a central location, it plays host to the River Tay, Britain’s most powerful watercourse, glens, gorges and, with the Scottish Highlands beginning to the north and west, spectacular mountain scenery. It was here, in this setting, that some of the earliest of the country’s kingdoms emerged into history. It was here too that the most enduring of these kingdoms would spring to life, for in Perthshire’s wild spaces Scotland was born.
Yet the story of Perth and Perthshire begins long before that of Scotland. Like elsewhere in the British Isles, Perthshire has been settled since the end of the last Ice Age. Near Perth the remains of a hut, a midden, and a canoe hollowed out of a pine tree have been discovered which have been dated to around 7000 BC. Moreover, the great many Pictish archaeological sites found in Perthshire show that it was an important area for these early peoples.
Whether it was the Picts or the Romans who first settled the town of Perth is unclear. What is clear is that whoever it was, their choice was influenced by the site’s location at the highest navigable point on the river. When the Romans arrived they set up an outpost in the area which they called Bertha, believed to be derived from the Pictish ‘Aber The’ meaning ‘mouth of the Tay.’ Over two millennia Bertha has been corrupted into Perth.
Shortly after Roman withdrawal in the 5th century sizeable kingdoms began to emerge. It is possibly the quality of Perthshire’s land, in the middle ages the primary source of wealth and therefore power, which made the area a natural power base for kingdom building. In the centuries leading up to the 9th, Forteviot, just a couple of miles south of Perth, became one of the primary capitals of the Pictish Kingdom, which at its height covered half of Scotland.
By the 9th century the most serious threat to the Pictish kingdom was the Kingdom of the Dalriata, which had come to dominate the western part of Scotland. In 835 AD their king, Kenneth MacAlpin, took the town of Scone, two miles north of Perth. According to legend, shortly afterwards he invited King Drostan of the Picts and his nobles to a banquet at Scone’s Castle. During the feast a trap was sprung and the Picts were slain. This was a decisive event: in 843 AD Kenneth finally succeeded in uniting Dalriata and Pictland into the Kingdom of Scotland. Thus, through the war, murder, and infamy of 9th century Perthshire the Scottish nation was born.
MacAlpin also brought the ‘stone of destiny’ to Scone. Said to be a meteorite, it was used in the anointment ceremony for the Dalriata kings. In the centuries that followed, 42 of Scotland’s kings would be crowned at Scone. In the grounds of today’s Scone Palace a replica of the stone marks the place where these ceremonies took place.
Perthshire’s importance made it a target for English invaders during the 13th and 14th century Wars of Independence. Scone was attacked and the Stone of Destiny taken to London, where it was kept for 700 years under the English (later British) throne. It is now kept with the Scottish crown jewels in Edinburgh Castle. Perth itself was occupied from 1296 to 1313.
When the English were finally expelled, Perth’s importance as a port and manufacturing centre for wool, bone and leather made it a kind of surrogate Scottish capital. The kings crowned at neighbouring Scone often set up their courts in Perth. From here they dispensed medieval justice. One notorious example of such justice is the Battle of the Clans in 1396, one of Europe’s last trials by combat. The feuding clans Chattan and Mackay were asked to provide 30 champions whose dispute would be resolved by a fight to the death on Perth’s North Inch. The king and his court had had wooden stands constructed so that they could enjoy the spectacle. Ten Chattans survived to only one Mackay, who swam to safety across the Tay.
Perth’s chances of becoming the permanent seat of government were dashed one night in 1437. King James I had infuriated his subjects with the brutality of his leadership and his autocratic style. Some of his nobles took fright and, accompanied by a group of local sympathisers, burst into his residence in Blackfriars Monastery, stabbing James to death. That Perthshire people were implicated in the regicide went some way to turning the court against the town. It would never again be the seat of power.
But Perth was to be the birthplaces of ideological change. In 1544 early church reformers were executed for heresy. Such a display of barbarity added to the reformers zeal. In 1559 the champion of reform, John Knox, spoke in the 13th century St John’s Kirk claiming that the mass was idolatry, which led to the congregation to destroy the High Alter. From here reform spread throughout Scotland.
Alas, reforming zeal did much to damage the old religious buildings in Perth, such as Greyfriars where James I was buried (the building no longer exists and James’ body has never been found). And from Edwardian times developments have altered the town greatly. Sometimes this has been for the better, such as the flood defences, completed in 2001, which, apart from limiting the town’s susceptibility to flooding, have provided Perth with great vantage points down to the beautiful fast flowing river as well. Modern Perth is a charming town, with some fine buildings, a distillery, a glassworks, museums and a wide variety of bars, restaurants and accommodation. These more modern developments are but a thin veneer; if you scratch the surface Perth starts to bleed history.