Close to the heart of Perthshire in Scotland, the seemingly sleepy red sandstone town of Blairgowrie1 is located in idyllic surroundings. Indeed, to many the area is considered one of the most scenically beautiful parts of the country.
Established in the 18th Century2, Blairgowrie and its sister town of Rattray are situated on the south-facing slopes of the final foothills of the Grampians in the Tay Valley. The two towns are separated by the River Ericht, which is sourced from the glens of Strathardle and Glenshee ('The Glen of the Fairies') and was only crossable via Boat Brae until 1777 when Brig o' Blair was built at the same site where the river is at its lowest.
According to the 1991 census, the population of Blairgowrie was approximately 8000 at that time.
Originally a farming village, the fertile soils of the Tay Valley mean that most of the country's best soft summer fruit now comes from the Perthshire area. Blairgowrie itself is famed for its contribution, especially as its raspberries are considered the finest in the world. There are farms all over the district which means anyone can drop in and 'Pick Their Own Fruit'.
Over the years Blairgowrie's industry has declined into soft fruit production and tourism, with most of the old sandstone buildings taken up by charity shops. However, at the end of the 18th Century the Blairgowrie area was a huge centre for the growing flax and jute industries. With the quick flowing waters of the River Ericht coming from the glens, the speed allowed for the textile industry to be established using water wheels and the first mill was erected in 1798 with others following in the 19th Century. The railway was also built in Blair in 1855 in order to transport the town's produce to a wider catchment area, however in the 1970s or 1980s the tracks were closed.
Now most of the mills have disappeared, though Keathbank Mill still remains and has been turned into a museum to celebrate the once illustrious industrial area. Keathbank is also the home of Scotland's largest water wheel. More recently a Genealogy Centre has been set up which is popular with overseas visitors to the area hoping to trace their ancestors.
The Ericht also has another claim to fame: as a major tributary to the River Tay it is host to outstanding salmon fishing (although there is more than salmon to be caught in its waters). Along its banks there are long stretches of woodland and treks to the churches high on the hills along with the old corn mills, Cargill's Visitor Centre, and viewing platforms.
Tourists Attractions in the Surrounding Area
Donald Cargill was born in 1620 in the Rattray and Cargill district of Perthshire. He spent most of his childhood in the town, with some schooling in Aberdeen. Being familiar with the hills and hollows of his childhood along the Ericht would show itself to be a blessing after Cargill became one of the leaders of the Covenanters who refused to accept bishops in the Scottish Presbyterian Church.
For this and his preachings he was outlawed from the area leaving with a price on his head. But he defied the ban and while escaping from a party of the Dragoon he ran from Perth to a known rocky chasm where the River Ericht narrows. Mounting one of the huge rocks he took a flying leap across the river, remembering from his childhood that it was an easy jump. None of his pursuers dared to follow him and they gave up the chase.
Sometime later, a friend spoke to Cargill about his great jump. He was reported to have laughed, saying that he 'had to take a fifteen miles run before [he] could do it! All the way from Perth!' To this day this area of the river is known as 'Cargill's Leap'. Sadly though, the rocks can no longer be seen, having been blasted away to widen the gap in the interest of 'public safety' and to help with the fishing upstream.
Donald Cargill's adventures continued until his presence was betrayed in Edinburgh where he was taken prisoner. He was tried and hanged at the Mercat Cross on 27 July, 1681, at the age of 61.
The Meikleour Hedge
The Meikleour Hedge is one of the most obvious tourist attractions around Blairgowrie, not so much because of its importance but its stature. The world's tallest hedge, it stands at an average height of 100 feet (30 metres) - peaking at 120 feet (36 metres) at the North end - and stretches for approximately 580 yards (540 metres) along the A93, which is the main road from Perth to Braemar.
There are two myths behind the reasons for the height of the hedge. In one it is thought to have been planted by Jean Mercer of Meikleour and her husband Robert Murray Nairne in 1745, as a marker of where the eastern boundary of their lands fell, while also giving shelter to their home. However, soon after her husband went to the battle at Culloden and never returned to Perthshire. Jean Mercer left for comfort with friends in Edinburgh and the hedge was left uncared for.
The other story involves a similar plot, in which the owner of Meikleour House and his son planted the hedge to replace the small stone wall and give shelter to the grounds. Soon after, the son was called to war and his father said that he would not cut the hedge until his son returned safely to Perthshire. According to the story, the son never returned from the war and therefore the hedge was left to grow unattended.
Maintained by the Meikleour Trust, the hedge is cut and remeasured once every 10 years. This is no easy task with the hedge towering over 30 metres and takes four men six weeks to cut as much of it is done by hand. On a more regular basis the bottom section of the hedge is trimmed back to prevent obstructing the local traffic travelling the Northbound road.
Supposed to be one of the most haunted castles in Scotland, Glamis Castle is the home of the Earls of Strathmore and Kinghorne, the childhood home of HM The Queen Mother, and the legendary setting for Shakespeare's Macbeth3.
Macbeth and Birnam
To the South of Blairgowrie, about half an hour's drive down the twisting and turning country lanes of the Tay Valley, past the redundant slate quarries, lies the town of Dunkeld. In its own right Dunkeld is an attractive tourist area, with its large number of walks and treks, plus the ruins of Dunkeld Cathedral and the association with authoress Beatrix Potter. However, on the opposite bank of the Tay River lies the town of Birnam, which is more commonly recognised as one of the main areas mentioned in William Shakespeare's infamous play Macbeth.
Macbeth shall never vanquished be, until
Great Birnam wood to high Dunsinane hill
Shall come against him.
(Act 4 Scene 1 Lines 92-94)
On Birnam Hill stands a fort known locally as Duncan's Camp, said to have been the scene of courts held by King Duncan whose murder at the hands of Macbeth along with the famed Birnam Woods appear in Shakespeare's play.
Driven mad after he murders King Duncan at Lady Macbeth's instruction, Macbeth takes the throne and proceeds to kill for success. He is plagued with visions of ghostly figures and floating daggers and Shakespeare succeeds in making the audience wonder whether Macbeth's character is redeemable. In truth Macbeth's character is more redeemable than his wife's; he has felt pain and remorse for every act of evil whereas she is reinforcing his beliefs that this is the only way to be king. Lady Macbeth has been pushing Macbeth into these gross acts of violence; if it had been down to him he probably would have stopped after Duncan's murder.
Fear not, till Birnam wood
Do come to Dunsinane'; and now a wood
Comes towards Dunsinane.
(Act 5 Scene 5 Lines 44-45)
In the play Macbeth's visions become reality when an army approaches Dunsinane cloaked in branches and foliage. And thus ends the play with Macbeth realising his own fallibility.
All that is left of the play's setting is an immense oak tree said to be the remains of Shakespeare's celebrated Birnam Wood. However the Macbeth Experience, a tourist centre, has been set up at Bankfoot to help people to learn about Macbeth and its relevance to the area.
To the north of Blairgowrie lies the Spittal of Glenshee where the Lecht is the largest skiing area in Scotland, situated in some of the most breathtaking scenery Scotland has to offer.
Glenshee has a number of learner slopes4 including Sunny Side and Glenco, larger more impressive slopes such as the Horn and also 'allegedly' the steepest 'black run' in Europe, the Tiger Run. It also offers gullies and gorges to ski through as well as a dry ski slope allowing for all-year-round skiing. Along with jumps and the choice to hire out skis and snowboards Glenshee is truly an impressive area, even if you're not a great or frequent skier.
There are many myths from Blairgowrie and the surrounding area of East Perthshire, however there is one which every child brought up in the town is told, whether by ageing grandparents or in school, the story of Lady Jean...
The Green Lady of Newton
Once in Newton Castle there lived a family with a beautiful daughter, Lady Jean, who fell in love with Lord Ronald. Although they were happy together, they could rarely find any time to be together. Soon Ronald had, to all intents and purposes, lost all interest in the girl who had once been his sweetheart.
Lady Jean, refusing to give up faith in her love, dressed herself in her most expensive and attractive clothes and jewels, to make Ronald notice her, but instead he barely looked at her at all. Unsure of what to do, Lady Jean's heart was all but broken as she sat in her bower, until the local wise woman hobbled up to her. She had been watching Lady Jean's predicament and despaired at her attempts to regain the affections of her love with fine clothes and jewellery. 'A love won in that manner', she said, 'was not worth having'. If Lord Ronald was indeed the man she wanted as her husband she would have to take a different road.
Eagerly she leaned towards the woman asking for all the advice she had to offer, to which the old woman responded:
First, you must cut some of the long grasses that grow in the kirkyard. Then you must go to the Gallows Knowe and break off a branch of the lone rowan tree on which they hanged the three murderers. Bind the branch with the grasses and carry it down at gloaming to the Coble Pool on the Ericht. Sit yourself on the Corbie Stane, shut your eyes tight and don't open them till morning.
The Lady rushed off to do as the wise woman told her to, collecting the grasses and the rowan branch before hurrying back to her room in Newton Castle where she bound the grasses around the branch and there she sat and waited.
As the sun went down and before the moon had chance to rise, she set off for the Coble Pool, where the boat ferried passengers across the Ericht. She pulled up her skirt sitting herself down on the Corbie Stane. In the gloom she settled and soon it grew darker, though Lady Jean could not tell, as the crone had told her to keep her eyes shut. However, though her sight was lost, her hearing wasn't, and through the night she listened to the bubbling and raging of the water through the rocks, leaves rustling, branches creaking, animals and insects piercing the nights silence. And then suddenly another, strange sound could be heard, a strange voice emerging from the waters...
Warlocks, wabsters, ane an aa,
Weave the witchin claith;
Warp o' grass an' weft o' rash,
Weave the wab o' death!'
Yet still Lady Jean kept her eyes tightly shut until the morning. As she felt her skin heat from the sun as it rose and the cock crowed she dared to open her eyes after her night. Stepping back on the bank it was only then that she noticed the change that had occurred. She was all dressed in fairy green.
When she returned to the castle she found Lord Ronald awaiting an audience with her, his gaze riveted to her. He begged her to marry him and in accepting it was done as soon as was possible. Lady Jean had never looked so beautiful in her long green gown, but even as she and her love danced a terrible voice rang in her ears, the same cry as on the Corbie Stane. Fainting she fell to the floor.
There was uproar as the guests saw the helpless bride being carried to the bedroom prepared for the couple. There as Lord Ronald knelt by her side, she died.
Unable to be buried on the consecrated ground of the kirkyard as she was now forever bound to the fairy world after her enchantment, Lady Jean was carried from her home, still clad in the fairy green dress, up the hill behind Newton Castle to a lovely and calm spot. There she was buried and her grave marked with a simple stone.
Any resident of Blair could tell you the myth of the Green Lady, and how on Halloween night the stone, still hidden in the grass, birls round three times until the ghost of Lady Jean arises from her lonely grave, walks to her old home of Newton Castle, where she goes to the room in which she died and searches for her lost bridegroom. As children, people would go and search for it, to say they had solved the myth, but as we grow up we realise it's just a sad story of a woman who never let go of her first love.
For more stories from Blairgowrie's history look out for the book The Ghost O' Mause and Other Tales and Traditions of East Perthshire by Maurice Fleming.
William Topaz McGonagall
The Ericht is a subsidiary of the Tay River, which was immortalised by William McGonagall, the 'World's Best Bad Poet', in numerous poems. See the William McGonagall Website for more info and for his poems on the Tay River.
It must have been an awful sight,
To witness in the dusky moonlight,
While the Storm Fiend did laugh, and angry did bray,
Along the Railway Bridge of the Silv'ry Tay,
Oh! ill-fated Bridge of the Silv'ry Tay,
I must now conclude my lay
By telling the world fearlessly without the least dismay,
That your central girders would not have given way,
At least many sensible men do say,
Had they been supported on each side with buttresses,
At least many sensible men confesses,
For the stronger we our houses do build,
The less chance we have of being killed.
- The Tay Bridge Disaster