Articles - Birnam Oak
Unlike in previous years when Santa had arrived in Dunkeld on his sleigh pulled by reindeer, crowds that would normally have thronged the pavements for his visit on a late December evening in 2021 had heeded government warnings not to gather in large groups.
Instead, folk had turned out in ones and twos to support local businesses. And these businesses had put on a candlelit Christmas welcome! Brightly lit shops sparkled. Despite the absence of Santa and his reindeer the village oozed good cheer.
Dunkeld is a good base for pleasant way marked walks at any time and can be especially attractive in winter. As you approach from the A9 and before crossing the bridge, you may notice a life size statue standing on the right hand side in an area of grass. The statue commemorates Niel Gow (1727 - 1807), a fiddle player extraordinaire and composer of tunes who was famed far and wide in his day. Niel (as he spelt his name) appears to be looking across the main road to the signs pointing to Inver, the township about half a mile from Dunkeld, where he lived until the age of 80.
To walk in his footsteps, go where these signs point along a side road that winds past a few houses, the medical centre, tennis courts and bowling green. Continue straight ahead on a narrow path and turn left under the road then cross the wooden bridge. A signpost here points the way along the Fiddler’s Path to the Niel Gow Oak.
After a few minutes of walking, the Fiddler’s Path turns and now follows the south bank of the River Tay. Along this first stretch there’s a border of mature beech trees, though even their impressive girths can’t compete with that of the Niel Gow Oak further along. Below this particular tree Niel Gow would sit and play his fiddle and compose tunes.
The 4th Duke of Atholl often sat listening on the opposite bank of the river. It’s said he enjoyed the music so much that he paid Gow a retainer, a guaranteed fee which ensured there would be the best of fiddle music at the Duke’s family functions including christenings, birthdays and balls.
Robert Burns was also impressed by Niel Gow whom he visited in 1787during his Highland tour. Later, Burns was inspired to write a poem entitled ‘To Mr Gow, visiting Dumfries.’
One much quoted verse reads,
‘Nae fabled wizard’s wand, I trow,
Had e’er the magic airt o’ Gow
When wi’ a wave he draws his bow
Across his wondrous fiddle!
At the base of the Niel Gow Oak there’s a carved oak bench. During a storm in 2012 a huge branch broke off the tree, fell to the ground and smashed the bench. A year later, on 25th March 2013, Forestry Commission Scotland installed a new bench dedicated to Niel Gow.
Carved along the side are the words, ‘I’ll sit beneath the fiddle tree with the ghost of Niel Gow next to me,’ from a Michael Marra song called ‘Niel Gow’s Apprentice’. The line refers to Dougie McLean, singer-songwriter and fiddle player from Dunkeld and friend of the late Michael Marra.
From the middle of Dunkeld it’s not a long walk to the Neil Gow Oak. To extend this outing you could return to the signpost by the wooden bridge and follow the path to Inver. Then it’s no distance through the village and on to the pavement running alongside the A9. Turn left and continue for a short way along this pavement to find a choice of paths through the Hermitage. This landscape was originally designed by the Dukes of Atholl as a pleasure ground where their guests could wander. The lower path follows the River Brann through mixed woodland and offers spectacular views of white water, especially at the Black Linn Falls where it crashes through chasms and round huge boulders.
The best view is probably from inside Ossian’s Hall, a romantic folly overlooking the waterfall. The original hall was built in 1758 and stories tell of it being set on fire, vandalised, rebuilt and redecorated at different times over the years. Nowadays it’s a popular attraction for the many thousands of visitors to the Hermitage.
Further along the path, Ossian’s Cave was built using dressed stone and large rocks to make it look ‘natural’ and have it blend into its surroundings. There is a tale that one of the Dukes advertised for a live-in hermit for the cave - but there were no takers. In Irish folklore, Ossian was a mythical bard.
To visit trees that are much older than the Niel Gow Oak, find the sign at the left hand end of the bridge as you leave Dunkeld. Here a flight of stairs ends at the path which leads towards the iconic Birnam Oak that may have been growing in the Geat Birnam Wood that features in ‘Macbeth’ – the play written by William Shakespeare.
Before reaching the Birnam Oak, look for the massive sycamore tree, a few yards off the path. It’s thought to be about 300 years old. A few steps further on, the girth of the Birnam Oak suggests an even greater age of around 600 years. This would mean it was already mature at the time of Shakespeare’s visit, if he did visit, in 1589. Records show that a company of English strolling players put on a play that year in Perth. Shakespeare may have been one of them - unfortunately, none of their names are listed.
In the play, Macbeth murders his way to the throne believing he is safe from defeat after hearing a prophecy made by three witches.
‘Macbeth shall never vanquished be until Great Birnam Wood to high Dunsinane Hill shall come against him.’
As his castle on Dunsinane Hill was some miles away Macbeth thought he would be safe. He wasn’t to know his enemies would camouflage themselves with greenery for their approach to Dunsinane. The prophecy was worthless. Macbeth was overthrown and beheaded.
The actual Birnam Oak probably isn’t old enough to have been the source of the greenery to camouflage Malcolm’s army in 1054 but there was an extensive forest here on both banks of the River Tay at the time.
From near the Birnam Oak on the riverside path you can walk into the village of Birnam for a café break. As well, the Beatrix Potter Garden and Birnam Art Gallery are well worth visiting before heading along the road back to Dunkeld.
For more history of the area, Dunkeld itself is a great resource. For easily accessible information, look for the blue plaques on the side of many of the buildings. In the High Street at the Cross, stop for a look at the Atholl Memorial Fountain with its carved stone creatures and masonic symbols. The fountain (no longer working) was funded by public subscription in memory of the 6th Duke of Atholl who had introduced a piped water supply to Dunkeld. Until these works were done, water had to be drawn from the River Tay.
The High Street leads into Cathedral Street and the Cathedral (still in use for services) where the museum and graveyard are well worth a look before you head out along one of the paths bordering the north side of the River Tay.
Back in the High Street, Dunkeld Community Archive housed in a corner building, is staffed by very helpful volunteers. Touch one of the screens to hear a few of Niel Gow’s compositions played by Perthshire fiddle player Pete Clark.
Further information: www.historicdunkeld.org.uk