David Douglas Memorial, Scone

David Douglas memorial
David Douglas Memorial in Scone churchyard

Remarkable plant collector

In spring, roadside verges, hedges and gardens are bright with the myriad pinks of flowering currant, a plant so widespread that I’d always thought it was native.  That’s until I took a short detour to the churchyard on the outskirts of Scone, just outside Perth, following a brown sign to the David Douglas Memorial.

It turns out it was Douglas who introduced flowering currant to Britain.  Not just Ribes sanguineus, either.  Douglas fir (yup, he’s that Douglas), Sitka spruce, Monterey pine, California poppy and a couple of hundred other plants are all “his” too.

The plants he discovered became fashionable with wealthy garden owners who wanted exotic novelties to show off, and spread from there.  Nowadays Sitka spruce in particular, and to a lesser extent Douglas fir, are hugely important in the UK timber industry.

David Douglas started his working life aged 11 in the gardens of Scone Palace, just up the road.  He went on his first plant hunting expedition to North America in 1823, still only 24.  A short 10 years later he was dead, gored by a wild bull after falling into a pig-trap in Hawaii.  What a way to go!  How many other plants would he have introduced had he lived longer?

Memorial to David Douglas

The Memorial was built in 1841 by Douglas’s admirers to recognise his great contribution to horticulture and forestry.  It stands at the top of the churchyard, not huge but imposing.

The churchyard gates are wired together, but don’t let that put you off: the wire’s just there to stop the gates being blown around, because the latch doesn’t work.  Go round to the right, past what looks like a lodge [the first time I’ve ever seen one in a churchyard.  Was it the gardener’s cottage?  Sadly, there was no-one to ask so I’m none the wiser] and up the slope.  This is one of the rare times when “you can’t miss it” is true.

The churchyard is open all year, oddly enough!  The carefully-mown grass is slippy if there’s been a lot of rain recently.  There’s a large car park next to the church with plenty of shade from mature trees.

If you want to go for a walk, a footpath along the stream starts at the car park gate and heads into a small patch of woodland; it makes a good 20 minute stroll.

Alternatively, Kinnoull Hill, a mixed woodland with miles of trails on the outskirts of Perth, is also a great place to walk.  Just follow the signs up to the left as you come into Perth from the Scone direction.   You need to be fit enough for a steepish climb.  Right at the top of the hill there’s a cliff-top folly, built by a Victorian with a sense of the picturesque.  It’s a bit nervousness-inducing if you don’t like heights but the view across the Tay is fabulous.  Worth the climb.

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Lower City Mill, Perth

Lower City Mill, Perth
Lower City Mill, Perth (photo RCAHMS)

Milling oats for Perth Prison

Pottering around Perth the other day I stopped to read a tourist information sign on the side of a building.  The water-way (lade) nearby should have given me the clue but it hadn’t occurred to me that a city the size of Perth would have water mills right in the middle of it. Silly me!  This one, Lower City Mill, was working right up until 1953, producing oatmeal for HM Prisons.

Perth has had mills since at least the 12th Century.  Lower City Mill hasn’t been there quite that long but it’s still pretty old, dating from around 1720.  It was originally two separate mills, milling different products.  The buildings were combined in 1793 by building over the lade.

It’s a handsome structure, in a workman-like sort of way: stone-built and sturdy looking.  It’s also Grade A listed but in 2012 it was put on the Buildings at Risk Register (that’s when this photo was taken for RCAHMS).

Visiting Lower City Mill

The mill’s working parts are still there but the buildings haven’t been open to the public since 1999 (despite what you may read online).  You can peer in through a large window over the lade at the front of the building but the interior has that sad, abandoned look.

What is still working, in the other end of the building, is the local Tourist Information office.  It has very helpful staff and an excellent selection of books, guides and goodies.  The Upper Mills, opposite, are now a hotel.

The lade that powered Lower City Mill comes via an aqueduct from the River Almond, four miles away.   I don’t know why they didn’t use the River Tay to power them but in the 13th century the mills were just outside the town boundary, so maybe they weren’t wanted in the residential part of town.

Or perhaps the water in the lade was easier to control – the Tay floods quite regularly.  The water from the lade went on from the mills to fill the moat that surrounded mediaeval Perth’s city wall.  It now runs too low to power a wheel, due to flood-prevention measures.

The Lower Mill is best approached on foot (unless you have a bullock cart handy).  The road’s still cobbled, which gives a nice historical feel.  The information plaque can be seen in the photo above, just above the wall that hides the lade.  The Tourist Information office is round the other side, in the building with the “hat” on.

Find out more about Perth at http://www.perthcity.co.uk/.  It’s a delightful city with a strong artistic culture.

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Huntingtower Castle

Huntingtower Castle
Huntingtower Castle

Royal kidnap stronghold

With an hour and a half to occupy between meetings in Perth, I nipped just out of town to Huntingtower Castle.  I’ve driven past it dozens of times thinking “that looks interesting”; this time I stopped and had a good look round.

While it’s by no means a ruin there’s a lot missing at Huntingtower – most of the floors in the west tower, for a start.  It gives the place a lovely, airy feel, but it’s quite weird looking up the walls and seeing fireplaces twenty or forty feet above you.

You can, however, climb the narrow spiral staircase to all three floors of the east tower and even walk right round the roof.  The painted ceiling in the first floor room is very fine, and well-preserved despite being one of the oldest in Scotland.

There are also remnants of painted plaster in a few places.  The walls were  panelled over at some point and most of the plaster was lost either then or later.  Why some parts survived I don’t know but they’re very lively.  They give you a good idea of how costly the furnishings must have been in Huntingtower Castle’s heyday.

From the painted room there’s a bridge across to the first floor of the west tower.  A bridge? Across what?  Well, originally the two towers were separate.  The gap was roofed and walled in the 17th century but it’s just a large open space.  Since the windows in the original walls weren’t opened up into doors, I assume that’s how it always was.

Built-in pigeon loft

As I mentioned, there’s only the ground floor of the west tower left.  If you look right up to the roof you can see the owners pulled a very neat trick.

Way back then, pigeons were bred for the table and every large house had its pigeon-house, dovecote or, in Scots, doocot.  You can see them near all the big houses, usually built of stone with steeply-sloping roofs.  Inside there are small individual niches (literally pigeon-holes) for the birds to roost in.  You can visit a rather fine example at Tealing, just outside Dundee.

Anyway …  The doocot was usually some way from the house, so some poor servant had to go out in all weathers to collect dinner.  At Huntingtower they built their doocot into the roof like a modern pigeon loft.

All round the top of the walls you can see the pigeon-holes where the birds roosted.  Humans entered the loft by a door from the roof (so it was only a short walk in the rain); there’s a hole in the wall for the birds.

It’s to be hoped the insulation on the ceiling of the room below was good.  The permanent draught won’t have helped the heating and the smell will have been pretty strong!  It must have been handy to have your meat larder on tap (as it were), though, especially if you were besieged.

The history of the place is fascinating too – mysteries and skulduggery aplenty,  a royal kidnap, not to mention a daredevil daughter of the house.  But I’ll let you find out the rest when you visit for yourself!

The garden is smallish and plain, mainly lawn, but there are some handsome old trees on the northern side and a flower border at the front, facing south.

Visiting Huntingtower Castle

Huntingtower is maintained by Historic Scotland.  The ticket office and shop are in a wee cabin just by the gate.  The member of staff on duty was obviously very enthusiastic about her “charge”.

There’s parking for half a dozen cars though manoeuvring is tight, especially for larger ones, and there’s no shade for dogs.

 Go to the Historic Environment Scotland website for opening times, prices and so on:   https://www.historicenvironment.scot/visit-a-place/

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The bonny, bonny banks: in praise of lochs

Scottish lochs Loch Long
Morning mist rising off Loch Long

In praise of lochs

Millions of people the world over know about Loch Lomond’s bonny (or bonnie) banks.  Quite a few were driving the length of them in front of me this August day.  They drove slowly in the unfamiliarity of hire cars and driving on the “wrong” side of the road.  Slowly too, probably, as they peered through the trees that line those banks for a glimpse of one of Scotland’s two most famous lochs.

It was raining for the first time in several days.  The tea-shops at the southern end of the loch all sported a fringe of damp walkers on their outdoor seats, sheltering under the sun umbrellas that, only yesterday, would have been doing their proper job.

Loch Lomond, when you could see it, was so grey and still it appeared frozen.  Occasional houses dotted the further shore, larger hotels clumped on the near one, largely invisible to the passing drivers.  There was, frankly, little to entice one to stop.

Loch Lomond on a fine day is beautiful, when you can see it, but the road alongside it is one of Scotland’s busier tourist routes.  I wasn’t staying on it.

Loch Long

Reaching Tarbert I turned towards Inveraray, away from the endless stream of traffic.  A couple of miles on I found my destination: Arrochar.  It was very peaceful – the picture that heads this post was taken from the window of my B&B early the following morning, and there wasn’t much more going on that evening.

In fact there was so little going on that I couldn’t get in to my B&B (I was early).  So I carried on driving, down a narrow, winding road bordering Loch Long.  It’s just as calmly beautiful as Loch Lomond, with equally majestic hills and picturesque cottages.  But no-one has ever written a song about it so the tourists have stayed away.

A pleasant pub provided decent beer, a good meal and a window-side seat to while away the time.  The rain cleared, and a small complement of damp walkers sat themsleves at the outdoor tables.

Loch Long kept its secrets, still and grey in the late afternoon.

Other lochs

The following day I drove on to Loch Fyne. It’s a grand drive through Glen Croe, Glen Kinglas and the historic town of Inveraray.  The road finally meets Loch Fyne, the longest sea loch in Scotland, at Furnace*.   I was there to dive and had a great couple of immersions before heading home.

My return route could have taken me along Loch Tay but I chose the slightly shorter route via Loch Earn.  There used to be a water-sports centre here, but it’s been closed for several years following a fire.  Now, although there are plenty of boats moored on the loch, the water seldom seems to be disturbed by anything larger than a swan or a feeding fish.

Lochs, both fresh-water and sea, hold an irresistible fascination for me.  Even in the rain they’re beautiful.  The water is, as it were, cupped in the hands of the mountains.  There’s a feeling of space and yet protection about them, and their changing moods show as clearly on their surface as on a face.

In, on and under the water

Every time I pass a loch, I want to dive in and see what lies under the surface. And there are plenty of places where you can do just that.  (Beware of tides and swell in the sea lochs, though: they’re not as protected as they look.)

Just park up, throw on your wet- or dry-suit and snorkel and off you go.  As long as you do no damage and don’t catch fish without a licence, you’re free to roam.  The visibility may be like gin, strong tea or a kick-up in a dustpan; it’s all part of the fun.

Whether you want to get into them, paint or photograph them or just enjoy the view, Scotland’s lochs are one of the great joys and glories of her countryside.

Visiting

You can find out more about Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park (of which Loch Long is a part) at http://www.lochlomond-trossachs.org.

*Furnace gets its name from having been the site of an iron furnace (foundry); the original name of the village was Inverleacainn (mouth of the Leacainn [river]).  This part of Scotland isn’t big on industrial history but Furnace later also had a powder-mill.  Both the foundry and the mill used charcoal from the local woods for power.

 

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Coupar Angus’ Tolbooth Steeple

Coupar Angus Tolbooth
Coupar Angus’ Tolbooth steeple

Law and order

Coupar Angus sits on a little river which used to mark the boundary between Perthshire and Angus.  It all lies within Perthshire now, which must make things easier for the Council.  But it does leave people wondering about the name.

It’s easy, really: the “Angus” bit was added to differentiate it from Cupar in Fife.  It made sense at the time …

I’ve driven through the town hundreds of times down the years, usually in a hurry to get from A to B.  On a whim the other day I stopped to take a look at the steeple that sits beside the Dundee road.

Lords of Regality

It turns out to have an interesting history, explained briefly on a plaque attached to the tower:

“Tolbooth steeple.

Built by public subscription 1762.

Prison of Court of Regality.”

The ground floor was the gaol (jail) and the top storey was where the local court met.

During the Middle Ages Coupar Angus was a Regality, a territorial jurisdiction created by the Scottish Monarchy.  The King or Queen gave the lands to a particular person or body, ecclesiastical or lay.  In Coupar Angus’ case it was the Abbey, so the Abbott was the Lord of Regality.

Lords of Regality had rights and duties equivalent to those of a sheriff over the local population.  In other words, they dealt with both civil and criminal cases.  The only crime they didn’t cover was treason.

It must have seemed a good idea at the time, when it might take years for judges or the Court to reach an area.  In practice, the Lords of Regality often went somewhat beyond their remit and tried to usurp authority from the Crown.  They were abolished in the wake of the Jacobite rebellions, in 1746.

In Angus and the surrounding area there were Regalities based in Arbroath, Brechin, Lindores, St. Andrews, Coupar Angus and Kirriemuir.  All except Kirriemuir were ecclesiastical, granted to the Abbeys that dotted (and often owned) the rich countryside.

The story of Coupar Angus

Coupar Angus has been around for a while – it was a Roman marching camp and there are Pictish stones all over the area. Nothing much seems to have happened between then and the Middle Ages – it’s always been a quiet place.

But in 1164 Cistercian monks from Melrose, way down in the Scottish Borders, founded Coupar Angus Abbey.  In the 14th century the monks owned 8000 acres, so it was a rich foundation.  The Abbot was powerful: as the Lord of Regality, he had jurisdiction over even the local barons.

The main Abbey buildings were on the edge of the town.  They were destroyed, like most of the great ecclesiastical foundations, during the Scottish Reformation and the lands passed to a local landowner.

Stone from the Abbey was used to build the Tolbooth and a church on the original site.  All that’s left of the Abbey itself is a section of a gateway, fenced-off to stop people climbing it.

Unusual layout

I don’t know how many times I’ve driven that road through Coupar – lots – but there’s never seemed any particular reason to stop.  The town hides itself behind a railing and a burn and looks nothing much, though there is a large and obviously popular park.

But there’s more to it than meets the eye: its street plan is very unusual.  Most Scottish towns – according to a local history leaflet – are laid out more or less on a grid pattern, with back wynds and a central square-ish area where the market was held, way back when.

Coupar’s not like that.  Probably because everything looked towards the Abbey, it radiates out from a point near where the Abbey was and the traffic lights are now.

The town has some interesting old buildings, too, so it’s worth a walk around.  Having been in decline for some years, it’s now being brought back to life, which is a real pleasure to see.

It’s a quiet town that largely serves the local farming community.   Next to the play-park is one of its more useful shops, the NE Farmers’ Co-op, where I bought a splendidly waterproof jacket.

Coupar Angus isn’t a standard stop-over on the tourist route – in fact most people probably drive through it without a second glance – but it’s definitely worth an hour or two of your time.

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