Atholl, Scotland's Heartland

By James Irvine Robertson

S

ome appreciate Highland Perthshire as no more than one of the most beautiful parts of Scotland. But what makes a place special is bound up with many things. Of course scenery and the quality of the environment are a large part of it but the fourth dimension - time - has transformed the bare hills. Humanity was the instrument of time and it is our predecessors who named the landmarks and shaped the countryside. To understand this magnificent landscape, one must appreciate something of its legends and history, often inextricably interlinked, as well as the way of life of its people. By knowing this one's appreciation of its beauty is enhanced.

350 MILLION YEARS ago Scotland gave a great shake and developed a fault which runs by Dumbarton, Callander, and Dunkeld before curving north. South and east of this boundary are the Lowlands of Scotland; to the north and west lie the Highlands. For centuries this line represented the greatest cultural boundary in Europe. South of the river Forth at the dawn of history, the people were of Germanic stock, originally subjects of the kingdom of Northumbria which stretched down to the Humber. In the south west of Scotland they were British, in the far north and far west from Scandinavia but in the Highlands they were Picts and Scots who had come from Ireland.

These two last peoples were united in 848 by Kenneth McAlpine to create the nucleus of modern Scotland, but the centre of power soon slipped south. For centuries afterwards the Highlands lay in a time warp, preserving the last tribal society in Europe. The people of Lowland Scotland had much in common with the English but by the sixteenth century Highlanders spoke a different language from the rest of Great Britain; they wore different clothes, had a different culture and customs, and habitually carried weapons. A mutual contempt was almost all these two societies had in common.

At the handful of passes into the rampart of frowning mountains, settlements grew where these two peoples could trade. Dunkeld was one of the most important of these interfaces and the straths to its north were amongst the richest and most fertile in the Highlands. Up until the beginning of the nineteenth century this was an unknown country to the sassenach - the southern Scot - peopled by strange and savage barbarians. Only the most intrepid traveller dared cross the Tay into the district of Atholl and endure the primitive conditions, the 'horrid' frowning hills, the bare moors, and the outlandish inhabitants.

Now the entry to the Highlands is scarcely noticeable. No narrow pass cuts through the hills. You can waft through Atholl in twenty minutes, sweeping down from Birnam Hill and across the Tay where the broad flood plain of the river opens out, then north, up the great strath before climbing up to the winter-blizzard swept pass of Drumochter. Through the window of car, coach, or train, you will observe the tree-covered slopes, Pitlochry, Blair Atholl, the distant hill tops, and the rivers which originally carved out these valleys leaving their jagged edges to be ground smooth by the glaciers.

Travelling thus is almost virtual reality. You can see the land as you pass but you cannot feel its geography. The modern road runs on embankment above the flood-prone haughland, marches on stilts across hillsides, and spans gorges that generations died to defend. You cannot feel the wind which brushes over the high tops, perhaps picking up the chill of the late season snow. You miss the midge which can make memorable a dull late-summer evening. You may note an osprey over the river, and the magnificence of the Atholl Palace Hotel which you think Blair Castle until you pass the real thing a few miles further on, but you'll never know of the majesty of the great trees, the tumbling burns, the tranquil lochs and mountain summits from where Scotland lies at your feet, or the deer, the grouse, pine martins and the capercaillie that still lurk in the ancient pine woods. Nor will you understand the way each corner of this country was shaped by the hand of man.

Only the structure of the landscape remains as nature intended. When the glaciers receded, trees clothed the hillsides and the flat lands were marsh. Mankind arrived, creeping up the Tay. But the plain remained a swamp eventually threaded by a track that became a great highway into the Highlands. The thousands of men-at-arms and armoured knights of Edward I's army marched through to ravage the country after the execution of William Wallace. Edward III's soldiers passed this way on their way to Blair Castle. Four centuries later, Bonnie Prince Charlie's Highlanders came south on their triumphal march to Edinburgh.

To appreciate Atholl you need to get out of your car, not in a lay-by where you are buffeted by slipstreams, but somewhere - and there are plenty of such places - where you can find solitude. The ghosts of the past seem just on the edge of perception. The tree-clad hummock in an adjacent field may be an ancient tomb, a fairy's palace, a giant's castle, or an execution mound. The Scots pines on its summit may have been left because the plough could not touch them, or planted to mark the spot as one where drovers could overnight their cattle on the way to the markets of the south. The anonymous boulder in a corner of a meadow may have been known to generations as the point where a MacGregor had his throat slit, or where a lass should go at dawn on midsummer day to sip the dew to ensure her fertility. This country has the harsh skeleton that nature decreed, but the forests and the moors are fashioned by mankind and enriched by layer upon layer of human experience, now mostly forgotten.