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Strathbraan & Dunkeld

Strathbraan & Dunkeld

By James Irvine Robertson

The A9 follows the glacial valley north into the Highlands, a rare pathway against the natural grain of the landscape. Like limbs from the trunk of a tree, three straths branch off to the west from the line taken by the railway and the road. The first, the strath of the river Braan, stretches west from Dunkeld and is scarcely noticeable. This is the smallest and least populous of the three. With travel restricted to footpaths and drovers' tracks it remained remote until the 19th century and one of the last strongholds of Perthshire Gaelic. About five miles up the Braan from Dunkeld, Wade's road from Crieff to Dalnacardoch runs north up Glen Cochil on its track between Amulree and Taybridge.

In 579 missionaries were dispatched to the peoples along the Tay and at the Pictish capital Dunkeld - which means the fort of the Caledonians - a religious foundation was established. The original monastery would have been a scattering of wood and thatch huts, each with its Culdee monk of the old Celtic church. Stone was first used to build on this site when Kenneth McAlpine rebuilt the abbey as his country's religious centre. Thus the abbot became first churchman of the realm. These Celtic primates were great men and one, Crinan, was father of King Duncan, murdered by Macbeth, and grandfather of Malcolm Canmore.

When Roman Catholicism became the state religion the abbey received a cathedral charter and the abbot became a bishop. The fat estates of the bishopric were an irresistible target for the clans to the north. The Robertsons, their own chief descended from Abbot Crinan, were the prime culprits which was understandable since tracts of the episcopal lands had once belonged to them. In the time of King James II the bishop detained one of the clansmen. The chief and his henchmen descended upon the cathedral during Whitsunday Mass and the bishop had to clamber up and hide amid the beams of the roof to avoid a shower of arrows.

In 1515 the earl of Atholl wished his brother to be the bishop. The Queen and the Pope preferred Gavin Douglas. The latter proceeded to his seat to be installed by his canons in the Dean's house in the town. The cathedral was occupied by the disappointed candidate and he made manifest his disappointment by punctuating the ceremony with artillery fire from the top of the tower.

At the Reformation in 1560 the cathedral was ransacked. The Privy Council ordered the destruction of idolatrous images and other symptoms of Catholicism but its agents went further, sacking the interior and stripping the roof of the nave. The great building languished until 1600 when a local laird re-roofed the choir for use as the parish church.

Dunkeld and its cathedral were saved by the Dukes of Atholl. They were the law across 500 square miles of the Highlands and the town was their administrative centre. The little houses we see today replaced the old village. The cathedral had its roof repaired in 1698 but it remained in a woeful state until 1762 when it received a grant of £300 from the government, the first example of such largess from the state, to assist repairs. Major work took place in 1815 and, in 1908 came the complete restoration of the choir. Shipping magnate and local MP Sir Donald Currie had been ill. Upon recovery he asked his devoted nurse, Margaret Rutherford whose father was the minister, what she would like as a gift to express his gratitude for her services. Do up the cathedral, was her reply. Sir Donald manfully complied and his bust is appropriately housed within a tomb originally designed for a member of the superseded Atholl patrons. In 1926 the nave, tower and grounds were given by the Atholls to the Ministry of Works, now Historic Scotland, and in 1931 they gave the Choir and Chapter House to the Church of Scotland.

There is said to have been a bridge over the Tay at Dunkeld in 830 and in 1512 Bishop Brown - the bishops were magnates temporal as well as spiritual - laid the foundations of a footbridge but it was washed away in one of the frequent floods. When Wade came north in 1724, there was no crossing over the Tay from its source to its mouth. Dunkeld was the obvious place for his road from Perth to Dalnacardoch to cross the river and he sent word to Blair asking for a meeting with the duke's representative at the proposed point. Wade was building his highway on the duke's land, and the latter was the Lord of the Regality. His Grace has come down as a proud and haughty man. Since this was what was expected of a duke in the eighteenth century, his pride and haughtiness must have indeed been spectacular to have been remarked upon. His response to Wade, commander-in-chief of all castles, forts and armies in Scotland, was that generals must come to dukes, not the other way round. The road maker was not to be intimidated by a local grandee however big his wig. So Wade built his bridge at Aberfeldy instead.

The great north road through Dunkeld had to make do with a ferry until 1808 when Telford spanned the river. This cost his Grace £30,000 and he was empowered to levy a toll until the bridge was paid off. Even the children crossing from Birnam to the grammar school had to buy their day return for a ha'penny. The imposition was bitterly resented by the locals and the Black Watch was called in to keep order when the toll gates were thrown into the Tay in 1869. That year the government paid the remaining debt - £18,000 rather than the £58,000 to which the duke felt entitled - and the crossing became free.

Wade came north briefed to subdue the clans and prevent another rebellion. Given better leadership, the government was well aware that the Rising of 1715 could have toppled the throne. The general's solution was to have his troops build roads good enough to cart cannon into the heart of the Highlands which would give short shrift to any mutinous chief. His was hardly a role likely to endear him to the Jacobite lairds.

In spite of this he achieved great popularity amongst those one would expect to be his enemies. The poet chief of Clan Donnachaidh, Alexander Robertson, who was unique in being out in the three great Risings of 1689, 1715 and 1745, even composed and recited a poem to Wade to mark the opening of Taybridge at Aberfeldy. It is not one of his best - the king is 'perplexed till he is told, That Wade was skilful, and that Wade was bold.' - but is the sentiment from such a quarter that is remarkable.

Road building was a seasonal occupation. One spring towards the end of his time in Scotland the general, a tall man, horrified the locals by picking up a golden guinea - worth 18 oranges, 18 bottles of claret, or a month's wages - which was lying on top of the standing stone, since known as the Wade Stone, sited on the edge of the north carriageway of the A9 just north of Dalnacardoch. Wade explained that he had left it there the year before for safekeeping. Still quoted in the Highlands is the couplet 'If you knew these roads before they were made, you would bless the name of General Wade.'

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