Photos by Jan Behmer
Text by Steve VandeGriek
Two hours north of Edinburgh, on a summery Saturday afternoon, my wife and I stepped off the train at our destination station, Dunkeld. Or so the sign read. The “station” was a low uncovered platform resembling a two by four sheet of plywood. Deserted. In the middle of a forest. Hobbits would not have surprised us. In the obligatory afternoon British rain. Cab service had been suspended pre WWII. Another signpost featured an arrow pointing into the woods above the words “One Mile”. Curious as to the terminus of said suggestion, and having no alternative, we grabbed our rolling bags and slogged. After about half of the promised mile, the wood path broke onto a rustic road that wound around small clusters of houses, a tiny Beatrix Potter Museum, and finally to a bridge resting on seven lengthy arches above a river. The rain stopped. Another sign. The River Tay. Longest in Scotland, we learned later. At the other end of the bridge was Dunkeld, sign, population 1100. Worth every soggy step.
Just across the bridge, we checked into the Atholl Arms Hotel, on the river at the head of the village. Built in 1833 and gently modernized in the early 21st century, the hotel is casual, clean and congenial – all adding up to extremely comfortable. The staff is helpful and friendly. The lounge and reception area is spacious, light and full of cozy furniture. The Riverview Restaurant is to one side of the lounge. On the other are the bar and Meeting Place, a more informal eatery. Out back is a garden leading to the riverside Garden Terrace, serving drinks and light fare. Our large upstairs room overlooked the River Tay from two sides. It had a comfortable bed and chairs, and in the bathroom a luscious liquid soap with which my wife was about to have a love affair.
The next morning, after a delectable breakfast of the ubiquitous smoked haddock and eggs, we exited the hotel onto the High Street, lined with charming 18th century merchant houses. A block on, the High Street crosses Cathedral Street. This intersection, called the Cross, is the center of Dunkeld. Here stands the Atholl Memorial Fountain, erected to honor our hotel’s namesake, the 6th Earl of Atholl, who first piped water into the town in the mid 19th century.
It being Sunday, a clot of villagers were ambling from the Cross out to the Dunkeld Cathedral. We tagged along and found it amiably situated in a large leafy park right on the river at the outside edge of town. Originally a monastic church in the Norman style, it was gradually rebuilt as the present Gothic cathedral between the late 13th century and the end of the 15th. The exterior structure is modest by cathedral standards, but no less charming for that. At the rear is a tidy garden, and the entire churchyard is dotted with gravestones. Some are age old – mossy and indistinct. Others are more recent and well-tended. Some whimsical and some eerily inscrutable. The cathedral’s away -from-village-center location was once common in Scotland due to the conviction that a church graveyard harbored restless wraiths and was therefore best kept at a distance from the village populace. The church’s chapter house holds the 9th century cross slab called the Apostle’s Stone. This section and the chancel make up the east end of the church, which is still in use. The interior of the western end, including the nave, is mostly in ruins.
My wife joined the parishioners inside for the service. I opted for a book on one of several benches along the river. When the massive cathedral doors again opened, an elderly gentleman escorted my wife to my bench and assured me that she had had “only a wee dram” of wine at communion and there was thusly no danger of intoxication. I thanked him for his custodianship and he strolled off, to be replaced by an equally generous elderly lady. She offered us an earnest apology for the river being brown today, owing to storms up north that had churned up the mud and sent it down to Dunkeld before it could settle. She vowed that all would be blue again soon. We couldn’t help but believe her. You couldn’t have either. Despite the Scots’ taciturn reputation, we encountered only bonhomie in Dunkeld. Not overrun by tourists, the townsfolk seemed as interested in our story as they were – village wise – in each other’s.
We wandered back through and around the village, and eventually into a pub for Britain’s favorite repast – Sunday Roast. Beef, potatoes and two veg with Yorkshire pudding and pots of brown gravy. We walked it all off with a stroll across the bridge to the other bank of the river, where stands the mighty Birnham Oak. Legend touts it as the sole surviving remnant of Shakespeare’s Birnham Wood, of Macbeth fame. After a return stroll and a nightcap at the Garden Terrace, we retired.
We spent another three leisurely days and nights in this wee jewel of a village. We had a couple more reading and picnic sessions on that riverside bench outside the cathedral. We crossed the bridge again – the river was still brown, but then so is the Blue Danube – to the whimsical little Beatrix Potter Museum, full of rabbits both real and not so.
We ate blueberry scones with clotted cream while moseying the few short blocks of the High Street. In a tiny shop/smokehouse up a sleepy steep side street we came upon some exquisite Scottish smoked salmon. The salmon was right out of the river and smoked on the premises.
We lunched on various game pies in the bar at the other village hotel, the Royal Dunkeld. We stumbled into a small shop having a tremendous sale on single malt scotch, in celebration of upcoming Father’s Day. Scotland is bonny good to its Dads. We discovered that Dunkeld actually does have a taxi. Sitting in a cafe in the Cross, we were startled to see the cab in question pull up and park outside. The driver got out and came in for a coffee. We inquired. She explained. The service is part-time and minimal, mostly accommodating a few elderly villagers who could no longer get around on their own. We suggested she post her phone number at the train station, but it seems the potential business was too insignificant to warrant her attention.
We walked for miles on the lush green hills outside the village center, where we discovered and spent several hours at a wildlife reserve – the Loch of the Lowes. From inside one of the several wooden hides at the edge of the forest ringed lake – no sign anywhere of mankind – outfitted with high powered viewing scopes, we watched nesting ospreys fishing and feeding their young.
One elegant swan floated past our hide, trailed by her newly hatched cygnet. There were ducks galore and beavers on the water, and other water birds overhead. The surrounding woodlands are home to deer and smaller critters, notably red squirrels, that mysteriously revered member of the Scottish fauna.
On the morning it came time to leave Dunkeld, we took a last walk onto the Tay River Bridge. The river was blue at last and running fast. We rolled our bags down the short High Street to the bus depot at the other extremity of the village. We boarded and rode east to Anstruther on the coast, where they catch that fabled haddock.
SCOTTISH BLUEBERRY SCONES
1 3/4 cups all purpose flour
3 T sugar
1/8 t salt
Dash of cinnamon
3 t baking powder
5 T cold unsalted butter
3/4 cup fresh blueberries
1/2 cup milk
1/4 cup plain yogurt
1/2 t vanilla extract
Preheat oven to 400.
Sift together all dry ingredients.
Cut in the butter til it’s in pea sized lumps.
Stir in the fresh blueberries. Do not use frozen berries, they’ll make the scones soggy.
Mix the milk, yogurt, and vanilla together and pour into the dry ingredients.
Stir gently til well blended.
Turn out onto a floured surface and knead the dough gently for a minute to hold it together.
Using floured hands, form the dough into balls about 2 1/2 inches in diameter. You should have about 10 balls.
Place balls on a greased baking sheet and flatten the tops just a bit with a fork.
Bake 12-15 minutes til tops are golden brown.
Cool sightly on a wire rack. Serve with gobs of clotted cream, or, for the weak of heart, a bit of jam or honey.