Dunkeld Bridge to Dunkeld Cathedral Historic Trail Walk

Dunkeld Bridge to Dunkeld Cathedral
Historic Trail Walk.

Start at Dunkeld Bridge opposite the Atholl Arms Hotel in Dunkeld.

One of the best ways to get to know Dunkeld is by learning a bit about its history via a short historic trail through the towns of Dunkeld and Birnam.

Dunkeld History in brief - "Dunkeld", means "the Fort of the Celts", was the centre of the Celtic church and Scotland's first King, Kenneth MacAlpin, who built a church here and in 850 he had the relics of St Columba transferred here from lona. Dunkeld remained the centre of the Scottish church until the relics were taken to St Andrews about 100 years later.

In 1045 King Macbeth's victory over a rebel army near Dunkeld may account for references in Shakespeare (and others) to Birnam Wood which is on the south side of the river (point this out). The town has seen different phases of destruction and reconstruction to make it what it is today.

The tour will take in the three most important landmarks in Dunkeld - the Bridge, the Cathedral and part two will cover the restored town centre.

Looking on the bank above and to the right of the Tay Bank you can see the 'magazine' where the dynamite was stored that was used for as in in the slate quarries on Birnham Hill. Behind this is the Sundial House 1757, presently being restored.

Dunkeld town jail - Now walk to the base of the Dunkeld Bridge opposite the Atholl Arms Hotel - This section under the bridge (you can see the wooden door and ventilation slits, was the old Dunkeld town jail. It must have been a cold and damp prison but with the possibility of a bath when the Tay flooded.

Dunkeld bridge - Now walk under the bridge upstream on the bank of the River Tay - This is an ideal point to view the magnificent Dunkeld bridge. Although there had been a town here for many centuries the first time a bridge was erected was in 1809. Before this, various Bishops of Dunkeld had tried to get a bridge built over the river but the strong currents and the regular floods had made it impossible.

Before the bridge was built there was a ferry service a little up river from here. Cattle, though, had to swim across the river. Most cows do not like to swim. One enterprising farmer had a cow that did not mind a swim so he hired her out to herdsmen to encourage the other cows to cross the water.

The 4th Duke of Atholl commissioned the engineer Thomas Telford to build a bridge which was opened in 1809. The Dunkeld Bridge took 3 years to build. A toll was charged by the Duke's of Atholl to pay for the construction, until I 1879, when the local people felt they had paid enough and started rioting. These riots led to the tolls being dropped.

Dunkeld Cathedral

Dunkeld Cathedral - Now walk upstream to the wall surrounding the Cathedral grounds, turn right up the alleyway to Dunkeld Cathedral gates.

At the Dunkeld Cathedral gates you will see from the plaques beside the gates that in 1730 they were cast for the gates to Dunkeld House (the home of the Dukes and Earls of Atholl) and later moved here in1832. Dunkeld House (today a resort hotel), lies on the other side of the Cathedral, upstream from Dunkeld Cathedral. 

Now walk in to Dunkeld Cathedral grounds out over to the lawn to get a view of the Cathedral - from where you will get a good perspective of the Cathedral. You will see that it has been built in two main sections. It has also been laid out east-west for religious purposes.

The area around Dunkeld Cathedral has not always been a park, up until 1689 the town was built around the Cathedral. During the Battle of Dunkeld 1689 (the conflict between the Jacobites and the government) the town was destroyed with most of the houses being burnt to the ground. Holes made by musket-ball strikes during the battle can still be seen in the walls of the Cathedral.

The Dukes of Atholl took this opportunity to rebuilt the town away from the Cathedral so they could enjoyed uninterrupted views from their house to the Cathedral.

Dunkeld Cathedral Architecture - The architectural history of Dunkeld Cathedral was recorded by Abbot Alexander MyIn in 560, so it is better documented- than many churches in Scotland.

The right hand part, the East Wing or Choir, is the oldest part of the Dunkeld Cathedral. It was begun in the mid 1200s and completed under Bishop William Sinclair in the early 1300s. Bishop Sinclair was Bishop to both William Wallace (the film 'Brave Heart' fame) and King Robert the Bruce. This part of the Cathedral was for the use of the clergy only where they prayed, chanted and sang psalms. It has gone through periods of destruction and restoration. The last period of restoration was carried out in the early 1900s sponsored by shipping magnet, Sir Donald Currie. Today it is cared for by the Church of Scotland.

The western part of of Dunkeld Cathedral is the Nave. This was where the common folk came to worship. This was started in 1406 by Bishop Cardeny and completed 60 years later under Bishop Lauder. During the Reformation (1560) all the riches were removed from the church, or stolen depending which way you like to look at it. The order was only to take valuables and not doors and windows, but a local landowner took the chance to help himself to the roof of the Nave. Since that time the Nave has been a ruin. It is now cared for by Historic Scotland.

Now walk over to the Nave and the Bell Tower. At the Nave you will see this is a "well maintained" ruin and is regularly checked and repaired. At the east end there was an entrance into the Choir through an elaborate wooden partition. Since the removal of the roof the Nave has been used as a cemetery.

Over on the right is the tomb of Bishop Robert Cardeny who started the building of the Nave in 1406. Being buried here he hoped to ensure prayers would be said for him into eternity. He had not taken into account the Reformation.

Now focusing on the Tower - The Tower was built by Bishop Thomas Lauder in 1469. There are some medieval carved stones on display and one of the stones that survives from the first church built here in the 9th century. The single unfinished carving on it shows a man on horseback blowing a horn and holding a spear.

Now walk back towards the Cathedral grounds entrance to the church (the roofed portion of Dunkeld Cathedral). When you go into the church on the left would have been the wooden partition leading into the Nave. Now it houses the church organ. The large stained glass window above the altar at the far end of the church was installed during the 1909 restorations of the church by Sir Donald Currie. The lower half of the window depicts St Columba. The upper half is the birth of Christ.

Behind the altar - the main memorials here are

  • the elaborate Black Watch memorial
  • the plaque on the left is for Col Cleland who was the commanding officer of the Cameronian troops (Government troops) during the Battle of Dunkeld in August 1689. He was killed in battle though his forces defeated the mainly highland clan troops fighting fore the Jacobites.
  • The main coffin here depicts the figure of the Wolf of Badenoch, son of King Robert II. His claim to fame was that he ransacked the towns of Forres and Elgin and burning Elgin cathedral in 1390 as a result of a dispute with the church and the bishops of Moray.
  • There is also an effigy of Bishop Sinclair who completed the building of the east part of the cathedral.

On the left hand side is Dunkeld Cathedral museum.

Dunkeld Cathedral museum, the stones here are from the old 9th century Celtic church like the one in the Tower. One was used by a farmer for a gravestone until it was restored to the church. The great display you will see on the wall is the Atholl family memorial and the statue is of the 4th Duke.

There is a bust is of Sir Donald Currie who sponsored the last major restoration. You will also see the gravestone of the famous fiddler, Niel Gow.

Now leave the Dunkeld Parish Church and return to Dunkeld Cathedral Gates.