By any standards Perthshire is one of the truly great old counties of Scotland. In size it is the fourth largest of the old counties in Scotland, comprising 1,595,804 acres. But size is not everything; and despite having no extremely large city, it has a much larger population than the other Scots counties which top it in size, Inverness, Argyll and Ross and Cromarty. Yet it has no industrial area, apart from the town of Perth itself. It has its great mountain tracts, of course, including some of the most famous scenery in the United Kingdom; but there is an enormous amount of fertile, populous countryside--far more, probably, than is generally realised--its great green straits, or wide open valleys, its especial pride. Contrary, therefore, to frequent pronouncements, the true glory of Perthshire is not its hills and lochs, however fine--for in these it can be excelled by Argyll and Inverness-shire, Ross or Sutherland; it is in its magnificent, age-old settled lowlands, its characterful small towns and its unnumbered villages. Especially the latter. Here are, probably, more ancient and interesting small communities than anywhere else in Scotland. And these communities are unfortunately generally bypassed by the typical traveler.
Basically, Perthshire is the basin and catchment area of the great River Tay; although the south-west section, or Menteith (more properly Monteith) as its name suggests, is the mounth of the Teith, principal tributary of the Forth. But in the main, Perthshire's innumerable and often splendid rivers reach the sea via the silver Tay. The county has another basic feature--the great Highland Fault, which runs across Scotland from the Gareloch to the Tay, most of it in Perthshire. This, because in general it marks the division between Highlands and Lowlands, is important. The old county, therefore, has a split personality.
Owing to its great size and ancient lineage, Perthshire has always been split up into large sub-provinces, with very pronounced characteristics and identities of their own, mainly themselves ancient earldoms--Menteith, Strathearn, Gowrie, Atholl, Breadalbane, each with its own subdivisions. These, all themselves mighty areas, are the very stuff of Scotland's story, an integral and vital part of Scotland's exciting past. Perthshire is, in fact, a historically exciting county. Here, indeed, the past can be studied at its earliest, as far as Scotland is concerned, better than most; for it so happened that into Perthshire, Strathearn in especial, came the early Christian missionaries of the Irish Celtic Church, via Iona, the Brethren of Columba, to set up their cells and churches in these lovely valleys. The greatest concentration of early Celtic Church sites are here; also a large number of those quite extraordinary Pictish sculptured stones, with their symbols, things of splendid beauty and workmanship, full of as yet unsolved mystery, which so give the lie to the folly that the Picts were a race of savages, painting their bodies and going about half naked. Quite clearly these Pictish ancestors of ours, whom the Celtic Church missionaries Christianised, were a highly developed and artistic people, with unique culture. Perthshire is where they can best be studied, probably.
Each town, village and parish of the county is dealt with hereafter in some detail. But perhaps some reference here to the ancient basic divisions would be appropriate and revealing. Menteith is the most southerly, a large area stretching from the Allan Water to Loch Lomond, including the Doune, Callander and Trossachs districts; and of course the parish of Port of Menteith itself and the Lake thereof--no significance about that appellation of lake, despite the nonsense talked by some about it being the only lake in Scotland. It was called Loch of Menteith until well into the last century. The early Celtic Earls of Menteith were a great force in Scotland, for their territory straddled the waist of the country, and, moreover, held the line between Highlands and Lowlands. Their principal castle was on the island of Inch Talla, in the Loch of Menteith, where they kept up princely state, with the Priory of Inchmahome on the next islet; but when Murdoch Stewart, Duke of Albany, James I's cousin, married the heiress in the early I5th century, he found the island-fortress inconvenient, and built a great new castle at Doune, which thereafter became the capital of Menteith. On his execution, for treason, James split up the earldom, as being too powerful for any one subject, giving Doune and the eastern part to another branch of the Stewarts--who still hold it--and the rest, with the earldom itself, to the Grahams. Certain descendants of the Grahams, also, are still landholders here, though the earldom itself was eventually suppressed by Charles I in shameful fashion. Menteith is half Highland, half Lowland, fertile, scenic, non-industrial, typical indeed of the county as a whole. Being within easy reach of Edinburgh and Glasgow, it is very and deservedly popular with the visitor who has not time to 'do all the Highlands properly'.
Strathearn is the next stratum of Perthshire northwards, and even larger. As the name implies, it comprises the very wide and fertile vale of the River Earn, from Lochearnhead right down to the river s confluence with the Tay estuary near Bridge of Earn, with all its feeder glens and flanking territories. Crieff is its largest town, with the more ancient Auchterarder, however, its capital. The sheer extent and rich fairness of this magnificent strath has to be seen to be appreciated--and nowhere is it better observed than from high on the north-facing Ochil Hills that separate it from the Forth plain, above Dunning or Forteviot. From one of the side-road summits up there, on a clear day, Strathearn is a splendid sight indeed, one of the finest in the land--although seldom remarked upon. Some two hundred square miles of Scotland's best is spread out below, great fields, rich pastures, ancient parkland, rolling woodlands, villages, castles and mansions innumerable, all flanking the noble, coiling river, and all contained within the vast bowl of the hills, the green Ochils to the south, the infinity of the Highland giants to the north.
All this splendid heritage was the domain of another line of Celtic earls. The Strathearn earldom, if slightly less strategically placed, was much richer than that of Menteith; and for the same reason, was finally incorporated into the Crown--so that, for instance, one of Queen Victoria's sons was Duke of Connaught and Strathearn. But the place was royal even before the earls, for this was Fortrenn, the Pictish kingdom, with its capital at Forteviot--in the parish church of which there are still sculptured stones dating from that early period. The famous Dupplin Cross near by, too, is one of the finest early Christian monuments in the country. At Forteviot was the palace of Angus MacFergus (A.D. 731--61) of St. Andrew's Cross fame, and a long succession of kings thereafter until Malcolm Canmore. Here died the great Kenneth MacAlpine who, conquering the Picts, finally united the Dalriadic Scots kingdom with that of the Picts to form the Scotland we know today. Perhaps, because of these royal origins, the Celtic Earls of Strathearn always styled themselves 'by the Indulgence of God'!
Gowrie is the next great division, and rather less easily delineated. Indeed, not everyone even in Perthshire could tell you what was in Gowrie and what was not. Many think of it merely as the Carse of Gowrie, that level plain between the Sidlaws and the Tay, between Perth and Dundee. But this is not to take into account Blairgowrie, many miles to the north; nor the Gowrie in the Stanley area; nor the fact that the seat and centre of the Earls of Gowrie was at Ruthven, north-west of Perth. The name merely means the Plain of the Wild Goats, which is not much help. In fact, Gowrie seems really to have been all eastern Perthshire, from the head of Strathmore and the flanking Grampians down to the Tay estuary, including the western Sidlaws. The city of Perth itself, therefore, is in Gowrie. Also the highly important areas, in previous ages, of Scone, Dunsinane and Inchtuthill--all of which indicates the enduring status of the area, from Roman times onwards, The great family of Ruthven dominated most of it, once, and in 1581 became Earls of Gowrie. The notorious Gowrie Conspiracy, one of the murkiest incidents in Scots history, is linked with their name--but they were the victims of it, not the perpetrators. That shame belongs to James VI, who, owing the young Earl 80,000 pounds, organised his murder, and that of his brother, at Perth in 1600; and six weeks later, to clear his own name, had the two dead bodies tried for treason in court at Edinburgh, himself attending. The Murrays of Tullibardine, who had aided the King in this sorry business, were rewarded with large sections of Gowrie, especially in the Stormonth or north-western area. Their representative, the Earl of Mansfield, still holds sway hereabouts from Scone Palace, his eldest son Lord Stormont.
The northern parts of Perthskire are divided between Breadalbane and Atholl, huge tracts both, and largely mountainside. Breadalbane is the more westerly, stretching from the edge of Argyll, at Strathfillan, Mamlorn and Moor of Rannoch right across the country to Glen Almond, Aberfeldy and Strathtay--braid Alban indeed, the very geographical centre of Scotland. It measures almost a thousand square miles, 33 by 31 miles, according to the gazetteer, and is basically the basin of the upper Tay, including the great Loch of that name and all the catchment area. Aberfeldy is sometimes claimed as its capital; certainly it is the largest town and only burgh. But Kuhn, at the other end of Loch Tay, has the better claim, as the original centre, where the Campbell lords had their main seat, at Finlarig Castle. Strangely, although the name is ancient and the area an entity from early times, there were no great Celtic earls or mormaers here. It was not until 1681 that the 11th Campbell of Glenorchy, having by then got rid of the MacGregors who anciently lorded it hereabouts, got himself created Earl of Breadalbane, and by peculiar means. His successors became almost the greatest landowners in Scotland, being able, at one time, to ride from the Atlantic shores to the North Sea on their own land--or so it is said. These territories include some of the most renowned scenery in the Central Highlands, from Glen Ogle to the Tarmachans, from Glen Dochart to Glen Lyon.
Finally there is great Atholl, another 500 square miles, celebrated in song and story--even for a special drink compounded of whisky, eggs and honey, called Atholl Brose--its duke the proud possessor of the only private army still left in these islands, The Atholl Highlanders. Everybody knows Dunkeld, Pitlochry, Killiecrankie and Blair Atholl, amongst the most popular tourist areas of the land. Not so well known, however, are the great stretches of Strathardle, of Tilt and Tarf and Edendon, of Errochty and Fincastle, of Craiganour and Talla Bheith, mainly far from roads. Atholl was always a semi-royal territory. Indeed it is claimed that there were once Kings of Atholl. But less misty is the fame of Madadh, grandson of King Duncan, Earl of Atholl, whose own grandson Henry, dying in 1210, left only a legitimate daughter--though his illegitimate son, Conon, was the forebear of the Robertsons of Clan Donnachaidh who, next to the earls, were the greatest landholders in Atholl. The Crown bestowed the earldom on one of the sons of Robert III, the second of the Stewart kings, and for long the Stewarts lorded it here. Then, in the early 17th century, the 2nd Murray Earl of Tullibardine married the Stewart heiress, and got Atholl--and have held it ever since, becoming marquises thereof in 1676 and dukes in 1703. Their castle at Blair is a treasure-house, one of the most magnificent in Scotland, with no fewer than 32 rooms, filled with objects of value and interest, open to the public.
The last of Atholl is the lumpish mountain, the Sow thereof, facing the Boar of Badenoch at the Pass of Drumochter, and thereafter we are in Inverness-shire. Perthshire therefore is more like half a dozen counties than one-- and even so, great semi-subdivisions such as Strathallan, Strathbraan, Strathardle, Rannoch, Glen Shee, Stormont and Mamlorn, have scarcely been mentioned, if at all.
Obviously this could not be an industrial county. But Perthshire contributes much to the national economy. Its farms are legion, and many of them in the southern half are rich indeed and highly productive. Fruit-growing, especially in Gowrie, is widespread and profitable. In the Highland parts hydro-electricity is developed on a huge scale--indeed it was here that the first schemes commenced, in the Grampian projects. Forestry has become an ever more important feature of the scene, and a very large area is now under commercial timber. And tourism, of course, flourishes here on a larger and more organised scale than anywhere else in Scotland.
Sir Walter Scott, that fervent Borderer, yet said: "If an intelligent stranger were asked to describe the most varied and most beautiful province in Scotland, it is probable that he would name the County of Perth." The present day visitor would find no fault with that statement.