The City of Perth sits at one the great junctions of Scotland; where roads from the Highlands and northeast converge with highways heading north from industrial Glasgow and the capital, Edinburgh; it’s a pivotal point. Additionally, its location on the River Tay at the lowest natural crossing point, and also where the tide reaches far enough inland to permit a viable harbour, has meant that since time immemorial it has been an important settlement and key in the development of the nation. The original village was been built on a small, low mound rising above the frequently submerged floodplain and close to a good crossing point. The name ‘Perth’ itself is of Pictish origin and means a thicket of wood, suggesting other natural resources at hand – wood for fires and buildings, plus wild game, mushrooms and berries in abundance.
By the time the Romans came past around 2000 years ago, there was probably a small village on the site, with a degree of farmland around the main centre, with more extensive cultivation leading along Strathearn and up the Tay to Strathmore. A Roman road, running along a ridge above the River Earn reached the Tay about four miles north of the current city centre, and crossed the river by way of a wooden bridge; and then continues north along the edge of the Highlands at least as far as Stracathro in Angus. There is little physical evidence that the locals traded with the Romans, but considering the amount of grain the army would have needed, and Perth’s locale on the navigable Tay, it would be likely.
Throughout the so-called Dark Ages Perth played a key role in the formation of Scotland due its position and harbour in the breadbasket of the emerging kingdom; a fact compounded by the rise of nearby Scone as the coronation site. Scone sits right at the point where the Tay becomes tidal, which suggests an ancient religious connection, which it took forward into Christian times; Perth it seems developed into a symbiotic market town. By the 12th century it had become one of Scotland’s key trading centres, and during the reign of David I it received a charter as a Royal Burgh. David I introduced the feudal system into Scotland, based on the English model, and the burgh system gave the country an economic boost; enriching the Crown at the same time. It meant that Perth now had specific trade privileges and controlled the markets of a wide hinterland.
In the middle ages the king and his court moved around their residences, but Perth was the principal seat or capital; even after the royal castle was washed away in a major flooding of the river in 1209 – not until the assassination of James I in 1437 did the ‘capital’ move to the safety of Edinburgh Castle. Like Edinburgh, Perth was not a major religious centre, but the townsfolk have long had a close affinity to their parish church. From early times, there has been a kirk dedicated to St John the Baptist and throughout the medieval period Perth was known as St Johnstoun (reflected in the name of the local football team today – St Johnstone); while ‘Perth’ itself was given over to the greater area around the town (again, reflected today in the term ‘Perth Landward’).
Unlike many other towns in medieval Scotland, Perth was poorly defended; but in the long running wars with England in the 14th century Edward III took the city and built substantial defences around it – attempting to make it an English enclave; in much the same way as in Dublin. It didn’t last, and although nothing now remains of the old city wall, the mill lade stream traces the outline, and many of the street names give hints to an older layout to the place. In the 1440s a new, elegant and rather imposing Church of St John was built in the heart of the market area, and much of the modern street alignment goes back to this time – although, the focus of a bridge over the Tay was also an important element in town planning. It was here in the Kirk that John Knox gave his famous impassioned sermon in 1559, launching the Scottish Reformation.
In the years following the Union of Crowns in 1603, Perth like the rest of the country suffered its fair share strife during the many civil wars of the 17th century; and as an important city it was no coincidence that Oliver Cromwell built a substantial fort here as part of his move to control Scotland following his successful invasion in 1650. The fort was located on the South Inch, one of the main city parks today. Prior to the invasion the Scots had crowned Charles II king at Scone, the last time there was a coronation in Scotland, and perhaps this was part of Cromwell’s motivation as well. But, Perth has always been a trading town, a place of commerce, and while key to the machinations of state, crown and kirk; it’s really a story about the merchants who made the city rich. Many of the buildings, especially around the parks are an elegant display of the wealth that was being generated.
Following the Treaty of Union in 1707 which saw England’s American and Caribbean colonies and markets open up to Scottish merchants, trade in Britain shifted to the west coast. Glasgow became the principal port of the kingdom, and east coast ports had to find a new niche to occupy. Dundee became the great Juteopolis, weaving the world’s jute; and Perth became a city famous for her cattle markets, whisky production, linen making, dyeing, and in time became a major railway town. With the railways came tourists, and with the majesty of the Highlands on its doorstep it was a natural stopping point. As the roads of the 19th century improved following the First World War, and more people had cars, large numbers of holiday-makers headed north, following the A9 to Perth before carrying on to the hills beyond.
Today, the engineering, the whisky, the dye factories and the cattle are all but gone; trains halt for only a few minutes, and the A9 and A90 highways now by-pass the city altogether. Still, Perth has been about services too – the insurance company General Accident was founded here, and the parent company still retains a presence, there are plenty of good small enterprises, and as a county town many public service jobs. And, the town remains a vibrant commercial and trading centre, much as it has always been over the last two thousand years and all the changes that have come and gone in between; and that in essence is the story of Perth then, now and into the future.
This article was written by David McNicoll, who runs Vacation Scotland; a travel company specialising in tours and packages to Scotland. For more information on their services – www.vacationscotland.biz