"Macbeth shall never vanquish’d be until
Great Birnam wood to high Dunsinane hill
Shall come against him."
Macbeth, Act 4 Sc. 1
Within half an hour's drive from Perth in either direction, lie the two hills immortalised by Shakespeare in his "Scottish Play". It was the surprising fulfilment of the strange prophecy (above), that finally led to Macbeth's undoing, if my memories of English Literature classes a quarter-of-a-century ago serve me correctly!
Our six year old daughter (sometimes known as Doris), is remarkably insightful. As we dropped the kids off at school on Friday she said, "You're going to have a lovely day without kids aren't you!?!" Indeed we were; the weather forecast was great, the rucksack was packed and a return visit to Birnam Hill was planned.
Birnam Hill itself is delightful. Although a small hill, its wooded slopes above Dunkeld and Birnam Station are steep - and require some effort to climb at a good speed in hot weather, but the hill provides fine views in every direction. At the top of the steep ascent section, as the path flattens out to wind its way along the broad tree-lined ridge to the summit, there is a rocky outcrop. From here there is a particularly fine view down to Dunkeld and its' elegant Telford Bridge built in 1802 (top picture). Likewise the views to the North and West feature some of Perthshire's most well-known peaks such as Ben Vrackie, Beinn a Ghlo and Scheihallion (above).
The only disappointment we encountered -on an otherwise idyllic short walk, was the effect that the "path upgrade" work has had on the hill itself. Firstly, unnecessary sign-posts have sprung up all over the hill (that's what maps are for!) while secondly many of the hill's lovely footpaths have been destroyed by the addition of unsightly bulldozed tracks, which is a great shame.
To be honest, in a couple of places I was actually grateful for the new tracks. There used to be two hollows on the summit-ridge which after rainfall became quagmires which were unpleasant to cross. Walkers used to pile felled logs and brushwood on the path in order to limit the extent to which their boots disappeared beneath the oozing black sludge. These sections now have drainage and re-enforced tracks crossing them!
The bulldozed track on the ascent from Dunkeld is though, another story. The steep ascent path which provided a direct assault on Birnam Hill's Eastern side, was unrelentingly steep - but visually delightful. It was an ancient, foot-worn path through the woods where regular breaks in the green canopy would provide ever-widening views as height was gained. I was horrified to see what had been done to this path. In the place of the little footpath we found a broad bulldozed track. While the original path had been remarkably straight, this new eyesore zig-zags up the hill - carving its mechanised brutal ugliness all over the face of the natural landscape. Unlike the bog-crossings further up, this appeared to be work that didn't need to be done, which has been completed with little sensitivity to the natural beauty of the hillside. I dread to think how much it cost! Birnam Hill never felt like 'Wild Country' by any means, nevertheless this further taming of the hill was most unwelcome and rather disappointing.
A few years ago when tracks were built all over Kinnoull Hill, they looked a bit grim. Thankfully, it wasn't long before nature began to reclaim them - and they started to blend back in with the woods around them. No doubt, a few years of wind and rain will mellow the harsh and lines of these new paths on Birnam Hill; while seasonal coverings of leaves and snow will further minimise their visual-shock.
The view from the top of Birnam Hill remains utterly delightful. In every direction gentle Perthshire lowland farming gives way to first to forestry and then grand High-level mountains. On Friday, The Big County was laid out before us like a map, as it basked in bright, clear sunlight and sweated in intense humidity. Unfortunately, we didn't have time to go on beyond the summit, and descend the other side of the hill by the Quarry to make our walk circular. We had to get back to Perth for the school pick-up and so we returned via the bulldozed track above the station. However, as little 'Doris' had predicted we did indeed have a "lovely day without kids!"