Views of the medieval ruins of Dunkeld Cathedral
Saint Ninian's Church belongs to the Diocese of Dunkeld, a part of Scotland steeped in history. The medieval town of Dunkeld is set on the banks of the river Tay in the heart of Perthshire's 'Big Tree' country, surrounded by hills and beautiful countryside and forests. The road from Dundee to Dunkeld is lined at a certain point by the tallest beech hedge in the world. In 1809 a stone bridge designed by Thomas Telford was built over the Tay at Dunkeld, joining the town with the small town of Birnam on the opposite bank.
Dunkeld is thought to date back to the sixth century when a monastery was founded beside the River Tay. Today, the semi-ruined medieval cathedral of Dunkeld stands in wooded park land, close to River Tay. Once the centre of religious administration in the area, the church was surrounded by the homes of the clergy, their servants and church workers, and the town of Dunkeld itself. Following the Dissolution of the Monasteries and then the Battle of Dunkeld in 1689, the immediate surrounding land was acquired by the Earls of Athol, and turned into the extensive park it is today.
The original monastery was certainly established by 849, when the relics of St. Columba were brought here from the island of Iona by the first King of Scotland Kenneth MacAlpin. Dunkeld then became the centre of ecclesiastical organisation in Scotland, a position it held until St. Andrews replaced it sometime before the mid-tenth century. The Abbots of Dunkeld were important and significant clergymen in the medieval church. Two of them were killed in battle and one was married to the king's daughter. Abbots in these times were not purely spiritual leaders of course, since the Church had become a powerful political and economic institution.
A few remains of the early church of Dunkeld are still there today, notably certain carved stones, including the so-called 'Apostles Stone', which depicts a large group of figures and beasts. In the eleventh and twelfth centuries the Church underwent a sort of renewal in structure and organisation. A Bishop was appointed at Dunkeld in place of the Abbot in 1114. The chronicles of the medieval bishops show them to be a group of very different sorts of men, with some very colourful histories. Some were 'worldly' men, deeply involved in the politics of their time, and some were deeply spiritual. At least one was exiled, another poisoned, and several played an important part in the building of the church we see today.
At one time the area that Dunkeld's bishop was responsible for stretched all the way to the east coast, to include such outposts as the island of Incholm Priory, where a community of Augustinians was established. The services held at Dunkeld were regulated according to monastic rules derived from those followed at Salisbury Cathedral, far away in southern England.
Dunkeld's cathedral church was built to a simple plan, with a narrow presbytery for the monks services a the east end and a larger arcaded nave at the western end. The bottom stones of the eastern limb date from the mid and late thirteenth century, with later building on top dating from the early part of the fourteenth century. The nave was begun in 1406 and consecrated for worship in 1464. A two storey chapter house was built in the fifteenth century on the north side of the presbytery and this now houses the Apostles Stone and other items of the cathedral's history. At the west end, a tower was also added around this time. The Presbytery is still in use as the parish church, whereas the nave is roofless and ruined.
The town of Dunkeld was burnt to the ground in 1689 during The Battle of Dunkeld between the Jacobite forces from Dundee and the local garrison of the Cameronians. From the remaining ashes, the picturesque Little Houses were built in the early 1700's. These were restored in the 1950s to provide homes for local people, and are now in the hands of The National Trust for Scotland.
The town of Birnam across the River is smaller than Dunkeld. Birnam Wood, however, was made famous by Shakespeare as the location of the final battle between Malcolm and Macbeth. The ancient Birnam Oak is just a few hundred metres from the centre of Birnam and is reputedly the last remaining oak of Birnam Wood. Historians believe that the wood was indeed used as camouflage for Malcolm's army before the battle at Dunsinane with MacBeth about 900 years ago. We cannot be sure this ancient oak was part of Birnam Wood at the time of the battle but the romantic possibility remains.
present town grew up only after the coming of the railway in 1856. The
area was a favourite holiday location for the Victorians, and one famous
visitor, Beatrix Potter is said to have been inspired to write her tales
of Peter Rabbit while walking in the countryside on her visits to the
Dunkeld and Birnam area. Birnam still has a very good Beatrix Potter museum.