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Travel: Adventures so near… and yet so fabulous in Dunkeld

Dunkeld House Hotel
Dunkeld House Hotel

This was never going to be an ordinary holiday.

Miles of bracing walks in the freshest of air, acres of very big, old trees, insights into the lives of Rabbie Burns and William Shakespeare, mouth-watering marmalade cake made by a telly baking show star and even an unexpected glimpse of the backstage world of a global hit TV series.

And all this and more from just one tiny Scots town with a population of 1287.

Yes, Dunkeld delivered.

Just 24 hours after the government gave us the green light to go on post-lockdown holidays and stay in hotels, we were off!

Last time we’d gone on holiday was in December 2019. That outbound journey was a 14-hour flight to Sri Lanka, notching up 6,000-plus miles and we stayed three weeks.

This time the journey was little more than 90 minutes from my Glasgow home, distance just 77 miles and our getaway only three nights.

Peter with the Robert Burns statue at the Birks of Aberfeldy

Venue for 2021’s first holiday was historic Dunkeld, in the heart of peaceful Perthshire. And it certainly impressed.

We’d booked a midweek stay in Dunkeld House Hotel, sitting amid 280 acres of beautiful countryside at the end of a mile-long driveway, with the River Tay meandering yards from its front door.

Simply reserving our room in their General Wades annexe left me giddy with excitement. We picked the annexe because we had Dexter, a four-legged friend, who’d also appreciate acres of riverside and forest walks on our doorstep.

Location wise, the hotel wins a big tick in the picturesque box. Facilities wise, it has a pool and spa – though we ran out of time to sample. After so much time cooped up, we opted for full-on external exploration.

For us, the hotel’s proximity to stunning countryside – and nearby towns and villages – meant it was the ideal base.

We’d booked the hotel’s half-board package, a key decision based on the appeal of getting dinner cooked and served up to us. After some 401 nights of having done that dinner prep for ourselves this was a tasty treat.

The food was very good, choice and quality wise – with a high percentage of Scottish produce. The restaurant staff seemed genuinely happy to be welcoming guests again after what had been a long, fallow winter. Pre-dinner drinks were taken seated by a fire-pit at the outside bar.

© Dougie Nicolson
The Birnam Oak

Day one centred in and around Dunkeld. We loved how Dunkeld and the adjacent town of Birnam adopted blue plaques to identify key historic buildings, including the impressive cathedral dating back to the 13th Century.

We learned of the ancient Birnam Oak – a centuries-old tree celebrated in William Shakespeare’s Macbeth. It’s believed the playwright visited the area in 1599.

Without the blue plaques we wouldn’t have known Queen Victoria stopped for lunch at Dunkeld’s Atholl Arms Hotel in 1844 with guns saluting from nearby Stanley Hill to mark her visit. Nor would we have known that, in 1787, Rabbie Burns entertained in The Old Rectory.

And later we discovered Rabbie’s links with the nearby town of Aberfeldy when we embarked on a beautiful 1.5-mile ramble up and around the Birks of Aberfeldy. Again thanks to more plaques, we discovered the story behind the Falls of Moness, a waterfall crashing 150 metres into the gorge below. This very beauty spot inspired Burns to write his song The Birks of Aberfeldy in 1787.

A visit to pretty St Fillans on the banks of beautiful Loch Earn took another half-day. We popped into the village store for tasty bacon rolls and home-made flapjacks for lunch on the go. We also explored the old railway line walk which gave us a bird’s-eye view of the village and its surroundings.

Back at the hotel that night we discovered the cast and crew of the hit TV series Outlander were staying – ahead of filming in some remote forest clearing. They created quite the buzz.

One of the other tastiest moments was a visit to Dunkeld’s Aran Bakery where Great British Bake-Off semi-finalist Flora Shedden plies her tasty trade. Her marmalade cake was a sliced sensation.

After, walking through the town, I spotted a greetings card on sale, depicting the main street with the word Dunkeld printed across it. The D was replaced by an F…spelling out “Funkeld”.

We couldn’t have described the destination better…

P.S. Sometimes known as the Gateway to the Highlands, the name Dunkeld comes from Gaelic: Dùn Chailleann, meaning “fort of the Caledonians”.

Factfile: We stayed at the Dunkeld House Hotel where a three-night Highland Escape package costs from £169 per person.

Check the latest government guidance on travel during the pandemic before booking and travelling