As Perthshire is known as Big Tree Country you might expect that an autumn break in the area would be spent largely in its very enchanting forests. And, of course, a visit to the Enchanted Forest. You’d be right; our short stay in the Dunkeld area earlier this week involved sitting inside an ancient oak tree, gazing up at one of the tallest trees in the country and visiting the magically illuminated Faskally Woods.
We decided to spend a couple of nights away during the first week of the October holidays and choose Perthshire because I adore this area in autumn and it’s only an hour’s drive away. Although it wasn’t as restful as I’d have hoped (with both the littles under the weather one after the other), we really enjoyed the change of scene. We were in Dunkeld by 11.30am on the Monday and headed straight for a bite to eat. I love Dunkeld; it’s such a charming, pretty little town, nested into the River Tay. We ate at Spill the Beans, on the left not too far from Dunkeld Cathedral, and I would have loved to take the wee ones next door to paint some pottery if we’d had more time (I do love a hand print mug or two).
We headed instead for Birnam in search of the ancient Birnam Oak, thought to be around 500 years old and a survivor of Shakespeare’s ‘Great Birnam Wood’ in Macbeth. (I added it to our list of things to do after stumbling across this lovely TotstoTravel post a few weeks ago). We walked from Birnam, which was a good distance for Isaac to walk, but you can also follow the path from Dunkeld. (We parked on the High Street, follow the green sign just opposite the Birnam Arts Centre).
As always the woodland was an antidote to tiredness and I drank in the peacefulness of the short walk. Isaac ran ahead, looking out for the ‘big old tree’. It’s lovely that they have signs at tall trees along the way that you might mistake for the Birnam Oak. And how wonderful she is when you eventually find her. Tots2Travel described the tree as an old lady, and it is a fitting analogy: gnarled and oh so elderly, and hanging onto canes for support. A tree right out of a storybook; a Lord of the Rings tree; a tree you might expect to scoop you up with one of in its huge branches and offer some words of wisdom. A truly marvellous tree, with a hollow centre for hiding in.
We walked back to the centre of Birnam and into the Beatrix Potter Garden. There are iron-wrought statues dotted around the garden, Isaac set off in search of them. We found a fox and a fish but Isaac was slightly distraught by the rabbit family – “Which one is Peter?!” he demanded. It is a really lovely place to walk, particularly lit in the shades of autumn. We went inside the Birnam Arts Centre for a cup of tea and cake, and a browse in the shop. We didn’t venture into the Beatrix Potter Exhibition this time, but I’d love to go back.
We had booked two nights in a self-catering cottage just outside Dunkeld and close to the Hermitage. Kennacoil is a lovely base for exploring the area, perched on a hill overlooking the rolling countryside, just up from the Rumbling Bridge. We were in the one bedroom cottage apartment but there is also a three bed farm cottage and three wigwams set against the hill (Craiglaggan, which was also the name of our cottage). One thing I really liked when I came across their website is that they advertise their prices per night (£65 per night for Craiglaggan, minimum two night stay).
Gemma, the owner, was very welcoming and there was even a bottle of wine chilling in the fridge for us, plus tea bags, milk and a little bottle of olive oil – lovely little touches. For our stage of family life this modern, bright holiday home was ideal, with plenty of space for two littles and two adults. We all slept in the same room, Isaac in a single bed and Flora in a travel cot. Everything was modern and clean and lovely. The decor was simple but with beautiful finishing touches, such as Harris tweed cushions and blankets on the beds.
The view from the living area is stunning, with a table and chairs just outside the patio doors on a lovely little decking area (next time I’m leaving the littles at home and parking myself here with a G&T). The wee ones saw some pheasants charging and flapping around in the surrounding fields, and Isaac and James played frisbee on the grassy area near the wigwams. I just soaked up the view. It is just an idyllic spot and we will definitely be back.
The Scottish quota of October sunshine must have been used up by our stay in Perthshire, as the weather changed on our second day following a longish spell of beautiful weather. Luckily it wasn’t too wet and we donned our waterproofs and set off towards Aberfeldy in search of red deer. As we parked at Highland Safaris (just outside Aberfeldy in the rather amusingly named Dull – twinned with Boring in the States) and pondered how long to let Flora nap, Isaac’s eyebrows shot up when we suddenly heard a bellowing and spotted a stag in a fenced area close to the car park.
We were there for the Red Deer and Barn Owl Experience but there are lots of other activities on offer here, as well as land rover, biking and walking safaris. There are three group sessions a day in the Red Deer Barn – 10am, 12 and 2pm – (and only one at 12 from November to March) which last just under an hour. We booked onto the 12 o’clock session and spent some time browsing the shop before having an early lunch in the cafe (loved the food, absolutely delicious – and the waitress was really helpful and friendly). As it had dried up a bit the littles also had a play outside in an area with tractors.
Our kilted Safari Ranger, Tony, was fantastic. Before feeding the Red Deer you are taken into the Red Deer Barn to find out more about these magnificent animals. It was great that the wee ones were able to touch and hold the antlers, and Isaac was really interested in Tony’s talk – trying to guess how long it took for them to grow (they fall off annually but Tony showed us a large set that took a mere three months to grow). Tony was really good with the littles, happy for Flora to wander around and didn’t mind as she dragged antlers from under the table, grabbed his kilt and said ‘No!’ whilst he was speaking…
Isaac was too scared to feed the deer, saying he’d need his gardening gloves before he’d put his hand out towards the deer’s mouth! But he did enjoy seeing them close up. Flora was mesmerised. Apparently the session before ours had witnessed some deer rutting but we only heard lots of bellowing from the father and son.
After feeding the deer it was time to meet the resident Barn Owl, Ossian. This was the highlight for the littles, they were absolutely transfixed by the owl. It was amazing to see him at close range and watch him flying back and forth, and Flora looked puzzled as to why we’d told her owls ‘twit-twoo’ as this owl squawked. The whole visit was wonderful and I’d highly recommend it.
The afternoon was brighter and luckily it stayed dry for our visit to the Enchanted Forest, near Pitlochry (an award-winning light and sound show). We have been before and loved it, but I particularly loved that it was a bit more interactive this year. We didn’t make it around the whole event as both Flora and Isaac were feeling under the weather and were tired so we had to cut it short. We got the 6.45pm bus from the Fishers Hotel in Pitlochry and the 8.30pm bus back, and what we saw we really enjoyed.
They both absolutely loved a section with dangling lights and chiming sounds, and the Storytelling Yurt (which costs £1 for adults and over 3s). I very much enjoyed my mulled wine and lentil soup, and just loved watching their little faces as they took in the different sounds and light displays. Isaac, my sensitive little soul, was a bit unsure at times, holding my hand when he felt a bit scared.
As we waited in the queue for the bus back I could see the display at the side of the loch we’d been unable to get to and suddenly the lights turned into a bird that soared through the air. It looked amazing and I’m pretty sure we missed the highlight of the show! Such is life with littles…
We finished our Perthshire stay on the Wednesday with a morning walk in the Hermitage. Managed by the National Trust for Scotland the Hermitage is home to some extremely tall Douglas Firs and one of the country’s tallest trees. This is the first time I’ve walked here in autumn and what a joy it is with the carpet of leaves and beautiful yellow hues. It is a good distance from the car park to the Black Linn waterfall for wee ones and just another lovely, peaceful place to walk.
After a long night ping-ponging between my children I again found the sounds and smells of the woodland restorative. For someone who finds such comfort in woodland walks and forest forays there is nothing better than a break in Big Tree Country.