Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Hidden Literary Gems Part 1: How A Search for Peter Rabbit Led to Dunkeld and Birnam in Scotland

Why are we smiling?

Because on our trip to Europe earlier this summer, we discovered the most delightful little treasures, two small Scottish towns with big literary connections, tucked along the banks of the beautiful Tay River.

The best part of this discovery is that we made it quite by accident. We were about an hour our of Edinburgh, driving north to Loch Ness, when I saw a roadside sign that said something about a Beatrix Potter exhibit. The sign went by so fast that I wasn’t even sure if it was at the next exit, but I talked my family into making the detour, just in case.

We pulled off the main road but saw no other signage for the exhibit, so we just kept going straight until we found ourselves crossing a gorgeous river and entering the picturesque little Scottish town of Dunkeld.

In this era of smartphones and GPS, we so rarely let ourselves get lost anymore, but on this trip we were essentially phoneless, so we did things the old fashioned way. After exploring the area briefly by car, we all agreed that this beautiful place deserved a closer look on foot, whether the exhibit we’d been seeking was here or not.

The Cathedral on the Riverbank

First stop was a rack of maps and brochures and other information right there next to the parking area. Taking a look, we learned some history of the town, including the fact that Dunkeld emerged as a center of Christianity in the 7th century and by the 9th century was the hub of the Celtic Church. In 1318, construction began on the magnificent Dunkeld Cathedral, and though it was partially destroyed in the reformation in 1560, it still stands today in a mix of ruins, which are preserved as an Ancient Monument of Historic Scotland, and a finished portion, which is used as a regular house of worship.

The public is welcome to wander the grounds, so we gave it a shot, heading along a wooded path until we emerged into a more open area and saw ahead a massive, gorgeous cathedral that looked like something out of a storybook. The grounds were just as beautiful, grassy and well maintained, sloping gently to the river. Truly, we could’ve spent a whole day there, just exploring the ruins, relishing the view of the water and the nearby Bridge at Dunkeld, and taking turns posing for pictures.

I won’t force you to look at all my vacation photos, haha, but here’s a quick slideshow of a few highlights from this particular pit stop…

Though we saw plenty of rabbits on the grounds of the cathedral, we had yet to track down the Beatrix Potter exhibit. We decided to ask about it in town, but on the way we learned that she wasn’t the only literary connection to this area.

The Surprising Author of Auld Lang Syne 

As we strolled back into town, we came across an adorable little house, bearing this sign on the fence out front.

Known both for the strength of his compositions and his gifts as a performer, Neil Gow was the most famous Scottish fiddler of the 18th century. (You can hear one of his most popular songs at this link.) Robert Burns was a Scottish poet and lyricist widely regarded as the national poet of Scotland. (You can read all of his works at this link.)

So what brought these two men together in Dunkeld? As it turns out, Robert Burns wasn’t just a poet but also a prolific songwriter. According to the Burns Encyclopedia, Neil Gow was “the best known of the Scots fiddle composers, from whose dance tunes Burns drew many of the airs for his songs.” 

I knew that Robert Burns had written A Red Red Rose, which includes these familiar lines:

O my Luve's like a red, red rose,
That's newly sprung in June:
O my Luve's like the melodie,
That's sweetly play'd in tune.

He also coined the phrase “the best laid plans of mice and men” in his poem To a Mouse, On Turning Her Up In Her Nest With The Plough (1785). What I didn’t know, however, was that Robert Burns also wrote the song Auld Lang Syne. Go figure!

Even Shakespeare was Here

Further in town, we took a break, stopping for coffee and treats in a local shop.

While there, we learned of yet another literary tie-in to this lovely region. Dunkeld and Birnam are situated in an area of Scotland known as Perthshire Big Tree Country, which is famous for its beauty—and its mention in William Shakespeare’s Macbeth.

In the play, the character of Macbeth is nervous about what the future holds, and so he seeks a prophecy from three witches. They tell him not to worry, that he won’t be vanquished until the forest storms his castle:

Macbeth shall never vanquish’d be until
Great Birnam Wood to high Dunsinane Hill
Shall come against him. (Act 4, Scene 1, p. 60)

Macbeth greets this news with tremendous relief, since he knows that a forest can’t move:

That will never be.
Who can impress the forest, bid the tree
Unfix his earth-bound root? Sweet bodements, good! (Act 4, Scene 1, p. 60)

Unfortunately for Macbeth, the witches’ prophecy comes true when his enemy sneaks up on him by hiding in the forest, obscured by limbs and leaves. When the attack finally comes, it is as if the trees themselves are storming the castle.

Apparently, Shakespeare found inspiration for the above during a visit to the area of Dunkeld and Birnam in 1599. He went there with a troupe of comedians who’d been sent to the region by Elizabeth I, in response to a request by King James VI for entertainers. Shakespeare wrote Macbeth seven years later, in 1606, and I have a feeling the idea of using such a strikingly beautiful location in one of his stories had been rolling around in his mind the whole time. I'm no Shakespeare, but that's certainly how my brain works!

As we strolled the lovely streets and shops of the town, I couldn’t help but think that I was walking where the great Shakespeare himself may once have trod. 

From Bard to Bunnies

Eventually, we asked a shopkeeper about “the Beatrix Potter thing” I’d seen on a road sign, and she directed us to the neighboring town of Birnam, just across the river. So back over the bridge we went, and soon we were winding along a charming country road, on our way at last to the exhibit we’d been searching for all along.

Come back next week to learn what we found and to see some more fun photos, including a close encounter with Peter Rabbit himself.

Do you ever miss the old days and how finding your way without the aid of GPS sometimes led to delightful discoveries? What fun place have you happened upon purely by accident?

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