A Journey into Scotland Part 60
Dunkeld to Perth
“Whose woods these are I think I know”* The words are in my head as I scan the stands of trees that rise above one of Scotland’s greatest rivers. I’ve lost my desire to sprint away from the Highlands. It feels like I’m somewhere. Somewhere I’ve never been and somewhere I may never get the chance to be again. I’m taken by the trees. They’re fine trees and worthy of anyone’s time to look at. All trees repay looking a thousand times over. But that isn’t why I’m entranced. Some of these trees, and I’m not sure which, are Birnam Wood, which makes them just about the most famous trees in the world.
I’m cycling along the A9 near Dunkeld. The glorious river is the Tay. Mountains have given way to rich farmland. I’m in an altogether different Scotland. But as in every square inch of this magnificent country, the history; either factual or myth; is close to the surface. I’m also heartily sick of cycling along this carriageway. It’s moving me quickly south. It’s defied nature by being almost exclusively downhill for many miles but I didn’t come here to keep company with lorries and cars. I didn’t give up a month to stare at a vast acreage of tarmacadam with some fields on either side. The noise of the road has hypnotised me; every sucking draft from thundering trucks has whitened my knuckles. I could do with a powerful river to sit by, a ruined cathedral would be nice, perhaps a site of a famous story or two. And I need an excuse to get off this road. I couldn’t have come to a better place.
If you are one of those who cannot decide whether you like your ancient church buildings in ruins or in use then Dunkeld is the very place to help make up your mind. Like Bolton Abbey and St Mary’s in Scarborough you get the best of both worlds. There is a fully functioning church to sit in and reflect and there is a glorious ruin that evokes the past in a way that only ruins can. There’s also a grassy lawn and the broad sweeping stream of the Tay. St Columba was buried here (until his remains were taken to Ireland during the Reformation). There’s been a place of worship on this site for longer than there has been a nation. It’s a good place to break a journey and contemplate whether or not you are on the right road.
“Oh yes. That’s Birnam Wood.” says an elderly man with a bent stem pipe. “Can you see it moving?”
All woods move: Especially in October. I had no idea until today that Birnam was a real place. Students of The Scottish Play will be with me, but for those who can’t remember, let me jog your memories.
Macbeth was a real king of Scotland. He reigned from 1040 until his death in 1057. Historical accounts (and here I’m reliant on memories of long-ago watched documentaries, some half forgotten teaching resources and the BBC History page) tend to suggest that he “ruled equably, imposing law and order and encouraging Christianity.” Shakespeare wasn’t a man to allow historical fact to get in the way of a decent villain. He had Macbeth come to the throne after having it foretold by three witches on a stormy and barren heath. He helps the prophesy come true by murdering King Duncan (leading to an ongoing debate as to whether or not the witches could see into the future or whether they helped create the future through making Macbeth (and his feisty wife) believe what they were being told). Once established as king he becomes uncomfortable that the witches foretold that his friend Banquo would be “father to a line of kings”. He again puts faith in the accuracy of prophesy and feels instant resentment at have committed murder only for the long term benefit of the Banquos. So he has Banquo killed but his son Fleance escapes. Macbeth goes off to find the witches again to “make assurance double sure”.
They once again “look into the seeds of time” and give him three reasons to be cheerful. First he must be on his guard against Macduff. He sends an assassination (a word Shakespeare seems to have coined) squad to Macduff’s castle and, finding him out, murders his wife and children. Secondly, that Macbeth can “Laugh to scorn the power of man for none of woman born shall harm Macbeth”. And thirdly (things come in threes in The Scottish Play) that “Macbeth shall never vanquished be until Great Birnam Wood to high Dunsinane Hill Shall come against him”.
In other words if he keeps a close watch on Macduff then the impossible will have to happen twice to cause him any bother. Of course it is all a trick to encourage the growth of hubris. The impossible doesn’t happen but the unforeseen does. Macduff is not of woman born (He’d been delivered by cesarean section which is something of a tenuous claim to not being born of a woman) and branches of Birnham Wood are cut down and used to camouflage the number of soldiers approaching to do battle with Macbeth. Again rather tenuous. Macbeth sees a forest moving. It’s hard to see an army carrying bushy twigs looking like trees marching in number.
Be that as it may. These were the very trees. Well, a thousand years on maybe not the very same. But, the very wood. I ask my interlocutor where High Dunsinane is expecting him to say that it only existed in the fertile imagination of the master playwright.
“Oh, that’s over towards Perth. Near a village by the name of Collace. You can get there if you take the 923 and turn right at Coupar Angus. Oh, you’re on a bicycle. It’s not such a bad ride.”
I thought of fastening a bit of twiggy oak to my fleece but thought this might appear to be a little close to battlefield re-enactment. I wear spectacles and people who wear these look bloody stupid when dressed as medieval knights or besieging roundheads. Actually I’d go further and consign battlefield re-enactors into Room 101 alongside people who go on skiing holidays, disc jockeys and amateur lycra-clad cyclists in wraparound sunglasses. (I may be losing my readership here. Still a bloody good rant’s a bloody good rant!)
And so I made my way to Perth via quieter roads. The A923 gave way to country lanes and eventually the twin peaks of the ancient fortress of Dunsinane. Malcolm Canmore did indeed defeat Macbeth here but the old fox again defied Shakespeare by surviving the battle and living (and indeed ruling in a diminished manner) for another three years. The road then leads me into the city of Perth via the Palace of Scone. Macbeth had come here to be crowned upon being named successor. My journey had also followed the steps of another who sought the Scottish crown by force. Bonnie Prince Charlie didn’t come to Scone to be crowned when he had almost complete command of Scotland. There are historians who say that if he had done so then Scottish history may have been very different.
In the hostel at Perth an older couple are making an evening meal. They ask about my day and we’re well into a discussion of Columba, Charles Edward Stuart and Macbeth when she notices I’m making myself some toasted cheese.
“Oh it’s a lang auld time sin I had a bit a roasted cheese,” she chimes and soon history and geography are forgotten as we enter a world of favourite snacks and meals. We both agree that “roasted cheese” as she calls it, is the finest of all the simple meals and I share mine with them and they share spaghetti bolognaise with me.
*From Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening by Robert Frost