A Journey into Scotland Part 61
Perth: The Fair City
I know very little about Perth but sense something special about the town as I ride in. It feels important without ever explaining why. It’s a classy name. Clean and simple. It shares it with a much bigger city in Western Australia but somehow the Australia bit changes the entire timbre and connotation of the word. Perth Australia is an exciting place where over two million people live thousands of miles from anywhere, and is a moderately attractive name; Perth Scotland has fifty thousand residents, is 20 miles from Dundee, 40 miles from the centre of Edinburgh and is gorgeous sounding.
And yet I know nothing about it.
I rode in past Scone having been up to Dunsinane. It’s dripping with history. But then so is the rest of Scotland. The town feels regal in its own right, not regal as conferred by a palace where some or other royal slept, but handsome and worthy of respect. All the other large settlements in Scotland are well known to the English for the simple reason that, apart from Glasgow and Edinburgh, which everyone has heard of anyway, they all have a football team*. We know Kilmarnock and Stranraer, Dundee and Berwick because we’ve heard their names every Saturday evening since television began. Perth has its team, and a moderately successful team at that. But it takes the old name of the city: St John’s Toun, or St Johnstone. This doesn’t make the town unique. Several well known teams hide their location; East Fife is in the lesser known town (unless you are a Proclaimers fan) of Methil. Even in England the trend continues; Tranmere Rovers ground is in Birkenhead and Port Vale is hidden away in the potteries town of Burslem. It might make sense to disguise the names of Burslem, Birkenhead and Methil, none of which score heavily in terms of the sound of their names. Perth though is a stunning name. We should hear it more.
I never got to see much of the city. I did pass the football ground (the old one which has since been demolished: the new one, McDiarmid Park, was the first purpose built all-seater stadium in Britain) and crossed a bridge over the Tay and generally saw a solid and handsome town. I didn’t venture out in the evening, didn’t go to a shop. I pedalled in after everyone had settled to their tea and rode out before most had started breakfast. I regret this now but it wasn’t a tour of towns. I wanted to see Scottish landscape. To see rural Scotland. This was a tour of all the places I’d lived in the first twenty years of my life and I was basically a country boy. As far as actual towns were concerned I’d stopped in Ayr, Kilmacolm, Thurso and Inverness. Perth felt like a metropolis. After dallying on the northern bank of the Tay for the previous afternoon I had a sense of speed once again. I needed to get back home and the only way I could do that; and reach Malton and Huddersfield (two towns that had played important parts in my first quarter century); was to make close to a hundred miles each day and catch a train almost as soon as I reached West Yorkshire.
I haven’t been back since so that leaves the writer to do the diggings of research that will make my visit an educational one. Time to call up Wiki. I’ll stick to the famous people section. That usually tells us something significant about a town: Jeremy Clarkson comes from Doncaster; enough said.
Ann Gloag and Brian Souter come from Perth. They can either be regarded as successful business people or the people who killed off competition and diversity in bus and coach transport in Britain. Once you could tell where you were by the colour of the buses; Barrow Corporation, navy and cream, Wallasey, daffodil yellow. Huddersfield, pillar box red, Halifax, green and orange. Then Mrs Thatcher, in a spectacularly short-sighted attempt to curb the power of the Greater London Council, decreed that local authorities could not subsidise public transport and the wolves moved in. Services were cut, unprofitable routes abolished and two of Perth’s finest grew excessively rich. As a nation we’ve stopped finding fault with business people. You don’t have to look too hard to find fault with either of these. Of the two Souter is the more offensive. He has promoted homophobia and homophobic views but this didn’t stop him being awarded a knighthood. He sports the type of anachronistic facial hair designed to make him look manly but actually makes him look like he failed the audition for the Village People. So far my love of Perth hasn’t grown any.
Sir George Mathewson (another successful businessman, another knight of the realm) took a bank that had been a cornerstone of solid reliability for centuries and inflated it into one of the biggest in the world by a sequence of takeovers that were once regarded as bold and innovative and are now regarded as quasi-dishonest and the main reason for the huge banking crisis of 2008 which saw the Royal Bank of Scotland being bailed out by the British taxpayer to the tune of billions and the loss of hundreds of thousands of livelihoods. So well done him.
Ah well, an unreconstructed lefty like myself was never going to fall in love with people just because they were able to make huge piles of cash. Lets turn to literature.
Sir Walter Scott (another man who is harder to like for himself than for his works) wrote The Fair maid of Perth which gave the town its nickname. Neither William Soutar nor his near namesake Alexander Souter (it’s either a very common name on Tayside or a good one to have if you want to get an entry in Who’s Who) are not household names. Souter because he was a bible scholar and even students of theology would struggle to name five of these. Soutar because though he was a very good poet he was not one of the ten who satisfy the British media’s need for poets. The term “famous poet” refers to less British people than have attained the monarchy through murder.
The fourth writer from Perth is John Buchan and he makes up in fame and decency for all of the others. Not allowing the fact he wasn’t called Souter to hold him back, he went on to glory in the title of the First Baron Tweedsmuir, to acquire the title of Governor General of Canada and to become really well known as the author of The Thirty Nine Steps. It’s a fabulous book. He scores a bucketful of points for Perth.
Wikipedia has decided to bunch music, comedy, broadcasting and acting under the heading of “Media”. It begins with a founder member of a folk metal band which doesn’t count. Folk and Metal are bad enough on their own but to mix them seems to be a terrible crime against hearing. It doesn’t do much better with someone described as “an etiquette expert”. Do we really need such a thing? No points to Perth there.
Comedian Fred MacAulay is a native of the Fair City and he’s just about as delightful a comic as you can wish. He also seems to be a very nice man. If he’s on the panel of the News Quiz I listen and enjoy. He scores very highly.
On the other hand Gillian McKeith comes from Perth and cancels out all the points MacAulay has gained. Dara O”Briain chose her for his Room 101 with her “shrill, naggy little face” and representing all that Irish catholics thought protestants were like: “pale and miserable and giving out to you all the time”. I’m with O”Briain here.
Ewan McGregor is the superstar trump in the pack for Perth even though he was born down the road in Crieff. Surely McGregor can single handedly fly the flag on an international stage. You’d think so. Until that is, you start to go through his filmography and count up the good films he has made: Trainspotting, Shallow Grave, August Osage County and parts of A Life Less Ordinary and Brassed Off. Then you make a list of all the films he was awful in and you soon run out of paper: Little Voice, Star Wars, Black Hawk Down, A Million Ways to Die in the West, Emma, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, Rogue Trader (one of the very few films I had to walk out on, and I’m a naturally lazy person who doesn’t want to get up once I’ve got myself into a comfortable seat with an ice cream). He was the only bad thing in the otherwise excellent The Impossible, and the less said about Moulin Rouge the better. You might say his good films are good enough to excuse him the bad and I’d say fair enough. But then he makes that bloody awful series of programmes in which he and a friend travel around the world on huge motorbikes with a huge entourage of floppy haired men in Paul Smith shirts and talk about “how bloody difficult it is”. He was vaguely tolerable in this but only in comparison with the goggle eyed pile of pointlessness that was his mate; a friend he made at acting college (perhaps because he was the son of a famous film director). No I’m afraid Ewan McGregor doesn’t sell Perth to me at all.
To complete the list there are three winners of the Victoria Cross so that’s lots of points to Perth, some forgettable politicians and a handful of lower league footballers.
All in all, my brief stay in the city seems to have given me a more in-depth understanding of the place than I had first thought. I found it a smart and handsome town with some interesting architecture and a road at each end.
* Yes, I do know that Glasgow and Edinburgh have football teams. They’re quite well known.