The Highland villages of Dunkeld and Birnam, which are neighbouring villages in the heart of Perthshire, are charming places to stop and explore, or you can stay here and use them as a base to discover the rest of beautiful Perthshire. There are so many lovely things to do in Dunkeld, Birnam and the surrounding area that it’s the perfect spot to spend a few days, eating in the fantastic cafes, doing some shopping in the wide range of independent shops, and taking strolls down by the river.
The two villages are situated on either side of the River Tay and are connected by a picturesque bridge which was built in 1809 by Thomas Telford. Thomas Telford not only designed a huge amount of bridges all over the U.K. but also constructed the Caledonian Canal. The villages are around 15 miles north of Perth, just off the main A9 road into the Highlands.
This village guide will tell you everything you need to know about Dunkeld and Birnam so you can make the most of your trip. Find the best things to do in Dunkeld, a little bit of history, what the village is like today, how to get there, Dunkeld weather and the best restaurants, cafes and shops.
A wee bit of history
The name Dunkeld comes from the Scots Gaelic ‘Dùn Chailleann’ meaning Fort of the Caledonians, presumably because of the Hill fort nearby, this means there has been a presence here as far back as the Iron Ages. The original village is thought to have been created by the King of the Picts, Caustantin son of Fergus in 820.
Most of the original village was destroyed during the Battle of Dunkeld in 1689 when 5000 Jacobites, hyped up after their victory in the Battle of Killiecrankie, came to the town with the intention of pushing back the Scottish government forces. After 12 hours of fighting, most of the town was burning and the last stand took place by the Cathedral, you can still see musket holes in the walls today. The neighbouring village of Birnam is smaller in size and has more of a Victorian feel.
What's the villages like today
The village of Dunkeld was rebuilt and the National Trust for Scotland played a large part, by restoring several houses around The Cross, the market place with the wonderful Gothic Atholl Memorial Fountain in the centre. This old part of town is lovely to explore, little lanes lead off the Main Street to access the gardens of these pretty whitewashed cottages. Some of the lanes lead down to the banks of the River Tay. On the left side of the street, the road leads back to the Cathedral and the oldest house in the village, The Old Rectory, where Poet Robert Burns entertained in 1787.
The main road through Dunkeld was built when the bridge was built in 1809 and has some stunning Georgian architecture. Before the bridge was built the river had to be crossed by ferry.
The villages are in Perthshire, known as Big Tree Country. Find out more about this beautiful region and what there is to explore, including castles, distilleries, lochs, mountains and outdoor activities here.
If you are just driving through (although I highly recommend spending time here) and you are wondering what to do in Dunkeld then head to the Cathedral. Known fondly as Scotland's most romantic Cathedral this beautiful structure began life in 850AD when it became the religious centre of Scotland. St Columba's relics were brought here from the Isle of Iona as the number of attacks on the west coast by Vikings was increasing. The construction of the Cathedral took place in stages from 1260-1501 and is influenced by Gothic and Norman styles. The Choir is the oldest part, dating from 1350 and although it has been restored you can still find some of the original red stone in the east gable.
Dunkeld Cathedral has survived two attempted destructions. The first was during The Reformation when anything related to the Papacy was destroyed and the second was during the bloody Battle of Dunkeld.
The east end of the Cathedral is a beautiful Parish Church which is used today as a place of worship for locals and visitors. The west end is a roofless ruin with a thick grass carpet, there is also a Bell Tower and Chapter House, which holds a museum displaying the history of the Cathedral and it's people as well as an Apostle Stone from the 800's and cross slab from the same period. Now run by Historic Scotland the west end is currently under scaffolding as part of a large renovation project, stabilising the stonework, but you can still explore the outside.
The choir has received several renovations over the years. The stunning Great East Window was gifted, in 1908, by Sir Donald Currie of Garth and Glen Lyon and in it you'll spot St Columba addressing his followers. In the church, you can also see the tomb of the 'Wolf of Badenoch' Alexander Stewart, 1st Earl of Buchan.
Visitors and children are welcome to attend any of the services and children are given little activity packs with bible stories, crayons and colouring pages. The church and service are Presbyterian in style. The Cathedral is free to enter.
10 Cathedral Street,
Birnam Arts Centre
This unique building is a multi-purpose arts centre and entertainment venue. There are regular concerts of all types including folk music, fiddlers and Scottish bands. Upstairs there is an ever-changing art exhibition and you may even get the chance to take part in a workshop or two. Potter's Junction gift shop has amazing little gifts to take home and the Foyer Cafe serves good coffee and home baked cakes and scones along with delicious breakfasts and light lunches. What's lovely about the arts centre as it's such a comfortable space, it's the heart of the Birnam community and a wonderful place to visit, especially if you are travelling with the kids as there is something pretty special inside...
Beatrix Potter Exhibition
This is just the cutest little gem you'll find. A whole exhibition dedicated to the lovable characters created by Beatrix Potter. Although born in London Beatrix Potter spend every summer from the age of 5 to 15 to a cottage near the centre and it was here, away from the strict upbringing she received in London, she could be free to run in the fields and explore in the fresh air. It was also here she met local postman Charles Macintosh who taught her about fauna and flora and also fungi which turned into a lifelong passion. The letters she wrote while she was here are thought to be the first drafts of her famous stories 'The Tale of Peter Rabbit' and 'The Tale of Jeremy Fisher'. You can find some of the old letters in the wonderful exhibition where the kids can dress up, put on a puppet show, play shop and explore a Victorian classroom. Outside the kids can hunt for the characters in the delightful gardens.
Loch of the Lowes
The Loch of the Lowes Visitor Centre and Wildlife Reserve cover 98 hectares of land 2 miles northeast of the village. The star attraction is undoubtedly the pair of breeding Ospreys who return to the nest to breed from early April to late August. They nest just 150 metres from the hide and there are telescopes and binoculars available to watch them up close. All year round you can spot red squirrels, wildfowl and other wildlife such as beavers, otters and pine martens. Birds to spot include Wood Warblers, Spotted Flycatcher, Wrens and Bullfinches. There is an observation window to see the birds feeding nearby, viewing hides and a childen's hide, named the 'Duckling Den'. There is also a shop with lots of wildlife-themed gifts and books. If you want to see the Ospreys before you arrive you can watch the reserve's fantastic webcam here
Dunkeld Heritage Walk
A nice way to learn more about the history of the villages is to follow the blue plaques on the walls on the buildings which point out interesting facts. You'll see them dotted around as you explore. Pick up a map from local shops and hunt out the 34 plaques on buildings such as the Old Jail at Telford Bridge and the Old Rectory. Dunkeld is the perfect little village to explore as it is compact and everything is within easy walking distance.
One of the most popular things to do in Dunkeld and Birnam is to visit the Birnam Oak. This famous Sessile Oak can be reached by following the brown tourist sign from the centre of the village, along Oak Road. Along the way there are some humorous signs, placed to help confused tree hunters, such as "It's not me, I'm a Sycamore' and 'Not me either, keep going...'. Once you do find the oak there is no mistaking it, the circumference is 24 feet! Fans of Shakespeare will remember the Birnam Woods as the ones which struck fear into the heart of Macbeth.
'Macbeth shall never vanquish'd be until
Great Birnam Woods to high Dunsinane Hill
shall come against him'
The prophecy of the three witches did indeed come true when the advancing army, coming for Macbeth, camouflaged themselves with the leaves and branches of the trees in Birnam Woods.
The nearby Birnam Sycamore is thought to be over 300 years old, so significantly 'younger' than the Oak but even bigger with a circumference of 25 feet. Both trees have branches which are gnarled and twisted and they look eerily medieval. You can find out more about them and how to find them in the tourist information centre in the west of the village.
This adorable painting studio and quirky shop is on Cathedral Street and is perfect if you have little ones who don't quite appreciated the beautiful architecture and history of Dunkeld. They can paint all sorts of things such as mugs, plates, fairies, dinosaurs and even little Highland cows and sheep. Adults can have a go too and there is no need to book unless it's a party of more than 5. Just pop in and choose what you want to paint then while away an hour or two relaxing and painting to your heart's content. If it's a decorative item you can take it away when you are finished, if it's an item which will need to be washed such as a plate or mug you can leave it and they will phone when it's ready or if you are passing through they can post it out to you. These little trinkets make a brilliant gift or souvenir of your trip to Scotland to take home. Going Pottie is family run by the lovely Julie and Laurence Hunt and inside you'll also find the Jaggedy Thistle, an amazing little shop selling quirky and unique gifts including MacGnome, the original Scottish Gnome!
2 Cathedral Street,
Dunkeld House Tree Trail
The mighty trees you find throughout Perthshire, and who gave the area its 'Big tree country' nickname, are thanks to the Dukes of Atholl who planted 27 million conifers in the area between 1738 - 1830. They lived at Dunkeld House and today visitors can explore the gardens which are home to some of the world's rarest conifers, including the 18 trees included in the trail. The team at Dunkeld House works with the Royal Botanic Gardens in Edinburgh to collect seedlings from across the world, from trees which are near extinction, to give them a happy home in Dunkeld and give visitors of the future a glimpse at trees they might never have been able to see otherwise. The gardens are free to explore and you can also get a cuppa or enjoy an afternoon tea in the hotel bar and lounge.
Dunkeld House Estate,
There are so many incredible walks near Dunkeld and Birnam and the whole region is so pretty it would be a shame not to get out and have a stroll. The Atholl Woods Path leaves from the Cally Car Park and circles the coniferous Atholl Woods, taking in two wee lochs, the Mill Dam with stunning views and Craig a Barns which is a popular climbing spot. The route is around 6 1/2 miles long. The Birnam Riverside Path is another circular route, this time along the banks of the River Tay with lovely views of the Cathedral, under the Telford Bridge and past the famous Birnam Oak and it's around 3 1/2 miles long. The Loch of the Lowes Path is 4 3/4 miles long and explores the area around the wildlife reserve and the Birnam Hill Path climbs 1,200 feet to the summit of King's Seat for wonderful views over Perthshire. For more information about walks in the area click here.
If you'd prefer to hire some bikes Progression Bikes in St Ninians Wynd hire out all kinds of bikes, from kids bikes (or a trailer if they are too wee), adult bikes, electric bikes and full suspension bikes for the more serious riders. You can also hire out any equipment like helmets and pads if you need them. The team are happy to recommend lots of suitable routes to match your ability. The bikes can be hired for anything from a half day to multiple days.
2 St Ninian's Wynd,
Another option, if you are feeling adventurous, is to take to the Perthshire hills in a quad bike. Highland Offroad will take you a one hour adventure, first on their assault course filled with cobbles, steep hillsides and camelback humps, then into the open hills and forest. This is a thrilling way to spend the afternoon and an exciting way to explore the scenic surroundings.
Land Rover Experience
There is no shortage of transport options in Dunkeld is there? Walking, bikes or quad bikes not for you? What about a Land Rover? Choose from an hour-long tester session, a half day tour or a full day tour and experience some crazy off-road driving over bridge crossings, up and down steep inclines, through deep water, across rocks and even attempt a cave drop.
This enchanting walk along the River Braan, among some of the tallest trees in Britain, the Douglas Firs, takes you to the mighty and impressive Black Linn Waterfalls. The crashing waves tumbling over the rocks and down into the frothy pools below make an almighty thundering noise as you watch from the romantic folly above. Ossian's Hall was built in 1757 as a focal point to admire the beautiful surroundings, which were created as a playground for the Dukes of Atholl in the 18th century. The area is looked after by the National Trust for Scotland and the car park nearby, where you can begin the walk, costs £2 unless you are a member.
How to get to Dunkeld
By car - From Edinburgh take the M90 towards Perth, then the A9 towards Stirling and Crainlarich at junction 10. From there Dunkeld is signposted and the route takes around 1hr 14mins.
By train - You can catch a train from Edinburgh Waverley to Dunkeld, changing at Perth. The journey takes around 2hr 15mins.
By bus - The bus from Edinburgh to Dunkeld takes around 2hr 15mins. Stagecoach, Citylink and Megabus all run to Birnam (for Dunkeld).
With an average temperature of 14-16º in the summer and 2-3º in the winter, there aren't generally any extreme temperatures in Perthshire. The coldest months tend to be December, January and February and the warmest? June, July and August. It's warmer in Perthshire with less extreme weather than further up north so if you like more even temperatures Perthshire is perfect. You are unlikely to ever encounter scorching weather although it has been known, occasionally. What you'll almost definitely encounter though is rain, although, again, you might. The weather, like the rest of Scotland, is famously indecisive and unpredictable. My advice? Pack wisely.
Restaurants in Dunkeld
There are some amazing restaurants in Dunkeld so you won't need to go far for a good meal. Howie's Bistro serves breakfasts such as smashed avocado on toast and Dunkeld Salmon and scrambled eggs, light lunches of soup, paninis, salads, sharing plates and classic Scottish dishes such as fish and chips and steak and ale pie. Their evening menu gets rave reviews too. The Perth Arms is the oldest trading pub in Dunkeld and is also a popular choice as it The Taybank, The Meeting Place and The Darjeeling. The Chattan Tearoom in Birnam and The Foyer Cafe inside the Birnum Arts Centre are a good choice for a nice lunch and if you fancy a traditional takeaway fish and chips the Dunkeld Fishbar is perfect. The Scottish Deli specialises in excellent quality local foods and also has a cafe and takeaway service.
Shopping in Dunkeld is always a pleasure, there are so many high-quality independent shops so you can choose the perfect, unique gifts and souvenirs. A local butchers, bakers, deli and wine store means if you don't want to eat out you can have a pretty delicious meal at your accommodation.
I highly recommend adding Dunkeld and Birnam to your Scotland Itinerary. I love this village, it's classy, extremely pretty and the locals are fab.
Map of Dunkeld