Motorhome travel: Celebrating Burns Night in Scotland - a poetic campervan trip
Words and photos by Felicity Martin
The trip started as a night out. Andrew spotted a play that he thought we’d enjoy: The Ghosting of Rabbie Burns, about Scotland’s famous bard reappearing in the twenty-first century.
The venue was Birnam Arts, a community-owned centre in an attractive Highland Perthshire village. Birnam is a 30-mile drive away from our home if we take the direct route through glen and over hill, on roads that are often snowy and icy in late January. “But we’ve got a campervan,” Andrew reminds me. “We can go there early then spend the night nearby and come back in the light.”
Once the play is booked, and our first ever January trip in Stella, the campervan, committed to, my mind starts working. Why only one night away? It’s as easy to pack for three days as for one. And, if we extend the trip to that long, we could have our own Burns supper in the campervan on 25 January.
Then I remember that Burns had his own short trip to Highland Perthshire in 1787, when publication of his first book of poetry propelled him to celebrity status. Suddenly the great and good of Scotland wanted to wine and dine the ‘ploughman poet’ and he had invitations to stately homes all over the country. We could trace that journey and look at Perthshire’s beauty spots – several of which he wrote about – through his eyes.
From our home in Strathearn, in the west of Perthshire, we set off on a brilliantly sunny morning without a cloud in the sky. Admittedly, it’s minus seven degrees and there’s a dusting of snow on the ground, but that only makes it more beautiful.
Unlike us, Robert Burns travelled by pony. The first sight in Perthshire he noted in his diary was Ardoch Roman Fort, by Braco (not far off the modern A9). From there he would have used the military road built by General Wade about 50 years earlier to reach Crieff, the main town in Strathearn. Before continuing north, he took a side trip westwards, following the river; ‘a most romantically pleasant ride up Earn, by Ochtertyre & Comrie to Aberuchill’. We agree.
This is a good excuse to take our collie, Braan, for a walk along popular Lady Mary’s Walk, which runs along the River Earn from Crieff towards Comrie. Named after a beautiful daughter of Sir Patrick Murray of Ochtertyre, it has a beech avenue that’s old enough to have been here in Burns’ time. Despite the hordes of other dog walkers, I see goosanders and dippers on the fast-flowing river.
From Crieff, Burns’ route wound northwards through Highland Perthshire. My plan to trace it exactly is stymied by our need for LPG, as we will be relying on gas for keeping warm and cooking the haggis. There are no LPG pumps in Highland Perthshire and only one in Perth, so we head east to the city to fill up at the South Inch Filling Station before driving north up the A9.
It’s a glorious afternoon for a walk, with low winter sunshine sparkling on the frosted trees. Opposite Dunkeld (the town across the River Tay from Birnam), we turn into the Hermitage. Rather than stopping in the National Trust for Scotland’s car park we follow the dirt road to the Forestry and Land Scotland little Craigvinean car park, which has a handy information board showing walks.
It explains how the Duke of Atholl – one of Burns’ hosts – transformed the landscape by planting millions of European larch trees, a species which he introduced from the Alps.
Our circuit takes in Ossian’s Hall, a folly built by the Duke of Atholl to enhance the Hermitage’s woodland walks. The stone building offers the same surprise view as when Burns visited, with the sudden roar of water as we step out onto the balcony above the Black Linn Falls. Only today, the dark rocks are rimmed with white ice. As Burns noted, there is a picture inside of Ossian, the legendary Celtic bard, whose mythical life fascinated him.
Since Burns’ visit, giant Douglas firs, introduced from North America, have soared to great heights along the banks of the River Braan. After following the boulder-strewn river upstream, we walk uphill to a modern folly, built on the site of an old viewpoint. Pine Cone Point is only a few years old, but the armadillo-like wooden structure has become a favourite picnic spot, offering shelter and an unrivalled view up the Tay Valley.
Before heading to Birnam Arts for the play, we park in Birnam and walk across the old Telford bridge to Dunkeld to have dinner in the Atholl Arms Hotel. It is so dog friendly that the barman brings Braan a mat she can lie on instead of the hard, wooden floor.
Well fed, we return for the play. It proves to be an amusing combination of modern and traditional culture. The plot weaves in appropriate songs and poetry by Burns and finishes with the characters and audience singing 'Auld Lang Syne' together.
Birnam Hill before breakfast
Stella has been parked on the street in Birnam, so we need to move for the night. In Highland Perthshire campsites shut for the winter, so we head to a walkers’ car park in woods nearby. Another motorhome is already parked there, obviously with the same idea as us. Away from street lights, the sky sparkles with a myriad of stars, far more than are normally visible.
The next morning, we climb Birnam Hill, which Burns noted for its fine prospect down the Tay and across to the Craig a Barns hills. The higher we climb, the whiter the world becomes, the snow underfoot contrasting with dark winter trees. The landscape has changed little since Burns’ time, but the view must have looked quite different as he was here in late summer when the trees were in full leaf.
We’re particularly careful coming back down the steep, icy path – my brother will never let me forget that the one time I brought him here he slipped and broke a rib!
Burns made the climb early, then, over breakfast, was entertained by local fiddler, Niel Gow, who wrote many of Scotland’s favourite country dance tunes. The main purpose of Burns’ visit – apart from the pleasure of being fêted as the pop star of his day – was to collect fragments of songs and tunes for a series of books. So, he was delighted to meet this local musician and visited him at home to share their common interest. These days there is an annual Niel Gow Festival in Birnam.
Moving on, we drive up to Blair Atholl, where Burns stayed with the Duke of Atholl in Blair Castle. The Jacobite rebellions, which had only ended some 40 years previously, were by then a romantic memory. Burns sought out the standing stone where one of the Jacobite heroes, ‘Bonnie Dundee’ died after being wounded at the Battle of Killiecrankie. I follow his example, finding it in a field where it is marked on the OS map as Claverhouse’s Stone.
The Duke of Atholl took Burns for a walk around the Falls of Bruar, where, dismayed to see the bare slopes of the gorge, the poet wrote, 'The Humble Petition Of Bruar Water.' Written from the perspective of the river, he begs the duke to, ‘shade my banks wi' tow'ring trees, And bonie spreading bushes.’ His wish was granted and the walk I have always known here is under tall pines and firs.
However, as we walk uphill from the car park at the House of Bruar, I see that there has been extensive felling on the estate. Although the trees lining the gorge have been left standing, a desert of stumps and debris stretch to either side. No longer sheltered from the wind by woodland, a massive tree has blown into the gorge by the lower falls, spoiling the view of the natural rock arch there. I can’t help but feel that Rabbie would be aghast.
The House of Bruar, situated right beside the A9, is the sort of place where it is too easy to spend a lot of money on luxury clothing and household ornaments.
Our luxury is food, so the vast Food Hall is my destination after our walk. While there I ask if it’s OK to spend the night in the car park, which I have seen online that others do. I get an affirmative answer so we settle down by the dog walk, far enough from the main road to reduce traffic noise.
Birthday at the Birks of Aberfeldy
The next day we head back south then follow the River Tay upstream to Aberfeldy. It’s 25 January, the bard’s birthday, so we set off to wish him many happy returns. The wooded gorge above the town acquired its name after Burns visited and composed the song 'The Birks of Aberfeldy', while sitting on a rock ledge. Near the bottom of the gorge a life-size sculpture of Burns sits on a bench, notebook in hand. We’re not his only visitors today as two women arrive after us to take selfies with the poet.
Leaving him in their tender care we head on up through the birch trees to the Falls of Moness, where ‘The braes ascend like lofty wa's, The foaming stream deep-roaring fa’s.’ Again, ice lines the edges of the waterfall, making it even more spectacular.
In the afternoon we continue up the Tay another six miles to Kenmore, pausing at a layby shortly before the village to visit Croftmoraig Stone Circle. Burns was obviously impressed, because he records a detailed description in his diary of the ‘Druids temple’, with its three circles of stones.
At Kenmore we park in the wide main street by the archway entrance to Taymouth Castle, as the loch-side car park has a height barrier. It’s a short walk back to the long beach at the eastern end of Loch Tay, where the wind is blowing waves and driftwood onto the shore. After walking a circuit of the village, taking in the same scenes as Burns, we retire to the dog-friendly Kenmore Hotel.
Above the roaring log fire in the Poet's Bar, a sheet of glass protects a poem with the longest title I’ve ever come across: 'Verses Written With A Pencil Over the Chimney-piece in the Parlour of the Inn at Kenmore, Taymouth.' It’s one of my favourites as it captures the wild beauty of the area, describing views down the loch to Ben Lawers – Scotland’s tenth highest mountain – and the ‘infant’ River Tay flowing out of the loch under the striding arches of Kenmore Bridge, built in 1774.
From Kenmore it’s time to head back south, though not directly through Glen Quaich like Burns, as I don’t fancy the hairpin bends on that single-track road. Instead we return to Aberfeldy and take A-roads to Crieff, passing through the dramatic, steep-sided Sma’ Glen.
For our final dinner we steam the haggis we have brought, and enjoy it with the traditional accompaniments of mashed potato and swede (’neeps’ in Scotland).
Breaking open a bottle of malt whisky, Andrew recites Burns’ 'Address To A Haggis' and we toast the bard. Thanks Rabbie for giving us the idea to brighten the dark days of mid winter with a tour of the places that inspired you.