Places of Interest, The Hermitage

By James Irvine Robertson

T

he lack of tree cover was a repeated complaint of the early travellers to Scotland. The old Caledonian pine forest had retreated to a few isolated pockets, driven from the hilltops by climate change and from the straths by mankind. The woodland that now clothes the hillsides north of Dunkeld was first planted by the 4th duke of Atholl at the end of the eighteenth century. The larch was brought to Scotland by William Menzies of Culdares, near Fortingall, in 1742. He presented a few seedlings to the duke who passed them on to a gardener to try in the extensive hot houses at Dunkeld House. Prince Charles Edward Stuart sampled his first pineapple in September 1745 grown in these same gardens.

The larches languished until they were turfed outdoors as being unworthy of further consideration. Whereupon they waxed mighty. When sometime later some Japanese larches were planted nearby, an observant forester noticed that some of the seedlings round about were crosses between the Japanese and European varieties. This hybrid became one of the most important commercial softwood timber trees. It has an unfortunate habit of growing like a corkscrew on good land but in the thin, acid soil of much of the Highlands it develops very well.

The climate and soil of Perthshire produce superb trees, both deciduous and coniferous, At the National Trust's Hermitage there are record specimens of both larch and Douglas Fir, named after one of Perthshire's sons who first collected it. The larches are offspring of the parent larches, those original seedlings released into the wild. The last of these still survives behind Dunkeld cathedral.

John Murray was son of Prince Charles's great general Lord George Murray. The second duke was without a son of his own and John was the heir. During the '45 he was safely out of trouble at Eton and wrote rather unctuous letters to his uncle expressing suitable dismay at his father's activities. John married the duke's daughter and in 1757 landscaped the grounds by the falls of the Braan and built Ossian's Hall as a little surprise for his father-in-law. The duke professed to be properly charmed and astonished by it all when he was taken there for a Sunday afternoon stroll.

The building contained a chandelier and its walls were lined with mirrors reflecting the falls of turbulent river which was intended to make the visitor feel he was sitting in their midst. Wordsworth took a look and 'Recoiled into the Wilderness', for the effect seems to have been excruciatingly kitsch. In 1869, during the campaign to abolish the toll levied by the duke on the bridge at Dunkeld, some aesthete blew up the building. It was restored to be more in keeping with its surroundings. As at the Falls of Acharn above Loch Tay, the Victorian visitor to the Hermitage should have been greeted by a resident hermit whose dank rock chamber a little way upstream of the falls would have generated much sympathy and many tips but the only applicant for the job was trying to escape his wife and family and was deemed unsuitable.