The Scottish rival to California that offers the perfect autumn escape

·7-min read
Perthshire, Scotland - Getty
Perthshire, Scotland - Getty

It’s called Big Tree Country for a reason but you’ll find it in Scotland rather than America’s West Coast. Standing proudly within 200,000 acres of woodlands draped across Perthshire and Kinross are more champion trees than any other county in the UK. And as the days shorten, the county is among the most spectacular – and least heralded – places to watch the season’s autumnal grip slowly squeeze the green from countless millions of leaves, draining them to their embers, leaving behind a collage of reds, bronzes, scarlets, purples and yellows.

From Dunkeld to Blair Atholl, Scone Palace to Pitlochry, the great ornamental beauty of this Land of Giants has inspired poets, legends and tales of witchcraft. Perthshire’s woodlands are set among broad fertile valleys, dotted with waterfalls, and home to red squirrels and far-reaching views from summits. “You are just awestruck by the beauty of the trees in autumn, when you get both mist and sun,” says Christopher Dingwall, chairman of Scottish Gardens and Landscape History.

Some remnants of older Caledonian forest remain but what you see today was shaped by dukes with time on their hands and the money to commission plant hunters and establish private collections of pinetums or ‘American Gardens’. They made the most of a mild climate in the valleys that run from the Highlands to the Tay, sheltered from incoming deluges from Argyll, and by the Grampians from some of the coldest weather delivered by the north. Modest snow cover further allowed species from America and Japan to take root.

Among the prime movers were the 3rd and 4th Dukes of Atholl and their peers that created the 18th- and 19th-century legacy the casual walker can enjoy today. Out went the native Scots pine and the oak. In their place, the dukes and other landowners busied themselves with planting larch, sitka spruce, limes, western hemlock, beech, sessile oaks, horse chestnuts and ornamental species such as copper beech to provide autumn colour. These were augmented by birches, aspen, rowans, goat willows, bird cherries, junipers and hollies, while alders were planted to dip their roots along the banks of burns.

“It wasn’t just about making money,” says Dingwall, “wealthy landowners liked to show off by having bigger specimens than their neighbours.”

More than 200 years later, the legacy is a gorgeous collage of leaf colour that continues well into the winter. While most deciduous trees in Perthshire lose their leaves by the end of October, they are first interspersed with and then give way to the winter greenery of the conifers.

The trees may be the main event but wildlife here too is magnificent. Red deer were naturally woodland animals before deforestation across the moors of much of Britain and you have every chance of hearing the guttural roar of the rut under the canopy in autumn. Birds are abundant and you will see great and coal tits, siskins, woodpeckers, wrens and – with luck – the Scottish crossbill, Scotland’s only endemic bird.

The main woodlands of interest can be loosely grouped into seven geographic areas. Most plantings are sited close to estate houses and it’s also worth noting that several estates, such as Blair Atholl, Dunkeld and Pitlochry are accessible from the railway line that runs from Edinburgh to Perth and north to Inverness.

The Birks of Aberfeldy - Getty Images/iStockphoto
The Birks of Aberfeldy - Getty Images/iStockphoto

The Birks of Aberfeldy – for red squirrels and Europe’s oldest tree

‘Birks’ is Scots for birch trees, and a beautiful birch woodland cloaks the flanks of the Moness Gorge north of town. A natural seat overlooks the gorge and a walk there along zig-zags and footbridges takes in the Falls of Moness and follows the footsteps of Robert Burns who was inspired by the spectacle to pen his poem The Birks of Aberfeldy.

Nearby, Cluny House Gardens (clunyhousegardens.com) offers excellent red squirrel spotting and is home to Britain’s widest tree, a 130-year-old giant redwood with a girth of more than 11 metres. To the west of Aberfeldy stands the creaking Fortingall Yew. At some 3,000 years old this is thought to be the oldest tree in Europe. A thoroughly debunked myth claims that Pontius Pilate played under it as a child (though the Romans did occupy this part of Scotland).

Blair Atholl – for red deer and Burns connections

The tallest Japanese larch and red fir in Britain can be found at Diana’s Grove within the grounds of Blair Castle. Laid out in the 18th century, the estate features woodland, a ruined kirk and a red deer park. A circular woodland walk to the Falls of Bruar climbs through a gorge to two stone bridges that offer fantastic views of the falls. Burns pops up here again: he petitioned the Duke of Atholl for the falls to be surrounded with “lofty firs and ashes cool”. A grand avenue of 18th-century lime trees leads to the castle itself.

Landscape of Highland Perthshire looking over Blair Atholl and Blair Castle - Getty Images/iStockphoto
Landscape of Highland Perthshire looking over Blair Atholl and Blair Castle - Getty Images/iStockphoto

Crieff and Strathearn – for riverside strolls and tales of witches

Autumn is the perfect time for a peaceful stroll beside the picturesque River Earn beneath a stunning canopy of mature oak, beech, lime and sweet chestnut. Another woodland hike takes in the Knock, the wooded hill above Crieff. You’ll pass Kate McNiven’s Crag, named for an unfortunate 17th-century woman convicted of witchcraft and summarily rolled down the rocky slope in a barrel.

Dunkeld and Birnam – for Shakespeare connections and the world’s tallest hedge

Birnam wood is intertwined with Shakespeare, for this is the wood where Malcolm’s soldiers cut branches to disguise their attack on Macbeth at Dunsinane. A gorgeously medieval looking sessile oak – its lower branches rest wearily on crutches and its trunk is hollow – is said, falsely, to be a sole survivor from the 11th-century events dramatised by the bard.

In Craigvinean you can walk to Pine Cone Point where the Duke of Atholl allegedly used a cannon to scatter seeds onto the inaccessible Craig a’ Barns cliffs in the 18th century.

East of Dunkeld it’s really worth inspecting the  planted in 1746 by troops headed north for the Battle of Culloden. , it resembles a green tidal wave and is officially the world’s tallest and longest hedge.

Meikleour Beech Hedge, Perthshire, Scotland - Heritage Images/Getty Images
Meikleour Beech Hedge, Perthshire, Scotland - Heritage Images/Getty Images

Perth and Scone – for giant redwoods and city views

The grounds of Scone Palace were once the workplace of plant collector David Douglas and support a monumentally huge Douglas fir raised from the original seed he sent back from America in 1827. The grounds constitute Scotland’s original pinetum and is home to several other giant redwoods and Noble Firs planted in the 1850s. Kinnoull Hill Woodland Park is entwined with Perth and comprises miles of waymarked nature trails and a summit overlooking the city.

Pitlochry – for fine views and an enchanted forest

Perthshire’s best-known view is also one of the most famous in Scotland – the Queen’s View (named for the wife of Robert the Bruce), which offers dreamy views  (walkhighlands.co.uk/perthshire/queens-view.shtml) west across Loch Tummel to Schiehallion. Every October Faskally Woods, just outside Pitlochry, becomes home to the annual Enchanted Forest event – Scotland’s premier sound and light show.

The Queens View, Loch Tummel, Perthshire - Universal Images Group via Getty Images
The Queens View, Loch Tummel, Perthshire - Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Rannoch – for ancient woodland and lochside rambles

The southern shores of Loch Rannoch (to the west of Loch Tummel) offer forest trails through glades of mature Scots pines and cinematic views of the loch as well as the Black Wood of Rannoch - one of the finest and largest remaining examples of ancient Caledonian forests in Scotland. The magnificent Caledonian Scots pine trees here grow for about 250-300 years and are referred to as ‘granny pines’.

Where to stay

Dunkeld House Hotel (dunkeldhousehotel.co.uk): luxurious accommodation in the former home of the Dukes of Atholl. The grounds are home to seven champion trees.

Loch Rannoch Hotel, Kinloch Rannoch (lochrannochhotel.com): recently renovated hotel on the banks of Loch Rannoch and combining swish modern decor and original Victorian features.

Pitilie Pods, Aberfeldy (pitiliepods.com): comfortable log cabin pods with hot tub and stunning valley and mountain views.

Further information

See Perth and Kinross Countryside Trust (pkct.org) and National Tree Collections of Scotland (ntcs.org.uk).

Where do you think is the best place to witness the arrival of autumn? Please let us know in the comments below