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Perth Feature Spread

Perth's 800th Birthday Party

King William the Lion of Scotland made Perth a Royal Burgh 800 years ago,
and to the town's proud residents, that's cause for celebration.

BY KEITH AITKEN

The "Fair City" actually isn't. Well, that's only half right. Perth, which has long styled itself the "Fair City," is in many respects very fair, indeed. But it is not a city — not, at any rate, at the time of writing. Like a Royal Burgh, which Perth assuredly is, a city can only be so designated by the Sovereign. Perth is discreetly hoping (which is monarchist code for "lobbying like the very blazes to ensure") that Her Majesty follows recent similar gracious bestowals on Stirling and Inverness, and chooses this year to make Perth the city that most Scots have always assumed it to be. Why this year in particular? Because 2010 sees Perth engaged in a flamboyant yearlong series of events, from concerts to curling and horse trials to historical re-enactments, to celebrate its 800th birthday. Specifically, it is the anniversary of the signing of Perth's Royal Burgh Charter on October 12, 1210 (that's 12/10/1210, as we write dates on this side of the Atlantic. Have fun, numerologists). Organisers hope to be able to announce, as the high-point of the party, that Her Majesty has positively reviewed Perth's credentials as a true Fair City and decided that 800 years is long enough to languish as a mere burgh.

In the meantime, there is nothing to stop the rest of us reviewing them for ourselves. It is no straightforward task. Even for someone like me, who has been visiting regularly since childhood, Perth can seem an oddly unknowable place. Approached from the south, over the crest of the Gask Ridge, once the northern frontier of the Roman Empire, Perth presents as comely a prospect as any town in Britain, nestling serenely in a great sweep of that most majestic river, the Tay. Only the unfortunate prominence of its large prison in the foreground comes close to spoiling the effect. But then, Perth is always doing that to you. Paradoxes abound. It has some truly fabulous buildings, yet all too often they are jumbled in with something miserably incongruous that you need to airbrush mentally from the image. It has famous schools, but no distinguished bookshop. It sits at the heart of a great shire that is a Scottish byword for old and slightly stuffy wealth and has in recent years snared more than its share of well-paid new jobs in financial services and energy industries, reflected in some stylish new restaurants. Yet it also has pockets of poverty as stark, pubs as menacing, peripheral housing estates as bleak, as any in more obviously deprived Dundee or Glasgow.

If it is hard to get to know, though, it is also worth the effort. The upside of paradox is the capacity constantly to surprise, and Perth has that capacity in abundance. Convinced that I knew the place pretty well, I went on a walking tour for purposes of this article with an old friend from these parts, and found that I knew it hardly at all. How many of us know, for example, that Perth has a rich stock of Georgian buildings, second only to Edinburgh's New Town? Or that it is the municipal owner of a peerless collection of pictures by the great Scottish colourist, J. D. Fergusson? Or that the Perth branch of the clothes store Marks & Spencer stands where once the Scottish Parliament met? Or that what most people think of as a landlocked place has a working harbour and the salty remnants of a lively seafaring tradition? Or that the Tay, so stately in its flow, is both tidal and periodically volatile, and has unleashed successive devastating floods, most recently in 1993 (high water marks are recorded on a pillar of Smeaton's Bridge). This is a town of surprises, of contradictions, of contrasts. Therein lies its fascination and, as you dig deeper, its undoubted charm.

The full text of this article is available in the Summer 2010 issue of Scottish Life.

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Photos: © Chris Robson / VisitScotland / Scottish Viewpoint