TALL trees, ancient woods, soaring waterfalls and wide views make Perthshire Big Tree Country a superb destination for an active outdoors weekend.
In spring, the area is particularly colourful, with sparkling lochs reflecting fresh green foliage, and swaths of bluebells catching the eye.
From Perth to Blair Atholl, Crieff to Blairgowrie, there are many great places for walking, cycling and wildlife watching.
Depending on your energy levels, you can chose a day-long outing or a gentle meander through the trees – get your pulse racing or just sit and enjoy a tranquil picnic.
Centuries of careful woodland management in this area have created, and preserved, some of the finest woods and trees in Britain.
That tradition is being continued by the Perthshire Big Tree Country Heritage and Access Project which, over the past three years, has improved access and interpretation at more than 60 woodland sites throughout Perthshire.
The £1.9million project received Heritage Lottery funding and support from several partners, including Forestry Commission Scotland.
Scotland’s first forestry experiments took place at Drummond Hill, whose wooded slopes provide a fine backdrop to Kenmore and Loch Tay.
The local laird, Sir Duncan Campbell, planted it in the early 17th century. A hundred years later, his successor reintroduced the capercaillie to the pine-topped hill, following the bird’s extinction in Scotland through over-hunting and loss of habitat.
These days, Forestry Commission Scotland manages the wood, which has waymarked walks and mountain-biking trails, plus the spectacular Black Rock viewpoint.
The landowners who really proved the commercial and landscape value of forestry were the “planting” Dukes of Atholl.
During the 18th and 19th centuries, they planted some 27million conifers on Atholl estates. The majority of these were larch, which they proved would grow exceedingly well in Perthshire soils and climate.
The Dukes’ legacy can be seen across great stretches of Highland Perthshire, from Dunkeld to Blair Atholl. You can wander among many of the trees they planted, for instance at the Hermitage, by Dunkeld, which was one of their woodland pleasure grounds with walks and follies.
Similarly, the Falls of Bruar have enchanted visitors for more than 200 years. The fourth Duke planted the gorge with trees in response to a poetic plea by Robert Burns, who saw the beauty spot when only bare rock surrounded the waterfalls.
Perthshire landowners became particularly keen on planting trees just as the new world was being opened up by exploration. When local lairds heard that new species of enormous size were being discovered in north America, they sponsored tree-hunting expeditions, keen to acquire them for their own policy woodlands.
Among those involved in such searches were Archibald Menzies and David Douglas. Menzies grew up near Aberfeldy and worked in the gardens at Castle Menzies, while Douglas came from Scone and did an apprenticeship in the palace gardens.
It was only natural, then, that the finds from their explorations were first planted out on Perthshire estates.
Scone Palace’s pinetum and Diana’s Grove at Blair Castle are living memorials to the endeavours of these plant hunters. Both contain record-breaking conifers, whose soaring trunks create a cathedral-like atmosphere.
As well as planted forests, many ancient woods have survived in Perthshire.
In the past, the Comrie oakwoods were protected because of the value of their bark for tannin and wood for charcoal. These days, they are a site of special scientific interest because of their rich biodiversity.
Local walks, such as the Glen Lednock circuit, are a good way to see the plant and animal life they support.
The Black Wood of Rannoch is another famous ancient wood, one of the most southerly remnants of the great Caledonian pine forest.
It is an ideal habitat for pine marten, red squirrel and Scottish crossbill. Forestry Commission Scotland has waymarked three walks from the Carie picnic site on the south Loch Rannoch road.
Perthshire Big Tree Country is home to more than its fair share of Scotland’s Heritage Trees.
By far the oldest is the Fortingall yew, which is estimated at between 3,000 and 9,000 years old. In 1769, records show it had a girth of 17 metres (56.5ft), although the trunk has now fractured into a number of relics and new offspring.
Another remarkable sight is the Meikelour Beech Hedge – the tallest in the world – which grows beside the A93 south of Blairgowrie. In spring, young leaves cover this massive “green wall”, which stretches for 530 metres (1,738ft) and has an average height of 30 metres (100ft).
Perthshire Big Tree Country is a walker’s paradise, with miles of tracks and paths. Blairgowrie, Pitlochry, Dunkeld and Birnam, Crieff and Comrie all have walk networks where you’ll find a choice of routes through lovely spring woodlands.
Forestry Commission Scotland has created walks through six of the woods that make up Tay Forest Park, for instance Faskally wood, where two easy trails (one wheelchair and pushchair accessible) circuit Loch Dunmore. Leaflets are available locally for all these walks.
Cyclists will find an equally rich variety of routes. National Cycle Routes 7 and 77 run through Perthshire and both have attractive off-road sections. Brilliant places for mountain biking include Craigvinean Forest near Dunkeld, Griffin Forest between Dunkeld and Aberfeldy, and the Atholl glens.
Perthshire is home to some of Scotland’s finest waterfalls and viewpoints, most of which can be reached by short but energetic walks. The Birks of Aberfeldy, the Falls of Acharn and Blackspout at Pitlochry are all high cascades enhanced by their woodland setting. For picture postcard views, climb Kinnoull Hill and the Knock of Crieff, or stroll to Queen’s View beside the Tay Forest Park Visitor Centre.
Through the spring, summer and autumn there are dozens of outdoor events around Perthshire Big Tree Country, including guided woodland walks, wildlife watching trips and Land Rover safaris. They are listed in the Perthshire Big Tree Country Events 2008 guide, available at Perthshire Tourist Information Centres or Queen’s View Visitor Centre.
Details of Big Tree Country sites are on www.perthshirebigtree country.co.uk and further Forestry Commission Scotland sites are at www.forestry.gov.uk.
For things to see and do, and special short-break offers on a superb range of accommodation, see www.perthshire.co.uk or phone VisitScotland Perthshire on 01738 450600.
IF YOU DO ONE THING THIS WEEKEND...
Visit Dunkeld and Birnam, which lie at the heart of Perthshire Big Tree Country and have outdoor attractions to suit all ages and abilities.
Wander down to the banks of the River Tay to see the Birnam Oak, a relic of the Birnam Wood made famous by Shakespeare’s Macbeth.
Nearby, the Beatrix Potter Garden celebrates the characters that the author dreamed up on her childhood holidays to the area.
Walks on the Birnam side of the river can take you to the Hermitage and Craigvinean, which are red squirrel hotspots, up Birnam Hill for the view or along the riverbank to Neil Gow’s Oak, which is named after a famous local fiddler.
Across the water in Dunkeld, the Parent Larch, which produced seed for the woods planted by the Dukes of Atholl, stands behind Dunkeld Cathedral.
To see more grand trees, explore the adjacent Hilton Dunkeld House Hotel grounds. National Cycle Route 7 follows the riverbank path here.
Walks from Dunkeld include the Fungarth Walk to Loch of the Lowes, where you can watch nesting ospreys and feeding red squirrels, and the Loch Ordie trails, where roe and fallow deer are often seen.