Community, Castles & Chocolate#29
By Lesley Fuller
This blog follows a very similar theme to Graham’s last blog “What Stays in Las Vegas #28” which highlighted his love of Scotland.
I recently spent a few days travelling around Perthshire and was particularly struck by the quality and variety of visitor experiences offered by this “big county” – the 4th largest historic county in Scotland.
Perthshire almost doesn’t need to try too hard, given its natural grandeur, encompassing rich agricultural land, lochs, glens, castles and large areas of woodland and forest which turn the county into glorious russet, amber and gold in the autumn. But it does not rest on its laurels, and businesses and communities make a strong effort to enhance the experience of residents and visitors alike.
So, in no particular order, let me take you on a whistle-stop tour of Perthshire.
Killin was a favourite of my late father’s when he was fishing on the River Tay. Located at the western end of Loch Tay, the Falls of Dochart can be viewed from the village’s bridge. Passing by in late afternoon, the area was busy with tourists admiring and photographing the swirling waters.
Now let me take you to Pitlochry Festival Theatre – the theatre in the hills – an enterprising charity, attracting over 100,000 people each year. Each summer season, PFT produce and perform 6 excellent shows, all of which are played in daily rotation with matinees on Wednesdays and Saturdays. Where else can you see 6 plays in 6 days? Once again location, on the banks of the River Tummel with spectacular views of Ben-y-Vrackie plays a key part, but the truly welcoming and engaging level of hospitality from the staff and volunteers makes any performance extra special.
At the northern end of Loch Tay lies the small village of Kenmore, with its picturesque bridge and beautifully appointed buildings. It also houses the Scottish Crannog Centre, with a reconstructed thatched wooden house built on stilts over the water, and a gangway that would have been lifted in the event of danger.
I was a little sorry to see that the High Street in the market town of Crieff is suffering the same fate as that of other Scottish towns with some vacant shopfronts and the Crieff Hotel having fallen into disrepair. However this was balanced by some high quality clothing and food shops.
No visit to Crieff would be complete without a visit to the famous Crieff Hydro Hotel. Coffee and a sandwich in the fabulous 110-year-old Winter Garden allowed for some leisurely people-watching. There was a lovely mix of genders and ages in the relaxed setting, and the slightly faded grandeur just added to the atmosphere. The hotel’s success lies in its blend of strong family tradition and entrepreneurial activity. They see the generations as custodians for the next but also highlight the importance of having a sense of fun.
To the north of Crieff lies the town of Aberfeldy. The story of the successful community-run Social Enterprise Birks Cinema is one of dedication, community collaboration and sheer hard work. Opened in 1939 and closed in 1982, bought by the local community in 2005, with a fundraising challenge of £1.8m, today the Birks Cinema welcomes more than 33,000 moviegoers to see the 300-plus movies screened every year – despite having the smallest catchment population of any UK cinema.
The cinema café bar and mezzanine level are also gathering places for socialising with more than 200 community activities involving over 2,500 participants held each year – including acoustic music sessions, chair-based exercise, a Lego animation club, book club and arts & crafts group – all of which are free to attend.
The town is also home to The Aberfeldy Watermill Bookshop, Gallery & Café. Opened in 2005 by Michael Palin, in 2009 it was awarded UK Independent Bookshop of the Year and in 2016, included in the New Yorker book of the 75 Greatest Bookstores in the World. I spent a long time browsing the shelves and enjoyed soup and coffee in the café. The venue and location are stunning – obviously the heritage and authenticity help – but the clever use of all areas of the old mill, and surprising finds in the nooks and crannies add to the overall sense of enjoyment and encourage “loitering with intent” although I did buy a couple of books.
I also learned from a friendly member of staff that the owner gave of his time and expertise to help the local community, and the Birks Cinema development.
My visit to this bookshop was hot on the heels of the Waterstone’s purchase of the USA bookseller Barnes and Noble, and the parachuting in of James Daunt as CEO, credited with turning round Waterstones in the UK. I have visited a few Barnes & Noble stores on trips to the USA, and fervently hope that this rescue mission goes well. It deserves to succeed!
My trip to Aberfeldy also included a browse in the Thrift Shop and I left there with a bag of books. The volunteer staff were a positive delight and regular customers and foreign visitors received an equally warm welcome and close attention.
Finally, for a luxurious chocolate treat, a visit to the multi-award winning Iain Burnett, Highland Chocolatier in Grandtully is a must! This tasteful gift shop and “chocolate lounge” were the epitome of Scottish elegance at its most refined. The day I visited, there were groups of tourists from Germany, Australia and the USA oohing and aaahing at the tasteful décor and delicious products on display. A tiny espresso cup of marbled white and dark hot chocolate gave me my chocolate hit for a month but was truly delicious! Knowledgeable, friendly staff were on hand to advise and make the whole experience more enjoyable.
So, my whistle-stop tour of Perthshire highlighted that entrepreneurship, innovation and commitment to quality were at the heart of the local communities and places I visited. In these uncertain times, it was reassuring to visit an area which felt solid and well-invested, with a wide range of thriving businesses and a genuine commitment to keeping the quality flag flying high.
“Of all the small nations of this earth, perhaps only the ancient Greeks surpass the Scots in their contribution to mankind.”
Take care. Lead well.
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