The landscape of the Tay valley was shaped by great glaciers at the end of the last Ice Age. For thousands of years Scotland was covered by an ice sheet stretching out into what is now the North Sea. As the climate began to warm around 16000 B.C. the glaciers slowly retreated. Rivers were formed from the melting ice, and great glacial moraines (areas of rocky debris once carried along by the glaciers) were left behind, creating the basis of the Tay and Earn valleys. At first the land that emerged from under the ice was bare and harsh. Gradually, though, soils were formed and trees such as birch and juniper began to grow. Later, as the soil became richer, oak woods started to appear. Animals such as bears, wolves, wild cattle, and pigs inhabited the forests, while otters and many different types of fish could be found in the rivers.
We do not know exactly when people first arrived in the Tay valley, but it may have been as long ago as 8000 B.C. The first human inhabitants probably moved around, following the animals they were hunting, and searching for different sorts of plants to gather for food. They used stone tools made from flint and quartz. A number of flints have been found near Kinnoull Hill, perhaps a sign that this was a popular viewpoint and resting place for early hunters. For part of the Middle Stone Age (or Mesolithic period) the Carse of Gowrie and much of Strathearn were underwater. Around 6000 B.C. the Tay valley was hit by a tsunami caused by the Storegga slide – a vast underwater landslide off the coast of Norway. The tsunami would have been disastrous for people living in the Tay and Earn valleys as a huge tidal wave of water crashed across low-lying areas of eastern Scotland.
Around 4000 B.C. the people living near the Tay started planting crops and keeping herds of animals. The shift from relying on hunting and gathering to farming brought with it other changes. As people increasingly settled in one place they built more lasting homes and monuments. The communities of the Late Stone Age (or Neolithic period) made burial mounds and had large wooden enclosures. At Forteviot there was a Neolithic timber circle, indicating this was an important site for early residents of the Earn valley.
The people of the Late Stone Age were highly skilled craftsmen. Finely carved axes made from basalt and granite have been found by the Tay at Mugdrum island. About 2200 B.C. bronze weapons and ornaments began to be made. In the past archaeologists often emphasised the differences between Stone Age and Bronze Age society, but more recently they have recognised the gradual evolution from the Neolithic into the Early Bronze Age. The rivers Tay and Earn seem to have held an important place throughout these periods. In 2006 a Late Bronze Age logboat was excavated from the mudflats at Carpow. It is now in Perth Museum and is one of the best preserved pre-historic boats in Britain. A number of bronze swords and knives have also been discovered in the Tay – perhaps gifts to a sacred river. The growing human settlement of the Late Stone Age and Bronze Age altered the Tay landscape as early farmers cut down trees for firewood, building materials, and to clear space for crops and animals, leaving a much less wooded environment.
The Iron Age saw further changes to life near the River Tay. Around 700 B.C. iron tools began to be produced. Fortifications were also built on hills beside the Tay and the Earn. These hillforts were impressive structures with huge earth banks and stone and wood defences. The area around the Tay and the Earn has an unusually large number of forts, possibly a sign that the rivers were a border between different tribes. The Iron Age also saw the construction of underground granaries (sometimes called souterrains) in the Carse of Gowrie, suggesting grain was grown on the fertile lands directly to the north of the Tay.
In the first century A.D. Roman forces arrived in the Tay valley. The Romans established a fort at Bertha, near the junction between the River Almond and the Tay. They also built a large fortress at Carpow around 208 A.D. as a base for campaigns into the Highlands. The fort at Carpow was probably supplied by ships sent north from the Forth and the Tyne. Carpow was only inhabited for a short while, being abandoned not long after the death of the Emperor Septimius Severus in 211 A.D. The Roman occupation of the Tay valley seems to have had a devastating impact on local communities. Pollen analysis shows that during Roman times the area of farmland near the Tay decreased, and woodland expanded, suggesting a drop in the number of people. It was not until the seventh century A.D. that the amount of farmland returned to pre-Roman levels.
After the Romans left Britain the area around the Tay came under Pictish influence. The Picts were a Celtic people who spoke a language a little like Welsh. Many place-names in the Tay valley contain Pictish elements. For example, the name Perth possibly comes from the Pictish ‘pert’, meaning woodland. Pictish names are particularly common in areas with fertile, well-drained land. It is likely that many modern farmhouses in Fife, Angus, and Perthshire are built on or near former Pictish settlements.
The Picts created elaborate art, including large carved stones, a number of which can be seen in the countryside around the Tay and Earn, while others have been moved to local museums. At some point (probably before the end of the seventh century A.D.) the Picts converted to Christianity. Churches and monasteries were established, often at places which already had some religious or political significance, such as Forteviot and Abernethy.
The Pictish period also saw continuing, or in some cases renewed, use of hill-forts. Forts at Abernethy, Moredun Top (on Moncreiffe Hill near Perth), and several other sites, seem to have been occupied during the Early Middle Ages. In 728 A.D. Moncreiffe Hill may have been the scene of a major battle, when the Pictish king Óengus defeated his rival Ailpín in a struggle for control of southern Pictland.
During the ninth century the Picts joined with the Scots (a Gaelic speaking people based in Argyll) to create a new kingdom called Alba. This union is often seen as the beginning of the modern nation of Scotland. The Tay and Earn valleys were at the heart of the new kingdom. There was a royal palace at Forteviot, where one of the first kings of Alba, Cinaed mac Ailpín, died in 858 A.D. From around the beginning of the tenth century onwards the kings of Alba, and later Scotland, were inaugurated at Scone, probably on the mound known as Moot Hill.
During the Middle Ages life in the Tay valley was increasingly influenced by other European cultures. In 1072 the Normans (who had invaded England in 1066) launched a campaign against Scotland which reached the River Tay. The Scottish king Malcolm III (also known as Malcolm Canmore) met with the Norman leader William the Conqueror at Abernethy, where they made peace before William returned to England. Although the Normans did not directly conquer Scotland, medieval Scottish kings copied aspects of their government and way of life – with consequences for the Tay landscape.
Inspired by towns and cities in England and overseas, twelfth-century kings such as David I and William the Lion, supported the introduction of towns to Scotland. The new towns (traditionally called burghs) were centres of trade, and welcomed immigrants from places like England, France, and Flanders. The burgh of Perth was formally founded in the 1120s, though there was some settlement before this date. Perth became one of the richest burghs in the kingdom, and played an important role in the Scottish wool trade. In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries the Scottish Parliament met at Perth. For a time it seemed Perth might become the capital of Scotland, but these plans came to nothing after James I was murdered there in 1437.
Under Norman influence, Scottish nobles started to build castles. These had many different purposes, serving as administrative centres, status symbols, and military strongholds. Mottes (or mounds) from early castles survive at a number of places, including Law Knowe, near Errol. There was a castle at Perth until 1210 when severe flooding from the Tay destroyed both the castle and the burgh’s bridge. Fifteenth and early sixteenth-century castles still stand at Fingask, Kinnaird, and Megginch (all in the Carse of Gowrie), and at Elcho (on the south bank of the Tay).
The Middle Ages saw the founding and rebuilding of several churches and monasteries in the Tay valley. The remains of Lindores Abbey can be seen on the edge of Newburgh, next door to the local whisky distillery. Another (now demolished) abbey was built at the ancient royal centre of Scone. The monasteries had large estates, and were often innovative landlords. It is thought that the monks brought new varieties of apples and pears to the Tay valley. For a while there may even have been vineyards on the slopes near the Tay.
Towards the end of the Middle Ages temperatures dropped as Europe entered what is sometimes called the Little Ice Age (though the climate was not nearly as cold as during the actual Ice Age thousands of years before). Severe winters were common during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. In 1615 the Tay was so frozen horses could walk across it. A few decades later, in 1648, there was major flooding at Perth and the main bridge was swept away.
The colder winters and wetter summers of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries made farming in the Tay valley harder. Harvests often failed and grain prices rose. At the same time Scotland faced major political and religious changes. In the spring of 1559 religious riots in Perth led to the sacking of local monasteries and churches. The unrest in Perth developed into a national rebellion, which would cause Scotland to abandon Catholicism and become an officially Protestant country.
The seventeenth and eighteenth centuries saw further upheavals. In 1603 the kings of Scotland also became rulers of England – a change which drew the Tay valley into wider British conflicts. Perth and the surrounding area were directly affected by the Wars of the Three Kingdoms (also known as the Civil War). Following the execution of Charles I in London in 1649, the young Charles II was crowned at Scone on 1 January 1651. However, the royalist success was short-lived. That summer the English general (and later dictator) Oliver Cromwell sent an army north to the River Tay. Perth surrendered to Cromwell’s troops in August 1651. The occupying army built a large artillery fort on the South Inch beside Perth. Part of the defences of this fort have been discovered by archaeologists.
Perth briefly experienced warfare again during the Jacobite risings of 1715 and 1745, when many Scots supported the Catholic descendants of James II in their attempts to retake the British throne. The Jacobites held Perth in 1715 and built extensive defences. In 1745, near the start of the second Jacobite rising, Charles Edward Stuart (sometimes called Bonnie Prince Charlie) passed through Perth, staying at what is now the Salutation Hotel.
The Jacobite Risings made the British government determined to avoid further rebellions in Scotland. The government made new roads and bridges to better control the country. In the 1730s General George Wade built a bridge across the Tay at Aberfeldy. For a while this was the only bridge across the river. However, in 1766 work began on Smeaton’s Bridge in Perth, which was designed to replace the crossing destroyed by floods in the 1640s. In 1790 a new road was constructed between Perth and Dundee. This was originally a toll road (or turnpike) and forms the basis of the modern A90.
Other efforts at development and improvement took place during the eighteenth century. Much of Perth was rebuilt in the fashionable classicial style. This redevelopment was partly funded by Perth’s growing importance as a centre for linen weaving. In the countryside wealthy landowners built grand Palladian houses (inspired by the symmetrical designs of the Italian architect Andrea Palladio). Many of these country houses are still in private hands. Marshy land in the Carse of Gowrie was also drained – a process that continued into the nineteenth century.
The nineteenth and twentieth centuries brought vast changes to the Tay valley. The Industrial Revolution of the late 1700s and early 1800s transformed the way products were made and people employed. Instead of working independently in the countryside and in small workshops, people increasingly worked alongside machines in large factories. Although Perth did not experience as much industrialisation as Dundee, several factories were built in the area. About five miles north of Perth stands Stanley Mills, one of the best-preserved cotton mills in Scotland. Near the centre of Perth there was Pullar’s dye-works. In 1869 Pullar’s became the first company in the world to use powered machines for dry-cleaning.
The introduction of steam-trains revolutionised transport in the Tay valley. In the 1840s Perth became a major railway hub. Lines from Dundee, Edinburgh, Glasgow, and the Highlands all met at Perth. By the mid-nineteenth century it was possible to travel from Perth to London in the same day (previously it had taken two weeks). The quicker transport had an impact on traditional trades such as fishing and fruit-growing.
Although people had fished in the Tay for thousands of years, in the nineteenth century a combination of packing fish in ice and shorter travel times (originally fast sailing ships, later railways) meant fresh Tay salmon could be sold as far away as the south of England. Large quantities of salmon were caught in nets to feed growing demand for this popular fish. During the twentieth century the number of wild salmon decreased, and net fishing for salmon ended on the Tay in the 1990s (though rod and line fishing continues). Lately there have been efforts to encourage the ongoing use of cobles – the Tay fishermen’s traditional wooden rowing boats.
While new transport links enabled (at least for a while) an expansion in salmon fishing, they seem to have created problems for the Tay valley orchards. Apples and pears have been grown near the Tay since at least the Middle Ages. However, in Victorian times the orchards began to go into decline, as the traditional apples grown in the Carse of Gowrie struggled to compete with the larger varieties imported from Europe and America. In the twentieth century local farmers largely stopped growing top-fruit (such as apples and pears) in favour of cultivating more financially rewarding soft-fruit (like raspberries and strawberries). A few traditional orchards survive, preserving types of fruit-trees that have existed for hundreds of years, and are in many cases unique to the Tay valley.
Expansion in car ownership during the twentieth century changed the Tay landscape yet again. Cars made it far easier to commute from the countryside around the Tay to nearby cities. New housing estates sprang up beside once remote towns and villages. In the 1960s the M90 from Edinburgh to Perth was begun. This is the northernmost motorway in the U.K. To link the motorway to the A90 a bridge was built across the Tay at Friarton, just beside Kinnoull Hill – where almost 10,000 years ago the first settlers looked out across the landscape.