The Birnam Arts & Conference Centre, also known as Birnam Arts (and previously as the Birnam Institute), stands in the heart of the village of Birnam in Perthshire. It is home to an excellent and highly interactive exhibition celebrating the life of the popular children's author Beatrix Potter. Meanwhile a Beatrix Potter garden has been created to the rear of Birnam Arts, fronting onto Birnam's main street and looking across it at the Birnam House Hotel.
Beatrix Potter was born in London in 1866. She was the daughter of a barrister father and a socialite mother, both of whom were themselves members of families who had built great wealth during the industrial revolution. The family spent the winter half of each year in London, and the summer in the country. Beatrix had a lonely childhood being educated by governesses at home in South Kensington while her younger brother was packed off to boarding school. The young Beatrix's main companions became her many pets, especially her two rabbits, Benjamin and Peter.
The quality of the parenting in the Potter household probably didn't improve during the summer months, but it seems that Beatrix benefitted greatly from her family's decision to spend from May to the end of the salmon fishing season in October each year far away from London. From 1871 to 1881, i.e. from when Beatrix was 5 to when she was 15, they rented Dalguise House in Perthshire every summer. Dalguise stands some five miles north-west of Birnam and had been built in 1753. Today it forms the core of an outdoor centre for schools and groups. (Continues below image...)
In 1880 Beatrix's parents, Rupert and Helen Potter, were amongst the subscribers to a fund established by the village stationmaster John Kinnaird, to allow the building of a community centre for "education and entertainment". The result was the Birnam Institute, which formally opened on 29th September 1883. It is unclear whether to Potters ever saw the centre they had helped fund. From 1882 onwards they abandoned Perthshire and instead began to spend their summers at Lindeth Howe in the English Lake District, beginning Beatrix Potter's much better known association with that area.
The eleven summers Beatrix Potter spent in Perthshire seem to have been highly influential on her later life and career. The local postman, Charles Macintosh, introduced her to the flora and fauna of the area, and, in particular, sparked her interest in fungi, a subject that was to become a lifelong passion. Meanwhile "picture letters" written by Beatrix while at Dalguise are usually regarded as the first drafts of her later books "The Tale of Peter Rabbit" and "The Tale of Jeremy Fisher". Another book, "The tale of Mrs Tiggy Winkle", which was published in 1905, is though to have been based on the washer woman at Dalguise, Kitty MacDonald.
The Beatrix Potter Garden is a nicely landscaped oasis in the centre of Birnam. At its heart is the Pavilion, home to a series of information boards about Beatrix Potter and the garden itself. Elsewhere in the garden you come across some of the characters created by Beatrix Potter. These include Mr Tod the Fox returning to his home, Mrs Tiggy Winkle in hers, and Mr Jeremy Fisher sitting on the edge of the pond. Near the centre of the garden you find Peter Rabbit and his friends.
The Beatrix Potter Exhibition in the Birnam Arts & Conference Centre occupies the prow of the building, which reaches a point where the building meets the village's main street. It is intended to appeal to the same audience of children who are likely to be fans of Beatrix Potter's books: and the focus is very much on interaction and activity. One object, near the sharp tip of the building, seems at first not to fit the theme. This is a large stone pillar that appears to be a traditional mercat cross of the sort found in Scottish towns and villages authorised to conduct a market. This is the Dalguise Pillar, probably carved in the 1700s and originally located near to Dalguise House.