Birnam tends to be overshadowed by its larger neighbour, Dunkeld. The two face one another across the River Tay, Birnam on the south bank, Dunkeld on the north. Yet if you take the trouble to look, you find a village with a great deal of interest and charm. Birnam's major claim to fame came from the pen of Shakespeare. According to his telling of the story of Macbeth, it was through the realisation of the witches' prophecy about the movement of Birnam Wood that Macbeth came to his end.
Signs in the centre of Birnam direct pedestrians to the Birnam Oak, close to the bank of the River Tay. This ancient tree, now supported on wooden crutches, is said to be the last survivor of the wood from which Malcolm III's soldiers cut branches to disguise their attack on Macbeth at Dunsinane Hill, 17 miles to the south-east. If this seems odd, it is worth remembering that Shakespeare was a dramatist rather than a historian or a geographer.
It's a mistake to think of Birnam and Dunkeld as parts of the same settlement. The two are equally attractive, but wholly different in atmosphere and appearance. Today's Birnam is a village with a very Victorian feel. A collection of substantial grey stone buildings, it is easy to imagine much of Birnam being developed following the arrival of the railway at the station just to the south-west in 1856.
Dunkeld & Birnam station now lies on the main line to Aviemore and Inverness. Between it and Birnam is the other main route north, the A9, which bypassed the village in the late 1970s, separating the village from its railway station. The result has been to leave Birnam occupying the space between the railway and road to the south-west, and the River Tay to the north-east.
A bridge across the Tay connecting Birnam and Dunkeld had been planned as far back as the 1500s, plans that were disrupted by the Reformation and the destruction of Dunkeld Cathedral in 1560. In the end, residents and travellers had to make do with ferries until 1809 when the seven arch bridge that still stands today was constructed by Thomas Telford.
At the heart of Birnam is the Birnam Arts & Conference Centre. This was launched in 1883 as the Birnam Institute to provide a range of community facilities for the area. In 2001 work was completed on a £2m expansion. This produced an exciting new building in the village, providing a theatre, workshop space, meeting and display areas, and library and IT facilities. The centre has also developed displays highlighting the links with the author Beatrix Potter, who spent her childhood holidays here. These are reflected in the attractive Beatrix Potter Garden behind the centre and opposite the Birnam House Hotel. Peter Rabbit lives on in the garden, together with much else associated with the author.
Also in the centre of Birnam is St Mary's Church, complete with its clock tower. The church was built in 1858 and is set in its own well cared for churchyard. The clock tower was added in 1883. Windows in the church are by a number of different designers, including William Morris. A little to the west of Birnam and on the opposite side of the A9 is the Hermitage. This was developed in the 1750s by the Dukes of Atholl as public pleasure grounds set along the floor of the steep sided valley of the River Braan and is today in the care of the National Trust for Scotland.
Birnam In Fiction
Hide and Seek by Ken Lussey (26 May 2023).
It’s April 1943. Medical student
Helen Erickson is followed from London to her aunt’s farm in Perthshire. When Helen disappears it
becomes clear that national security is at stake. Monique Dubois and MI11 set out to find her before
anyone else does. Birnam features prominently as the story develops.