Perth (the Scottish one) is simply a nice wee city

Perth, Scotland, is a historic place, doing well in ‘quality of life’ surveys. It’s one of Scotland’s nicest cities, with an attractive rural hinterland.

Let’s start with what you can see in Perth today and then you’ll find plenty of historical notes by way of background, further down the page.

What to see and do in Perth

The cultural life of the city is delivered by way of its concert hall, theatre, museum and art gallery – suggesting a vibrant cultural centre. (Terribly hackneyed brochure-writer’s phrase – but it’s true!)

Amongst the city’s other cultural features are The Fergusson Gallery – one of the most imaginative conversions of Georgian work anywhere in Scotland.

You can enjoy this collection in a unique building: a distinguished rotunda and column overlooking the Tay at the end of Marshall Place – originally designed as waterworks and completed in 1832.

WAIT> STOP. That para to be edited. The Fergusson Gallery in its funny wee Georgian round thing is closed and the paintings moved to what was the Perth Museum and Art Gallery – see below.

The Fergusson Collection is essentially the output of a the Scottish Colourist JD Fergusson, who seemed to have lived a lovely life – at least his paintings give that impression. There is a definite emphasis on dancing and under-dressed, wibbly-wobbly wifies. (Hope I’m not being a bit Presbyterian here.)

Perth Museum and Art Gallery – big changes

Meanwhile, Perth’s Museum and Art Gallery up until 2024 was not only one of the UK’s oldest museums, with more than half a million objects, but it was housed in its ‘custom-built’ quarters since 1822.

The dome of the old home of the museum frames the approach to the city from Smeaton’s bridge and adds greatly to the special qualities of the urban landscape of Perth by the river. The Greek portico of the 1818 County Buildings (the county hall and court house) adds further distinction.

And I’ve just edited some of this into the past tense as from spring 2024 the museum’s rich collection is now housed in a total re-vamp of the former Perth City Hall.

The centrepiece of the new museum is (gasp) a stone that some say is the real Stone of Destiny or Stone of Scone, on which the monarchs of Scotland were formerly crowned.

As avid readers (ahem) of this site will already know, we believe that this rough old block of local sandstone is just a forgery and that the real stone is somewhere in store in the British Museum in London, England.

(I’m paraphrasing here but you would be greatly illuminated by reading all about the Stone of Scone on this web page.)

Anyhoo…bottom line: Perth has a new museum featuring the famous stone; also the Fergusson Gallery is closed and the wobbly wifies are now in what was the old museum (phew).

Perth Museum and Art Gallery
What was the old Perth Museum and Art Gallery- one of the UK’s oldest museums. Now the museum element has a new for 2024 home in the former Perth City Hall.

Perth for Theatre and concerts…

The city also has The Horsecross – an umbrella body running Perth Theatre and the Concert Hall. Perth Theatre is over 100 years old, an Edwardian theatre of great charm and with a loyal audience.

In 1935, it was home to the first repertory company in Scotland – though in 1633 its predecessor held a performance for King Charles I in honour of his visit here!

Perth Concert Hall was opened in 2005, and makes not only a huge contribution to the arts in Perthshire, but also an important architectural statement in the centre of the city.

There is a very active year-round programme of concerts, comedy, dance, musicals, contemporary art, film, talks, arts workshops – plus conferences and other events.

Perth for city beavers!

Yes. No other city in Scotland (or the Untied Kingdom) can claim this. It has beavers resident near the city centre. Isn’t that brilliant? And they probably don’t bother the farmers upstream or in other parts of Perthshire, who have been known to huff their disapproval.

I learned this from a piece on the beavers on the BBC website. There is more on beavers on this website on our Scottish wildlife page.

I should point out that when I said above they are near the city-centre, I didn’t mean they had rented a very damp flat – they are, of course, on the River Tay. Look for them by the North Inch and on Moncrieffe Island.

So, to summarize, Perth is an old-established burgh on a historic site in an attractive setting with a go-ahead cultural life and a nice environment for people and beavers. Taken together, it’s a city that’s worth a visit.

And if it had Stirling’s castle, it would be unbeatable. Find out more about Scotland’s smaller cities here. 

Perth – the fair city and old Scottish burgh

Walk the little city’s grid of streets and you soon get the impression it’s a place with a past. Basically, it goes back a long way.

First of all, Perth is a Scottish burgh. This notion of a ‘burgh’ was the backbone of urban Scottish life or centuries.

The creation of burghs brought order, commerce, a sense of civic pride and – importantly – revenue-raising powers for the monarch.

The Royal Charter that King William signed in 1210 is the earliest document confirming Perth’s burgh status. However, even earlier records place its burgh origins back in the first half of the 12th century. This was during the reign of King David I. 

So, exactly what was a burgh?

Historically then, this city on the River Tay stands in the very first rank of Scottish burghs.

As described on the Scottish history page, one important feature of old Scottish burghs was the granting of a right to hold markets.

From these commercial activities tolls were raised not just for the protection and upkeep of the burgh itself but also so that contributions could be made to the royal exchequer.

Perth by the River Tay
Perth in Scotland, the old heart of the city by the River Tay.

Though this settlement was a market centre for centuries, it is appropriate that the idea of a ‘modern’ farmers’ market in Scotland was first revived here in 1999.

And it still thrives today, though I must say I hope they’ve terminated the wailing country-and-western crooner or ‘street entertainer’ – very loosely speaking – who was musically polluting the ambience the last time I was there.

(I suppose it seemed at odds with the douce and tweedy shoppers eyeing up the smoked wild boar and other delicacies.)

Still, it’s best to be inclusive and to thrust gruesome old over-amplified tunes into people’s ears while they are trying to focus on the shopping list, I suppose.

Perth And The ‘Golden Charter’

The Golden Charter was the local description of a charter granted by King James VI in 1600. It not only confirmed all previous charters but also referred to Perth as a city.

Thereafter, the title ‘City and Royal Burgh’ was a term habitually associated with Perth. From the early 19th century, it appears consistently in official documents such as Acts of Parliament and by-laws approved by the Secretary of State for Scotland.

Perth – At The Centre Of The Nation’s Story

Why? Because in May 1559, the place was the scene of a pivotal moment in Scotland’s story when the fiery Protestant reformer John Knox preached a sermon.

Normally, at the end of kirk service these days, in Scotland, a few very old ladies trip peacefully out and shake the minister by the hand. But not back then. Oh no.

Sacking the churches

Knox’s words so inflamed the congregation that the burgh’s wealthy religious houses were sacked immediately afterwards.

(It’s as if today’s elderly congregation got so outraged that they rushed out and ransacked Tesco.)

Anyway, this was the ignition point of the Reformation in Scotland. From that time onwards, the city’s monastic settlements, thereafter stripped and roofless, went into steep decline.

Their stonework was gradually removed and re-used so that all traces vanished from the urban landscape.

Flood marker on bridge in Perth
The River Tay has brought some destructively high flood levels over the centuries, though now the city is protected by flood defences.

From Uncertainty To Perth’s Prosperity

First was the unrest of the 17th-century Covenanting Wars and the aftermath. Then came, competition from growing towns in other parts of Scotland. These were both factors that brought uncertainty to the city’s future.

But by the latter half of the 18th century, Perth was benefiting from the agriculture improvements taking place in the countryside around.

(You can’t really separate Perth from its hinterland.)

The spirit and dynamism of the Enlightenment that re-invigorated Scotland also took root here.

By the 1760s the community broke free from its old city walls to create some of the most admired and elegant urban architecture in Scotland.

Professor Smout, Scotland’s Historiographer Royal, has described this as a masterpiece of the early 19th-century art of town improvement.

That’s why it’s nice to stroll around today, especially near the River Tay. It’s all just so comfortable looking.

Perth waterfront
Perth’s waterfront, with Smeaton’s Bridge (right) and the former General Accident HQ, now part of the local cooncil, left.

The New Perth Of The 19th Century

Famous industrial names with local associatios include Pullars of Perth. They started as a dyeing company in 1824 and by 1852 had been awarded the Royal Warrant as dyer to Queen Victoria.

(Odd. I thought she always wore black. Maybe it was for the curtains at Balmoral Castle….)

Anyway, by the end of the 19th century Pullars was Perth’s largest employer.

Perth is also associated with whisky. Both Dewars and Bells are names central to the story of whisky distilling in Scotland and both had strong local links in their early days.

Another ‘household name’, General Accident, was a business founded in here in 1885 – and had begun to insure motor vehicles by 1896.

Other in-town activities included the manufacture of gloves, linen and also printing.

Townscape-wise, by the early 19th century, Perth had a bridge by the famous engineer John Smeaton (opened in 1771) (pictured here). It also had built some of the finest Georgian architecture to be seen outside Edinburgh.

Both bridge and buildings stand today. The city’s ‘New Town’ took advantage of the fine views over the Inches (the former river-islands) to north and south.

Perth bridge by John Smeaton, opened in 1771
Perth bridge by John Smeaton, opened in 1771

So that’s Perth – it’s well worth a look.