The History of Perth
Green and unspoiled, Perth is oft-described as The Fair City. And with good reason too. Since King David I granted it Royal Burgh status the town flourished, attracting great wealth through trade. In the Middle Ages, commodities were shipped to and from Western Europe, the River Tay irrigating the town’s economy. This was an era when West of Scotland ports like Glasgow and Ayr were not yet as important as their East Coast counterparts, like Perth and Berwick .
But with Perth situated on the lowest crossing point on the Tay, the proximity of the river has been a double-edged sword. Flooding has been a recurring bane for the city. The first recorded flood in 1209 destroyed Perth’s castle, taking one of the town’s bridges with it too. For all the fortifications made against flooding through the centuries, civic spending in Perth must have been a nightmare. But for the once nominal capital of Scotland a few shillings was never too much to pay.
Sitting plumb in Scotland’s central belt it is at the heart of Scotland. Scone lies just to the north of the city, hosting the Stone Of Destiny at Scone Abbey. Scottish kings have been crowned sitting on the Stone since Kenneth Mac Alpin in the middle of the 9th Century to Alexander III in the 13th, after which King Edward I of England appropriated the Stone during his occupation of Perth in the First War Of Scottish Independence. As a vignette of Scotland’s vulnerability, losing the Stone Of Destiny was beyond compare. How Perth must have wished to have fortified her defences while mending the bridge. With no fortress, the invading English army had an easy passage. From 1296 to 1312, when Robert The Bruce liberated the city, Perth was in English hands.
Quite aside from the red faces at having their neighbours occupy the city, the Scots were also losing economically. Of course, there was all that lost trade; but Perth had an abundance of craftsmen. From the 12th Century to the beginning of the 19th, Perth was the leader in Scotland’s leather trade. Skinnergate (running parallel to George Street) was the street where tens of thousands of sheep and kid hides were tanned and exported or made into gloves. The Glover Incorporation was the largest company to rise out of the leather trade, selling gloves in the shops along Skinnergate and selling the rest throughout the country.
Constitutional turmoil, like that which stoked the tensions in lieu of the First Wars Of Scottish Independence were not long in returning. Once again, the disputes between the Balliol and the Bruce camps brought the country to the brink. The threat of Civil War , narrowly avoided in the time of Robert Bruce, would return as the Battle Of Dupplin Moor, by Scone, went the way of Balliol’s supporters. At that time, King David II was an infant. His regent Thomas Randolph, 1st Earl of Moray, had died suddenly as battle at Dupplin was imminent. Scotland was once again under the rule of a Balliol, this time Edward. Once again it’s king was in the pocket of the English. King Edward III ’s intentions were to occupy and fortify Perthshire. Like his grandfather before him, Perth was to be walled and garrisoned with English troops. But Balliol was driven from the Scottish throne and Perth was liberated once again.
Perth’s oldest building, Saint John’s Kirk , dates back to 1126. Dedicated to Saint John The Baptist, it was one of the cradles of Christianity in medieval Scotland. Naturally, it has undergone a number of renovations, including a choir in 1441 and its spire in 1511, and until 1832, it even housed a women’s prison. Perth was home to a large monastic community of Blackfriars, Greyfriars and Carthusians – the Carthusian Order’s Chapterhouse was unique to Perth, founded in 1429. It was King James I who helped pay for the Chapterhouse, and while he may have intended to have been buried there, he went to his grave prematurely. On the 21st February 1437, the king was murdered by Sir Robert Graham in the Blackfriars Dominican friary in Perth. Regicide in the name of successional squabble: Graham was a supporter of the Atholl’s claim to the Scottish throne. As far as notorious murders go, chasing the Scottish king through a sewer before assassinating him is tough to beat. And on sacred ground too… It was then the power in Scotland shifted from Perth to Edinburgh . The centuries that followed would see similarly profound changes in Scotland’s society.
With such clerical influence, Perth must have been like a huge gas lamp in the night to the moth of religious reform. As the 16th Century arrived, so too did the Reformation. The Carthusians, of course, were driven from the area. By the middle of the 16th Century, Reformists were hurriedly persecuting all of Perth’s monastic community. From Saint John’s Kirk, John Knox would spread the word of reform and Protestantism in strident rhetoric. Monasteries were sacked in the aftermath of Knox’s sermon. Scotland was, after all, set on the path to the Reformation. Constitutional and religious reform fermented and accelerated throughout the 17th Century. After the Restoration in 1660, with King Charles II crowned at Scone, Cromwell’s Parliamentarian army made a beeline for Perth. Echoing Edward I and III, and similarly to his tactics on the West Coast at Ayr, Cromwell fortified the city, building a citadel from which he could both defend his position and martially rule Scotland. Cromwell’s death in 1661 brought the town’s defences down, but peace was a while off. The Glorious Revolution of 1688, when William of Orange popped over from Holland to sit as King, sired the Jacobite Revolutions . Strategically and morally important, Perth would be occupied through all of their risings.
As the Georgian era imbued Britain with a sense of positivity, a new industrious and prosperous future beckoned. Perth may have lost its leather industry but its importance as a trading post post-Union was beyond doubt. The Georgian influence would be evident in Perth’s New Town to the north of the city. Not as grand, perhaps, as Edinburgh but every bit as attractive. The railway arrived in the middle of the 19th Century. Perth by then was growing up. Though it was declassified as a city in 2005, Perth does just fine as a town. If it has no longer kept its power, it has at least kept its good looks.