Into the Birks o’ Aberfeldy

by Keith Savage · 3 comments

The Birks O' Aberfeldy, Aberfeldy, Perthshire, Scotland

There are few places in Scotland better suited to the casual hiker than Perthshire. It’s a region of rolling highland foothills covered in swaths of mixed forest cleft into rocky river valleys by the Tay and Tummel. Mountains like Schiehallion and Ben Vrackie loom over it all, providing even greater contrast to this gorgeous landscape. You don’t need to be a rugged mountaineer or spelunker to enjoy Perthshire’s natural treasures. That’s a good thing, too, because I’m neither. I’m just a guy who likes to get into the Scottish countryside and connect with natural splendor.

I’ve been a fan of Dunkeld and Pitlochry for a long time, but Aberfeldy, just west of the A9, has mostly flown under my radar. I resolved to rectify that on a recent trip through Perthshire and made Aberfeldy my first stop after landing in Edinburgh. While slightly less accessible than the other two towns, Aberfeldy is still an easy drive and it takes in some beautiful back-country roads, especially in autumn when the trees are in full color. I visited the wonderful Habitat Café for some crucial refreshment before walking around the charming town center. There I saw the Birks o’ Aberfeldy sign and then, as is always prudent in Scotland, I followed my whimsy.

Following the Moness Burn beneath a war-time arch, I walked from the heart of Aberfeldy directly into hilly woodland. This walk, which circles the Moness gorge, has been popular for ages. None other than Scotland’s national bard, Robert Burns, walked this route on his tour of the highlands. He found the area so inspiring that he wrote The Birks o’ Aberfeldy in commemoration. A section of this walk is also part of the Rob Roy Way long-distance walking route that runs from Drymen in Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park to Pitlochry. With these factoids in mind I braced myself against the cool November day and followed the immaculate path.

The beginning of the walk is quite easy as the path follows the burn and leads away from town. I crossed a nice bridge and climbed a staircase to a road that bisected the woodland. The real walk begins on the other side among mostly beech trees but also oak, ash, elm, and willow. The ground is carpeted in fallen leaves and wonderfully free of brush — this is a key aspect of Scottish woodland that I love. Back home in Wisconsin our forests are predominantly thick with underbrush, and that makes for unpleasant hiking.

After a good twenty minutes hiking a gentle upslope I happened upon a man sitting upon a stone bench. He sat mysteriously still as the leaves crunched beneath my feet, and it was only a couple seconds later that I realized it was a statue. Here Robert Burns sits in perpetual contemplation. After bidding old Rabbie adieu, the path took on a new inclination, growing more narrow and wild as it clung to the side of the gorge. Sturdy wooden steps and railings had been installed wherever the path became naturally unstable.

Scotland’s wonderfully watery nature was on display here as streamlets and cricks seeped from the hills to continue their descent in a thousand tiny waterfalls. An overhang with a small plaque to Robert Burns lay just a bit further down the path, and this is apparently where Burns was inspired to write The Birks o’ Aberfeldy. I paused, took a seat, and listened for the resonance of inspiration.

A shocking number of waterfalls poured down from the hills to collect in the Moness Burn, and one particularly pretty one could be seen from across the gorge. The view was clearly a local favorite, for a few lines of Burns’s The Birks o’ Aberfeldy had been carved into wooden planks here. The forest had turned mainly to birch at this point (hence the “birks”), and surely some of the ancient Caledonian woodland could still be found in the glen’s wrinkles.

There aren’t many long-distance views on this hike, but the one I found beyond the far side of the gorge was worth a dozen others. The view is a spectacular glimpse at the Tay Valley and Ben Vrackie beyond.

The far side of the gorge leading back to Aberfeldy is perhaps not quite as interesting as the way in, but it is different and largely composed of old birches. As I neared the bottom of the gorge the beech-leaf carpet returned. Find me a hobbit hole around here and I’d happily call this place home.

Robert Burns wished me farewell as I left the Moness gorge and returned to Aberfeldy. I was jet-lagged, a little sweaty, 300 photos richer, and vibrating with the beauty of the walk, even on a gray November day. The Birks o’ Aberfeldy is suitable for all hikers and another of Perthshire’s many highlights.

Chuck NakellNo Gravatar July 27, 2017 at 12:30 PM

I’m home only a few months from our last trip and you have already made me homesick for Scotland!

Keith SavageNo Gravatar July 27, 2017 at 4:10 PM

Sorry Chuck! Right there with you.

KenNo Gravatar July 27, 2017 at 7:54 AM

Beautiful. Makes me wish I was there, yet again.

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