Through a Highlands Narnia to a great pub: the Taybank, Dunkeld

An appetite-inducing seven-mile hike through the woods of the Atholl Estates returns you to the village of Dunkeld, and its renowned, musical local

One of Perthshire’s most photogenic villages, Dunkeld could easily have tumbled out of the pages of a Beatrix Potter storybook – so it comes as no surprise to learn that the writer spent many happy summers here. Its 17th- and 18th-century whitewashed cottages, rebuilt after the battle of Killicrankie in 1689, have been restored to Mrs Tiggy Winkle-esque-perfection by the National Trust for Scotland.

The high street is strung with cute cafes, delis and galleries. This is where Flora Shedden, Great British Bake Off semi-finalist, opened her artisan bakery, Aran, all bright white tongue-and-groove along with a bijoux grocery store, Lòn, round the corner. On the grassy banks of the River Tay there’s a romantic ruined 14th-century cathedral.

What is surprising is that, until now, there was nowhere cool to stay. Then Fraser Potter (no relation to Beatrix), globetrotting former polo player turned events caterer, came back home and took on the renowned Taybank pub just as the pandemic hit.

The Taybank hotel exterior
The Taybank had a makeover during lockdown. Photograph: Murdo MacLeod/the Guardian

Once owned by singer-songwriter Dougie MacLean (who penned the Scottish anthem Caledonia) and famous for its live folk sessions, the pub now has a hip interior to match its musical kudos. Potter spent lockdown giving it a makeover, with the help of his friend Anna Lamotte from nearby Guardswell Farm, which supplies the pub with vegetables and offers off-grid holiday cottages.

Another of his lockdown projects was to turn the car park into one of the best – and biggest – beer gardens in Scotland. Just over the road from the pub, it slopes down towards the rushing river. Partly covered by a huge canvas awning, it has a wooden bar, a fire pit and (in summer) a pizza oven.

Dunkeld woos walkers with spectacular Highland scenery on its doorstep. The village is at the southern end of Atholl Estates, 226 square miles of moorland, mountain and forest, threaded with tracks and trails. A handful of routes spiral out from the Cally car park, three-quarters of a mile outside the village. I like the Atholl Woods circuit, a seven-mile circular yomp, partly because it heads east into the hills away from the A9 – Dunkeld also sits just off the north-south route from Perth to Thurso.

Following the wooden signpost pointing 2¼ miles to Mill Dam, I set off up a rough forest track through new plantations of pines muddled with bushy rhododendrons. Passing through a metal gate I stop to read the large sign saying that this is an area of regenerative farming.

Cattle and sheep are moved every 24 hours to optimise grazing and rest the pasture. Trampling vegetation back into the soil also helps to recycle nutrients and sequester carbon. Cattle, the notice explains (with diagrams and pictures), improve the soil’s microbiome and increase biodiversity by providing a rich habitat for pollinators, birds and other wildlife.

Gone are the days when walkers could stomp heedlessly across the hills. Scottish estates, like everyone else, are monitoring their impact on the land. A more traditional parting shot at the bottom of the sign reminds you to keep dogs on a lead and “be a mate and shut the gate”.

Signposts at the start of the Atholl Woods Path
The start of the Atholl Woods Path Photograph: Murdo MacLeod/The Guardian

From here, the track meanders through shady oak woodland, crossing a small bridge and passing a stone cottage before emerging into an open landscape of craggy fells, the silence broken only by birdsong. Curving round to another set of tall metal gates by Glack Kennels, the track veers back into woodland and a gradual ascent to Mill Dam, a reed-fringed loch with an old wooden boatshed.

There is a bench if you want to take a breather here and scour the water for wintering wildfowl (in season) or the more permanent population of ducks. I spotted a couple of black-and-white goldeneyes and a wading heron in the distance. At the far end of the loch there’s evidence of more local wildlife: beavers. Felled saplings and small trees with telltale teeth marks and trunks trimmed to pencil points are evidence of the rodents’ enthusiastic building of lodge and dam.

Beavers moved into the area in 2013 and are now a vital part of the wetland system. Atholl Estates was for a number of years part of the Tayside beaver study group, which monitored their effect on wildlife and land use.

Woods near the Glack, in Atholl Woods
Woods near the Glack, in Atholl Woods Photograph: Murdo MacLeod/The Guardian

At the end of the loch the track forks: I follow the yellow arrow through the gates, signposted Atholl Woods Walk. The path here is rougher, heading up over moorland and through an area of managed forest before descending into a landscape of ancient beech trees.

As I head down, the scenery softens into fertile farmland. A signpost at the bottom of a steep, rough path points left to Polney Loch (two miles). The track now follows a grassy arrow-straight section of one of the British general George Wade’s military roads. Built in the 18th century, this network of well-maintained routes linked a series of strategic forts in the Highlands, designed to quash any Jacobite uprisings (Bonnie Prince Charlie might have scarpered but the government wanted to keep an eye on those unruly Highlanders).

The track, cut like a ledge into the side of the hill, crosses an ancient stone bridge before plunging back into Narnia-like rhododendron-dotted forest, the trees muffling the hum of distant traffic. Descending to the road, I have to hug the verge for a short section before reaching Polney Loch: the path skirts its shore and heads back into woods for the last quarter-mile stretch back to the car park.

Mill Dam and Rotmell Loch
Mill Dam and Rotmell Loch Photograph: Murdo MacLeod/The Guardian

Dappled light filters through the canopy of giant cedars and ancient yews. I am tempted momentarily to slow down, sink to the ground, lean my back against one of those sturdy trunks and bathe in the forest’s stillness, but then the thought of the pub’s sheepskin-strewn bar, crackling fire and a welcoming pint of ale makes me spurt towards the finish.

Google map of the route

GPX track of the route

Start: The Taybank, Dunkeld

Distance: 7 miles

Time: 3-4 hours

Total ascent: 280 metres

Difficulty: easy

The pub

The Taybank pub interior.
The Taybank’s vibe is arty and welcoming Photograph: Murdo MacLeod/The Guardian

The Taybank’s vibe is arty, eclectic and welcoming. The original ground-floor bar is old-school cosy with a wood-burner, a rough wooden floor, chairs strewn with sheepskins, guitars on the wall and a piano in the corner. Tables with glowing tea lights spill on to a terrace outside. It’s dog-friendly and there’s regular live music – it’s hard to find a box the Taybank doesn’t tick.

The first-floor restaurant looks over the river and serves great gastropub fare: Isle of Mull cheddar soufflé with mustard mayonnaise, or venison burgers with smoked applewood cheese and bacon. I have the special, a huge plate of Skye langoustines dripping in garlic butter, washed down with a glass of natural orange wine.

The rooms

Pared-back Scandi-chic meets Scottish “coorie” (Highland hygge) in rooms with a nod to mid-century design. Potter did the joinery himself (timber headboards topped with books about baking and Munros).

There are five sleek, electronics-free rooms – the top floor eyrie has a lute on the wall, more sheepskins, a polished-concrete bathroom with circular tub, double monsoon shower and Laura Thomas toiletries. There is a bed in a cupboard for the one who snores – or you could squeeze in a child or two. Breakfast is delivered in a hamper for enjoying in bed or, if it’s sunny, by the river.
Doubles from £170 B&B, thetaybank.co.uk

Lucy Gillmore

The GuardianTramp

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