Scotland’s happiest city is finally in glory

Perth’s stunning new Museum sits alongside another of the city’s cultural treasures – Greg Holmes

“The Stone of Destiny is not a destination, but the beginning of a new journey for the city,” says Xander McDade, Perth’s dynamic privateer of 30 years, as he greets me on the opening day of the sparkling new Perth Museum. .

It may be the most iconic stone in the British Isles making headlines, but the revival of this often-forgotten city on the river Tea is making waves.

Building a museum around a lump of stone can’t be easy, but they’ve done a great job of lighting it up with slick visuals and drama-generating architecture from award-winning architects, Mecanoo.

The Stone of Scone was a central part of Scottish coronations near Perth at Scone Palace, before Edward I removed it in 1296 to triumphantly crown the kings and queens of England and Britain at Westminster Abbey. The devolution sent him to Edinburgh Castle, but after going south to crown King Charles III last year, he is back at home in Perthshire for the first time in over 700 years.

Most visitors today are here to see the stone, but the museum also has an immediate charm. It tells the story of Perth, a story alive with Pictish kings, tempted legionnaires sent home to think again and Vikings suffering the same. It’s a proud story, a much-needed reminder of the past glory of Scotland’s ancient capital, which suffered the final ignominy of being granted city status in 1975.

However, this was restored in 2012 and the arrival of the stone marks “this culturally rich city coming of age to continue our economic regeneration”, in the words of the Lord Provost.

Stone of Destiny Perth MuseumStone of Destiny Perth Museum

The Stone of Destiny – Rob McDougall is an attraction

Hope threads through McDade’s youthful veins as he tries to take everyone on his journey, but there is clear dissent: a lively protest outside cries that money put into the £27 million museum could be better spent funding local groups.

Perth is a big hit in this culturally rich city, with the fiddlers quickly turning the crowd on their heels. Civic spirit and dissent run deep in Perth. It was in this square that John Knox worked the local community into such a frenzy in 1559 that they trashed St. John’s Church and destroyed the local monasteries, starting the infamous Scottish Reformation.

Then, I walk further back in time to Watergate, which is not a gate at all: in a city swimming with international influences it comes from “gaet”, the Scandinavian word for street. Along the way small vennels – now a French and Scots word for narrow lanes – break off in all directions from the High Street in a city whose medieval walled plan is still intact.

Scotland’s longest river is the star of Watergate, with how bustling traders from the Low Countries and the Baltic Sea bring their exotic goods to the highest navigable point in the Tea.

Three years ago I met Iain Fenwick from the ubiquitous Perthshire Local app here by the river, as we scanned it for the beavers that had recently made their home – the first beavers in the UK in hundreds of years. Perth has just been named the happiest city in Scotland (and the fifth in the UK) by Rightmove, and the outlook seems to remain positive.

“There’s definitely a buzz about it and we’re on a roll – this year Perthshire was voted the most welcoming region in the world,” Fenwick told me. “I see it as businesses sign up to my app – they’re moving into new premises and expanding, and other businesses are coming in.

Kinnoll Tower in PerthKinnoll Tower in Perth

Perth’s Kinnoll Tower at sunrise, overlooking the Tea – Joe Daniel Price/Getty Images

“I would attribute that directly to the arrival of The Stone of Destiny. The museum brought the community even closer together and made us even more proud to showcase Perth.” Iain directed me towards George Street, which he said “speaks for itself”. It really does.

This elegant avenue extends from near Perth Museum to another of the city’s cultural treasures – the Perth Concert Hall and Perth Gallery, the latter reborn with expanded gallery space after the museum’s collection moved to its new home.

The star of an impressive show is the collection of Scottish colorist John Duncan Fergusson (1874–1961), who moved into his new permanent home just weeks before the arrival of the Stone of Destiny. Ferguson had connections with everyone from Charles Rennie Mackintosh to Picasso, and it is fitting that his pioneering dancer and choreographer wife, Margaret Morris, is celebrated as more than just his muse.

Ferguson would be a fan of the rebirth of George Street. He pines for his beloved Parisian cafes and would be in touch with joie de vivre here today. The Bean Shop houses artisan coffee roasters, so much so that they supply the Perth Museum cafe with its own “Destiny” blend.

View of St Matthew's Church and Old Bridge in Parth, ScotlandView of St Matthew's Church and Old Bridge in Parth, Scotland

A view of St Matthew’s Church and the Old Bridge in Perth, Scotland – Kenny McCartney/Getty Images

“Perth is a great place to live and work. Everyone helps each other. Scots tend to talk themselves down,” said co-owner John Bruce. “Yes, we have post-Covid issues like other towns and cities in the UK, but we are pushing forward, as you can see with the successful independent businesses on this one street alone.”

Bruce directs me down George Street to the Perth Distillery on what is shaping up to be a match for Perth’s positive spirits. Elaine Brady welcomes my unannounced arrival. The idea that she works in dark cellars and old stables hidden in the world below the Royal George Hotel is amazing.

There is gin around her, however, the literary fruits of the Perth Distillery craftsman. Scottish Gin Awards Gold Medal winner Perth Pink is the show-stopper, infused with Perthshire’s famous raspberries, along with 16 botanicals.

I go near Prince Street, where Quince & Cook shines as all things to all people. Would you like a cooking lesson on Aga, or a pasta making session? Done. Or how about an interior design workshop or botanical skincare tutorial? The charming staff show me their “refills”, which dispense cut-price toiletries and household cleaners to fill your own container.

On the day of my visit, they were giving away a free unicorn with every purchase to celebrate the opening of the museum – the fictional white horned horse is, of course, Scotland’s national animal.

Unicorn manuscript exhibition PerthUnicorn manuscript exhibition Perth

The first exhibition at the new Perth Museum explores the story of Scotland’s national animal, the unicorn – The Fitzwilliam Museum

Stepping back to take another look at a museum that captured my heart as quickly as it inspired and ennobled a city, I think of the Lord Provost. “We are not ones to rest on our laurels”, McDade told me. “It’s a city that really pushes boundaries, and we have plans to move forward radically with bigger aims and investment in our community.

“We take on challenges head on and try to be bold. ‘Nobody has a monopoly on wisdom’, as our council leader likes to say. And our museum is free and open to all, as proof of that.”

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