The History of Perth

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The name Perth comes from a Pictish word for wood or copse. There has been a settlement at Perth for more than 8,000 years, with farming having been introduced to the area some 4,000 years ago.

Perth has been known as “The Fair City” since the publication of the story Fair Maid of Perth by Scottish writer Sir Walter Scott in 1828. During the later medieval period the city was also called St John’s Toun or Saint Johnstoun by its inhabitants in reference to the main church dedicated to St John the Baptist. This name is preserved by the city’s football team, St. Johnstone F.C.

The presence of Scone Abbey, two miles northeast and home of the Stone of Destiny where the King of Scots was crowned, enhanced the early importance of the city. Kings of Scots were crowned at Scone down to Alexander III (1249–86)

Perth became known as capital of Scotland, due to the frequent residence of the royal court. Royal Burgh status was given to Perth by King David I (1124–53) in the early 12th century and the city became one of the richest burghs in the country, doing trade with France, the Low Countries and Baltic Countries for goods such as Spanish silk and French wine. 

Perth was also a manufacturing center. Wool was woven in Perth. It was then fulled. That means it was beaten in a mixture of water and clay to thicken and clean it. At first the wool was trodden into the water and clay by human feet. (The men who did this were called walkers). Later the wool was pounded by wooden hammers worked by watermills.

There was also a leather industry in Medieval Perth. There were skinners and tanners and leather was used to make things like gloves and shoes. There were also horners. In the Middle Ages cow and goat horn was used to make things like spoons, combs and ink wells. There were also the same craftsmen found in any medieval town like butchers, bakers and blacksmiths.  Medieval crafts are still remembered in some of the town’s old street names, e.g. Skinnergate, Cutlog Vennel.

The royal castle (on or near the site of the present multi-storey car park directly behind Atholl Place), was destroyed by a flood of the River Tay in 1209 and was never re-built.  William I (1142–1214) restored Perth’s burgh status, while it remained as the nominal capital of Scotland.

Many of the records taken from this time were the result of the arrival of the Dominicans, known as black friars because of their black costumes.  Blackfriars, Perth, was established by Alexander II (1214–49) by 1240 and, Blackfriars Wynd, the road behind Atholl Place references the site of the monastery.  Friars were like monks but instead of withdrawing from the world they went out to preach and help the poor.  Carmelites of white friars came to Perth in 1260. Franciscans or grey friars came to Perth in 1460. In 1429 a small monastery was founded for Carthusian monks.

During the Middle Ages the only ‘hospitals’ were run by the church. In Perth there were 5 hospitals. In them monks looked after the sick and the poor as best they could. (They also provided hospitality for poor travelers). There was also a leper hostel outside the town.

King Edward I of England brought his armies to Perth in 1296 where the town, with only a ditch for defence and little fortification, fell quickly. Stronger fortifications were quickly implemented by the English, and plans to wall the town took shape in 1304. They remained standing until Robert the Bruce’s recapture of Perth in 1312. He ordered the defences destroyed.

In 1332, the pretender Edward Balliol, son of John of Balliol, invaded to claim the throne of Scotland with the backing of Edward III of England. Robert the Bruce had died three years previously, and the regent of his infant son David II fell quickly at the hands of Balliol’s army at the battle of Dupplin Moor. Balliol took Perth and the throne in September, and the Scottish Civil War ensued. Balliol himself was driven out quickly, only to return the next year. His deposition was only made complete in 1336; his supporters were eventually driven from Perth in 1339. As part of a plan to make Perth a permanent English base within Scotland, Edward III forced six monasteries in Perthshire and Fife to pay for the construction of massive stone defensive walls, towers and fortified gates around the town (1336). These followed roughly the lines of present-day Albert Close, Mill Street, South Methven Street, Charterhouse Lane and Canal Street (these streets evolved from a lane around the inside of the walls). The town lade, which was led off the River Almond in an artificial channel to power the burgh mills, formed an additional line of defence around the walls. The walls were pierced by several ports or gates, whose names are still remembered: the Red Brig Port (end of Skinnergate), Turret Brig Port (end of High Street), Southgait Port (end of South Street) and the Spey Port (end of Speygate). There was probably also a minor gate leading to Curfew Row. These defences were the strongest of any town in Scotland in the Middle Ages. Though still largely complete at the time of the 1745 Jacobite Rebellion, they began to be demolished from the second half of the 18th century, and there are now no visible remains, at least above ground. The last tower, called the Monk’s Tower (corner of Tay Street and Canal Street) was demolished about 1810.

The theatre of trial by combat was first brought by Perth in 1396. The Battle of the Clans pitted Clan Chattan against Clan Cameron, each choosing 30 champions, at the town’s North Inch. This ‘tournament’ (actually an attempt to resolve a disruptive Highland feud) took place under the gaze of King Robert III (1390–1406) and his court, who watched the spectacle from the Gilten Arbour, a garden attached to the House of the Blackfriars. Although records vary, Clan Chattan is understood to have won the battle, with the last of their opponents fleeing to safety across the Tay. 

King James I of Scotland was assassinated in Perth in 1437, by followers of the Earl of Atholl at Blackfriars church.  In the mid-16th century, John Knox instigated the Scottish Reformation at grass-roots level with a sermon against ‘idolatry’ in St John’s Kirk in 1559. An inflamed mob quickly destroyed the altars in the kirk, and attacked the Houses of the Greyfriars and Blackfriars, and the Carthusian Priory. Scone Abbey was sacked shortly afterwards.  The regent of infant Mary, Queen of Scots, her mother Marie de Guise, was successful in quelling the rioting but Presbyterianism in Perth remained strong. There are no visible remains of the pre-Reformation religious houses of Perth, though their approximate locations are perpetuated in modern street-names.

In 1600 came the Gowrie conspiracy. According to King James VI, he was hunting at Falkland when the Earl of Gowrie’s brother, Alexander Ruthven asked him to come to Gowrie House. Ruthven supposedly told the king that they had a man with a container of foreign coins at the house. The king eventually went with a group of companions and was led to a room in a turret by Ruthven who then locked the door. According to the king, Ruthven then threatened him with a dagger. Ruthven left the room and locked the door. Meanwhile the companions of the king were told that the king had left and they were about to leave as well.

However the king opened a window and called for help. The king’s companions rushed to the room and killed Ruthven. The Earl of Gowrie then rushed to the scene with his servants and in the ensuing fight he was killed. It is believed by many that the conspiracy was stage managed by the king to get rid of a family he disliked.

In the 16th century and the 17th century there a number of metalworkers in Perth. As well as blacksmiths there were goldsmiths and silversmiths and craftsmen who worked with pewter. There were also armourers (armour makers) and, when guns became common, gunsmiths. The leather industry continued to prosper. There were also weavers and fullers in Perth. Furthermore Perth was still a busy little port. However, in the late 17th century, a linen industry grew up in Perth. It soon became the pillar of the town’s prosperity. 

By the late 16th century Perth probably had a population of around 6,000. By the standards of the time it was a large town.  Like all towns in those days Perth suffered from outbreaks of plague. It struck in 1512, 1585-87 and again in 1608 and 1645. However each time the plague struck the town recovered and it continued to slowly grow larger.

In 1651, Charles II was crowned at nearby Scone, traditional site of the investiture of Kings of Scots.  However, within a year, Oliver Cromwell’s Parliamentarians, fresh from victory in the English Civil War, came to Perth. Cromwell established a fortified citadel on the South Inch in 1652, one of five built around Scotland at this time to overawe and hold down the country. Perth’s hospital, bridge and several dozen houses were demolished to provide building materials for this fort. Even grave slabs from the Greyfriars cemetery were used. It was given to the town in 1661 not long after Cromwell’s death, and began almost immediately to be dismantled. There are now no visible remains. 

The restoration of Charles II was not without incident, and with the Act of Settlement in 1701, came the Jacobite uprisings (to which Perth was supportive) and the city was occupied by Jacobite soldiers in 1689, 1715 and 1745.

The founding of Perth Academy in 1760 helped to bring major industries to the town, such as linen, leather, bleach and whisky. Given its central location, Perth was perfectly placed to become a key transport centre with the coming of the railways and its station was built in 1848.  In 1812 a prison was built in Perth for French prisoners of war. It was later converted to a civilian prison.  The Perth Royal Infirmary was built in 1838 as the Perth City and County Infirmary. The original building now houses the A. K. Bell Library. In 1914 it relocated due to cramped conditions – making the hospital one of the first in Scotland to deal with X-rays.  Piped water and gas became available in the 1820s, and electricity in 1901. However, like all early 19th century towns Perth was dirty and unsanitary. In 1832-33 a cholera epidemic killed 148 people.

Horse-drawn carriage became popular in the 1890s although they were quickly replaced by electric trams.  From 1905, electric trams ran in the streets of Perth but from 1927 they were replaced by buses. The last tram ran in 1929.

Despite being a garrison town, Perth was relatively unchanged by the First World War.

During the Second World War, Perth’s main cemetery, Wellshill Cemetery, was enlarged to provide space for the war dead of the Free Polish Forces based in Scotland. The graves are in a special section of the cemetery. The gravestones have the Polish eagle engraved on them, and at the entrance to the section is a Polish war memorial.

Through the centuries, Perth has suffered from flooding. A serious flood occurred in 1993 but a flood protection scheme built in 2001 has prevented any further serious floods since.

Today many of its industries have declined but Perth serves as a retail and administrative centre for the surrounding area.  It was awarded city status in 2012 as part of Queen Elizabeth II’s Jubilee and today has a population of around 45,000.

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