Ordnance Survey large scale Scottish town plans, 1847-1895

PERTH (surveyed in 1860)




Perth lies on the west bank of the Tay, at the point where the river becomes tidal and enters the Firth of Tay. The town took its name from 'Bertha', which was a Roman fort about three miles to the north of the existing burgh of Perth. 'Bertha' is believed to derive from a Brythonic or Cumbric word meaning 'copse', 'wood' or 'thicket'. For four or five centuries Perth was also known as 'St John's Toun', after the parish church established when the burgh was first built. Perth was founded by David I circa 1125, at the lowest ford or bridgepoint on the Tay. The town quickly grew in size and importance, becoming the caput or centre of a Sheriffdom, gaining a castle, forming links with significant religious foundations and establishing trading links with the continent and other Scottish burghs. Despite being occupied by English troops, and then partly destroyed whilst being recaptured by Robert the Bruce, by the mid-fourteenth century Perth was, according to Smith (2001), one of the 'four great towns' of Scotland, the others being Edinburgh, Dundee and Aberdeen.


Its royal residences and proximity to Scone, the traditional coronation place of Scottish monarchs, gave Perth a claim to be the capital of Scotland, but in 1452 Edinburgh was officially recognised as the capital, and the Scottish Parliament ceased to meet in Perth. Perth's economic development faltered in the late-sixteenth and early-seventeenth centuries, due partly to the silting of the Tay and outbreaks of bubonic plague, but by 1665 prosperity in the town was rising again due to the growth in the linen industry. Textile manufacture, and Perth's traditional role as a trading and service centre, ensured that the town flourished in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and in 1851 the population of the parliamentary burgh of Perth was measured at 23,835.


Town Planning

The earliest community in Perth lived along the west bank of the Tay, on the line of the present Watergate (sheets XCVIII.5.9.-5.14.), where boats could be beached. The burgh planned by David I was to the same design as many of the other early Scottish burgh foundations, comprising a long high street, sloping east towards an open market place (sheet XCVIII.5.9.), a few hundred feet above the main river crossing. The castle was built just to the north of the marketplace, and St John's church just to the south (sheet XCVIII.5.14.). Perth was unusual in Scottish burgh development, however, in that a second major thoroughfare, South Street (sheet XCVIII.5.14.), was added to the town very early in its development. South Street ran parallel to the High Street, and the square appearance this lent to Perth's streetscape led some antiquarians to believe that the burgh must be of Roman origin. The two main streets were linked by perpendicular secondary streets and vennels, and later development of the town generally continued in this pattern, producing a compact, grid-like town centre, bounded at either end by two public greens, the North and South Inches. Defensive walls which surrounded the original town centre were still intact in many places as late as the eighteenth century.


Trade and Industry

From its earliest days Perth had a rich and diverse manufacturing base, which included leather tanners, shoemakers, jewellers, potters, coppersmiths, weavers and dyers. The success of these industries fluctuated, and different crafts or trades dominated the burghal economy in different periods. By the late-seventeenth century textiles had replaced metalworking as Perth's most significant industry, and by the nineteenth century linen, flax and cotton were all being spun, woven and bleached in Perth. The town's textile industry also facilitated the success of Pullar's, specialists in silk dying, whose factory, first opened in 1848, could by the 1920s claim to be the largest dyeworks in the world. Sheepskin was another staple product of Perth, and glove-making was for a long time its most notable specialist manufacture, although by the time the town was surveyed the craft had largely disappeared.


Other industries in the town in the mid-nineteenth century included umbrella gingham production, shawl and scarf production, ink-making, rope-making, shipbuilding, coach-building, iron-working, flour-milling, brewing, and most significantly, distilling.


In 1846 John Dewar had set up a wholesale wine and spirit business in Perth, and in 1851, Arthur Bell joined Sandeman's, a small local drinks business of which he soon became sole owner. By the end of the nineteenth century Bell's and Dewar's of Perth were two of the most famous whisky distillers in the world.


Perth harbour, while no longer one of the busiest Scottish ports by the mid-nineteenth century, continued to see steady trade. Principal imports included Baltic and American timber, bark, hides, flax, tar, coal, salt, lime, linseed, clover seed, cheese and foreign spirits, while Perth's main exports were Scottish timber, oak-bark, slate, pit-props, rails, potatoes, corn and manufactured goods.


The town was also an important market centre for produce from the rich surrounding farmland. Markets were held twice weekly, on Wednesdays and Fridays, and around seven fairs were held every year, some specialising in the sale of sheep and wool, others in cattle, butter and cheese and yet others in cattle and horses.



Perthshire contains some of the finest farmland in Scotland, and in the nineteenth century various agricultural improvements were carried out in the area, including better drainage, the building of flood barriers on the Tay's flood-plain, and a new six-year crop rotation cycle. The low-lying land immediately adjacent to the town was mainly given over to arable farming, and the staple crops produced were wheat, beans, barley, oats and potatoes. The cattle reared in the area were either of the Angus or short-horned breed. According to the 1845 Statistical Account, no sheep were reared in the parish of Perth.


Perth was not significantly concerned in sea-fishing, but the Tay was famous for its salmon fisheries, which in the mid-nineteenth century employed more than 450 men at any one time. Later in the nineteenth century, grouse shooting also became a profitable business for the hinterland of Perth.


Religious Life

The parish church of Perth, St John's, has been the centrepiece of the town since its foundation, and it is believed that a church building may have stood on the site from as early as the fifth century. The mid-nineteenth century building was substantially the same as the building that exists today, containing some parts dating back to the twelfth century, and various later additions. As well as St John's, there were four other established Church of Scotland buildings in 1850s Perth, including St Leonard's, built in 1835 and one of the most distinctive building in Perth, and St Stephens, where services were conducted in Gaelic. Other denominations represented in the town included the Free Church, United Presbyterians, Original Secession Church, Independents, Old Scotch Independents, Baptists, Wesleyan Methodists, Glassites, Episcopalians and Roman Catholics.


Schools and Education

Perth Academy, the foremost school in the town, was established as a fee-paying school in 1760. A grammar school had existed in Perth since before the Reformation in 1560, and by the mid-nineteenth century taught some subjects in conjunction with the Academy. Other schools included an endowed school for poor children, an endowed trades-school, a school of industry for destitute boys, a school of industry for females, two infant schools, for girls and for boys, a ragged-school farm, two further endowed schools and more than twenty unendowed schools throughout Perth district.


Other Institutions

The County Buildings in Perth were built on Tay Street, facing the river, in 1819, and contained a courtroom, county hall, committee room, tea-room, and various offices connected to the courts. The council room and police office were situated at the east end of the High street, and the Guild Hall and Freemasons' Hall were also situated on, or just off, the High Street. The city and county prison, also erected in 1819, stood directly behind the County Buildings, and to the south of the South Inch was located the general prison for Scotland (sheet XCVIII.9.4.), originally built to house French prisoners from the Napoleonic Wars, and now known as H.M. Prison Perth. King James VI's Hospital, endowed by the monarch whose name it bears, stood on South Street and was rebuilt in 1750. The infirmary stood on county place, at the west end of South Street, and the lunatic asylum was built on the east bank of the Tay in the 1820s. The waterworks, in a distinctive roundhouse overlooking the Tay at the foot of Marshall Place (sheet XCVIII.5.19), were opened in 1830, and the Canal Street gas-works were opened in 1824. In the 1850s nine different banking companies had branches in Perth, and there were also numerous charitable societies and friendly societies. Four weekly newspapers were published in the town: the Perthshire Courier, founded in 1809 and issued on Thursdays, the Perthshire Advertiser, founded in 1829 and issued on Thursdays, the Perthshire Constitutional, founded in 1835 and issued on Wednesdays, and the Northern Warder, founded in 1845 and also issued on Thursdays.


Culture and Society

Perth made some notable contributions to Scottish culture in the nineteenth century, as the setting of Sir Walter Scott's 1828 novel The Fair Maid of Perth, and as the birthplace of the novelist John Buchan (1875-1940) and the poet William Soutar (1898-1924). As befitting an affluent town with a rich history, Perth was well served with social and cultural amenities in the 1850s. The public library and museum were contained in a fine domed building on George Street, the museum containing some valuable artworks among its collections. The town also contained five other public or circulating libraries, the literary and antiquarian society, a public newsroom, and monuments commemorating Robert Burns and Sir Walter Scott. A theatre opened in 1820, various horticultural and agricultural societies were in existence, and the sports clubs in the town included two curling clubs, a cricket club, a golf club, and a racing and hunting society.


A View of the Character of the People of Perth in 1845

'There are some persons among us who openly profess infidel principles, and some, also, who openly disregard all religious ordinances, and, what in this country is uniformly symptomatic of an abandonment of all feeling of religious propriety, there are some tradesmen who walk abroad on the Lord's day in their ordinary working habiliments, as if to show a marked contempt of what the community in general holds to be sacred. With the exception of these characters, who are generally held in the lowest estimation by their fellow townsmen, the inhabitants of the parish are entitled to the appellation of a moral and religious people.' (from the Statistical Account)





Groome, Francis H. (ed.), 1894-5. The Ordnance Gazetteer of Scotland; a survey of Scottish topography, statistical, biographical, and historical, 2nd ed., (London: William Mackenzie)


Mackay, George, 2000. Scottish Place Names (New Lanark: Lomond)


Smith, Robert, 2001. The Making of Scotland: a comprehensive guide to the growth of its cities, towns and villages (Edinburgh: Canongate)


Wilson, Rev. John Marius (ed.), 1857. The Imperial Gazetteer of Scotland or Dictionary of Scottish Topography (Edinburgh: A. Fullarton & Co.)


Edina Website Online Statistical Accounts of Scotland - http://edina.ac.uk/statacc/