Scotland’s happiest city finally has its crowning glory

The charming new Perth Museum sits next to the city’s other cultural treasures: Greg Holmes

“The Stone of Destiny is not a destination, but rather the beginning of a new journey for the city,” smiles Xander McDade, Perth’s dynamic 30-year-old Lord Provost, as he greets me on the opening day of the sparkling new Perth Museum.

The most symbolic stone in the British Isles may make headlines, but it’s the renaissance of this oft-forgotten city on the River Tay that’s really making waves.

It’s not easy to build a museum around a lump of stone, but they’ve done a great job of making it shine with sleek visuals and drama-generating architecture from award-winning architecture firm Mecanoo.

The Stone of Scone was an integral part of Scotland’s coronations near Perth at Scone Palace, before Edward I snatched it away in 1296 to triumphantly crown the kings and queens of England and Great Britain at Westminster Abbey. Devolution brought it to Edinburgh Castle, but after a detour south to crown King Charles III last year, it is back home in Perthshire for the first time in more than 700 years.

Nowadays, most visitors come here to view the stone, but the museum is also immediately charming. It tells the story of Perth, a living story involving Pictish kings, punished legionaries sent home to rethink, and Vikings who suffered a similar fate. It’s a proud story, a much-needed reminder of the past glories of Scotland’s ancient capital, which suffered the ultimate disgrace by being stripped of city status in 1975.

However, this was restored in 2012 and the arrival of the stone “confirms the coming of age of this culturally rich city with a continuation of our economic recovery”, in the words of Mr Provoost.

Stone of Destiny Perth MuseumStone of Destiny Perth Museum

The Stone of Destiny is a top attraction – Rob McDougall

Optimism courses through McDade’s youthful veins as he tries to take everyone along on his journey, but there is palpable discord: a lively protest outside complains that the money funneled into the £27 million museum could have been better spent to the financing of local groups.

It’s a typical Perth protest in this culturally rich city, as violinists herd the crowd into an impromptu ceilidh. Civic spirit and irreverence burn deep in Perth. It was in this square that John Knox whipped the local congregation into such a frenzy in 1559 that they destroyed St. John’s Kirk and plundered the local monasteries, sparking the tumultuous Scottish Reformation.

Then I walk further back in time to Watergate, which is not a gate itself: in a city bustling with international influences, it comes from ‘gaet’, the Norwegian word for street. Along the way, small fennels – a French and now Scottish word for narrow streets – break off in all directions from the High Street in a town whose medieval walled plan is still intact.

Scotland’s longest river is the star of Watergate, with a quayside that once bustled with traders from the Low Countries and the Baltic bringing their exotic goods to the Tay’s highest navigable point.

Three years ago I met Iain Fenwick of the ubiquitous Perthshire Local app here on the river, as we scanned it for the beavers who had recently made it their home – Britain’s first urban beavers in centuries. Perth has just been named the happiest city in Scotland (and the fifth in Britain) by Rightmove, and it looks like the positivity has continued.

“There’s certainly a lot of buzz about it and we’re well on our way – this year Perthshire was named the most hospitable region in the world,” Fenwick told me. “I see it with companies that register with my app: they move to a new building and expand, while other companies enter.

The tower of Kinnoull Hill in PerthThe tower of Kinnoull Hill in Perth

Kinnoull Hill’s tower in Perth at sunrise, overlooking the River Tay – Joe Daniel Price/Getty Images

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

This elegant thoroughfare runs from close to the Perth Museum to the city’s other cultural treasures: the Perth Concert Hall and the Perth Art 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 the Scottish colorist John Duncan Fergusson (1874–1961), who moved into his permanent new home a few weeks before the arrival of the Stone of Destiny. Ferguson had ties to everyone from Charles Rennie Mackintosh to Picasso, and it is fitting that his pioneering wife, dancer and choreographer, Margaret Morris, is also celebrated as more than just his muse.

Ferguson is said to have been a fan of the rebirth of George Street. He longed for his beloved Parisian cafes and he would have found a whiff of them joie de vivre here today. The Bean Shop is home to artisan coffee roasters, so trendy that they supply the Perth Museum cafe with their own ‘Destiny’ blend.

A view of St. Matthew's Church and the Old Bridge in Perth, ScotlandA view of St. Matthew's Church and the Old Bridge in Perth, Scotland

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

“Perth is a wonderful place to live and work. Everyone helps each other. Scots tend to talk ourselves down,” says co-owner John Bruce. “Yes, we have post-Covid problems similar to other UK cities, but we are soldiering on, as you can see from the thriving independent businesses on this one street.”

Bruce points me towards the Perth Distillery on George Street on a day that is becoming a life-affirming game of Perth positivity pinball. Elaine Brady announces my unannounced arrival with another cheerful welcome. Impressive when you consider that she works in a dark cellar and old stables, hidden from the world beneath the Royal George Hotel.

However, she is surrounded by gin, the literal fruit of Perth’s artisanal distillery. The showstopper is the Perth Pink, winner of the Scottish Gin Awards Gold Medal, infused with abundant famous Perthshire raspberries, along with 16 botanicals.

I head to Princes Street, where Quince & Cook shines as all things to all people. Fancy a cooking lesson on an Aga, or a pasta making session? Finished. Or how about an interior design workshop or a tutorial on botanical skin care? The engaging staff show me around their ‘refill room’, where cheap toiletries and household cleaning products are provided for you 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 Perth ExhibitionUnicorn Manuscript Perth Exhibition

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

As I wander back for another sneaky look at a museum that has captured my heart as quickly as it has heartened and emboldened a city, I think of the Lord Provost. “We’re not one to sit on our laurels,” McDade had told me. “We are a city that truly pushes boundaries, and we have plans to move radically forward with bigger goals and investments in our community.

“We face challenges and try to be brave. “No one has a monopoly on wisdom,” as our council leader likes to say. And as proof of this, our museum is free and accessible to everyone.”

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