Walking: Celtic cradle for a forest of giants

Katie Wood shuns America's 'fall' and prefers the autumnal hues of Scotland's mighty trees
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The Independent Travel

Each summer the National Parks of California fill to capacity with visitors. They come to see the tallest, widest, oldest trees in the US - an understandable enough pursuit, but the crowds shouting "gee whizz" do somewhat detract from the experience.

Each summer the National Parks of California fill to capacity with visitors. They come to see the tallest, widest, oldest trees in the US - an understandable enough pursuit, but the crowds shouting "gee whizz" do somewhat detract from the experience.

Likewise, when New England's highways fill each "fall" with tourists who have come to see the autumn colours, the result is less than the spiritual experience one might have hoped for. There is little chance to commune with nature given the pressure of the traffic.

How refreshing, then, to find a small neck of the woods close to home, where six beneath a tree would constitute a crowd, and which has such treasures as the Tallest Hedge in the World, the Oldest Living Thing in Europe (the Fortingall yew, 5,000 years old); the Tallest Tree in Britain (a mighty Douglas fir), the Widest Conifer in Britain (a giant redwood) and the tallest specimens of many other trees.

You don't have to cross the pond for all this. Just head up to Perthshire, an hour's drive north from Edinburgh and Glasgow. Here, in a new tourism initiative entitled "Big Tree Country", all the glory of autumn colours and champion trees can be found - without the crowds.

Foresters have long appreciated the trees of Perthshire, dubbing it the cradle of the Scottish forest renaissance arising from the tree-planting efforts of the "Planting Dukes" of Atholl in the 18th and 19th centuries. Now these magnificent natural attractions are opening up to those visitors who wish to walk here all year round. Private forest owners, the Forestry Commission, the local authority and tourist interests, are all working together in a way which is intended to benefit visitors and the management of the woods themselves. And thanks to a combination of excellent growing conditions and a rich history, Perthshire's tree heritage is among the most interesting in Europe. Miles of way-marked forest paths make it straightforward walking and the region is filled with cosy inns, tea rooms, medieval castles, country houses, uncluttered roads and welcoming pubs and b&bs.

There are people to thank for this. Chief among them is David Douglas, born in Scone in 1799, one of the greatest of the 19th-century plant hunters whose plant introductions have done so much to shape the countryside and gardens of modern-day Britain. Douglas returned from the Pacific Northwest with seeds of lupins, flowering currants, mahonias and penstemons, as well as those of trees such as the mighty Douglas fir - a species that has produced the largest trees in Europe and provided the foundation for today's modern forestry industry. Serious horticultural enthusiasts will soon be able to visit the Plant Hunters' Garden at Pitlochry Festival Theatre and discover more of the adventures behind the introduction of many of our domesticated garden plants.

You can visit Douglas's memorial in Scone or see some of his original Douglas firs at Scone Palace, a treat in itself. Here the giant conifers - often the "champion" trees of their type in Britain - can make you believe that you are in American Big Tree Country. Huge Douglas firs, towering Sitka spruce and silver firs give a feel of the Pacific North West. The overall winner is a Douglas fir near the Hermitage at Dunkeld: the tallest tree in Britain at 212ft.

There is real wilderness, too. At the Black Wood of Loch Rannoch - the remnants of old Scottish wildwood - I admired huge Scots Pines up to 350 years old and saw pine martens, red squirrels and capercaillies, all native to these northern pine woods. I then walked past the tallest hedge in the world: enough to hide any neighbour at 100ft high and a third of a mile long. It stands at Meikleour, on the A93 road between Perth and Blairgowrie, and is a magnificent autumn sight. The Fortingall yew tree - that oldest tree, estimated at 5,000 years - sits in the small thatched hamlet of Fortingall, in the church grounds. The tourist board literature assured me that "Pontius Pilate was born here while his father was a visiting emissary of the Roman Empire". It seemed churlish to point out that the timing of the Roman invasion of Britain makes that impossible, but what would a Highlands attraction be without a legend?

I had to swallow my own "gee whizzes" as I went to see the widest conifer in Britain at Cluny House Gardens near Aberfeldy. Here we walked among the birch trees or "Birks O' Aberfeldy" made famous by Robert Burns. Around nearby Dunkeld you find the greatest concentration of tree treasures, and literary walkers will appreciate the fact that from here you can walk to Birnam Oak, a remnant of the Birnam Wood made famous in Macbeth. This is glorious craggy woodland.

On the banks of the River Tay, the next stop on my arboreal trail was Niel Gow's Oak, named after one of Scotland's finest traditional fiddlers and composers who lived in the area 200 years ago. Niel used to play and compose under the ancient tree's boughs. Or at least he did until he fell asleep underneath it one day after imbibing Scotland's famous drink, and woke up to find himself half-submerged in the Tay - hence his famous lament, "Niel Gow's Farewell to Whisky".

Inspired by such folksy tales, we took the local advice to visit MacLean's Real Music Bar in Dunkeld. An excellent evening ensued with traditional Scottish music, local ale and a chance to meet the owner, well-known musician Dougie MacLean, who has earned the reputation as "Niel Gow's apprentice". I waxed lyrical about the colours, trees and the walks with a local worthy, who counselled me "not to go telling the world". Well, I'm afraid the secret is out with the Autumn Gold initiative, and at least it might tempt travellers who might otherwise be put off by the weather.