There has been a lot of media flannel about St John’s Town in the wake of their peppy team bringing home the Scottish Cup. But some is overdue praise for a little-recognised Scottish success story and one both the Central Belt and civic planners would do well to learn from. Perth and Perthshire may be considered the “Heart of Scotland”, as their local tourist industry would have it. But it links in to other parts of Scotland in a whole series of ways such that there are few other representative touchstones that could mirror the complex country we live in.
The bulk of the county is Highlands, reaching far into the glens towards Dalwhinnie, Glen Lyon and Killin. Acres of tartan are shifted out of the House of Bruar on a daily basis; far fewer pounds of salmon are lifted from nonetheless fiercely delineated beats along the Tay; Glenshee is still celebrating a bumper ski season; on the Atholl and Chesthill and Glenfernate estates they are gearing up to cater for well heeled shooting parties.
But another swathe across the South is as fertile a swathe of beautiful rolling countryside as you find anywhere in Berwickshire or Fife or the Mearns. It turns gold and green in the summer and slides into russet, offering some of the most scenic bike or open-top car runs down its sleepy lanes. Yet come into Perth itself and you find a bustling place that wholly merits the title of ‘city’.
Not only does a tastefully pedestrianised area around the High Street provide a pleasant outdoor shopping environment but the hypermarkets along the nearby Dunblane Road offers a selection of bulk buy opportunities where it’s easy to load up the car. The retail offering has a huge catchment from Crianlarich to Cupar: people even travel from Dundee, it’s that attractive.
And its economy holds its own with any similar-sized town, having survived a local decline in the whisky industry for more romantic settings deeper in the Highlands and the merger of General Accident (headquartered in Perth) with Norwich Union, it is still the home to leading UK firms like Scottish & Southern and Stagecoach. Heavy engineering has declined here, as in much of Scotland. What remains survives around the little-known port where ships can still navigate the Firth of Tay.
As a result, the city has a richer political mix than its hinterland, with Labour & Lib-Dem councillors representing many city wards while the rural ones tend to be SNP where they have replaced (but not entirely displaced) the Tories as the locally dominant force. In fact, the SNP has quietly run Perth & Kinross (P&KC) for the last two decades with little fuss and quiet efficiency, overseeing major local investment like Perth Concert Hall and the Tay Flood Defences. Some city centre housing does compare poorly with douce villas off the Glasgow Road but the difference is less than in Scotland’s larger cities.
People who are partisan about their own home town may disagree but many objective observers acknowledge Perth as Scotland’s most successful and liveable city, with outliers like Dunkeld, Crieff and Blairgowrie. Not suburbs but towns in their own right they offer, if anything, even better quality of life. So it is perhaps long overdue that their local football team should plant the ‘Fair City’ solidly on the map at last. At 45,000 people, it is urban enough to offer cinema, theatre, restaurant and other cultural offerings people now demand, while not losing a green ambience that the river and the two massive Inches lend it. It even rates No.10 as tourist destination with Insider Scotland.
With Scotland’s future demographics no longer tied to where coal can be mined or ships can be launched, we need not be thirled to the 19th/20th century dictum that the big city is the place to be: modern communications and a higher value put on quality of life demand a more flexible and livable approach. Far too much time is wasted on the M8 than is good for people of the economy.
Perth actually offers an excellent model for the future: a modest city serving its citizens better than sprawling monoliths spawned by the industrial age. Just as small countries like Denmark or Singapore have shown how modest size can offer nimble economic advantages to prosper in the 21st century, is it not logical that places like Perth—and by extension, Stirling, Dumfries or Inverness (No 2 in Rightmove’s Happy At Home Index for 2014)—will be the places to invest and that those places will become a magnet for quiet affluence that all can enjoy?