Travel: Perthshire Amber festival

When songwriter Dougie MacLean wrote Caledonia in his twenties, he didn't know that the song would become a favourite of sentimental Scots worldwide, and the signature tune for the Year of Homecoming.

Homesick in Brittany, the idealistic young fiddler put to music his longing for the rugged Perthshire landscape which kept returning to his mind.

Next weekend MacLean fans and nature enthusiasts alike will honour the location that inspired the famous song at the 5th Perthshire Amber festival which is as much a celebration of place and changing seasons as it is mirth, merriment and music.

"This is more than songs," says MacLean, who grew up in the old schoolhouse in Butterstone, near Dunkeld. "The idea was always to give visitors an insight into the places behind the music and the landscape which created it."

With the River Tay a constant backdrop to his childhood play, the young MacLean roamed the hills and forests with his grandfather, a shepherd. He recalls "houking tatties" in the fields and soon the land which still inspires his music was taking hold of him, as Caledonia attests.

"At this time of the year, the leaves are changing with autumn and the trees are beautiful. The place is known as Big Tree Country and I played in and around the oak forests. I knew the landscape intimately and the area the festival is centred includes places where I have written songs. The good thing is that you can introduce people to a location so they take a memory away with them."

Showcasing the beauty of a place through a ten-day musical show is not just about sound. At Perthshire Amber, attendees can learn as much about Perthshire's architectural heritage and Iron Age past as fiddles and expert finger work.

A conscious effort has been made, through the event's evolution, to stage gigs at memorable locations such as the 13th-century Dunkeld Cathedral, set amidst towering trees.

Menzies Castle, where Bonnie Prince Charlie took refuge, and Blair Atholl Castle – Scotland's most visited historic house – will also host concerts.

One of the most interesting and daring locations is the Iron Age crannog or loch dwelling house, which sits atop wooden supports in Loch Tay.

"I love playing at the Crannog," smiles MacLean. "There is something ancient about it. Everyone sits around the fire and it is a very special, intimate atmosphere. Last year, the wind was whistling up the loch and the structure was swaying on its stilts. But how many times can you sit in an Iron Age crannog in a loch and listen to music?"

While many will journey to the Tay to hear the likes of Eddi Reader, Heidi Talbot, Malinky or MacLean himself strumming away, there is much to learn between gigs.

Homecoming 2009 is about Scottish rootedness and shared ancestry and Dr Bruce Durie will show visitors how to "dig up your granny" with a talk on the vogue subject of genealogy. Visitors can brush up outdoor photography skills at workshops or march off on one of the many guided walks, which include a stomp to the summit of Ben Vrackie.

Dr Nicholas Dixon, a world renowned underwater archaeologist, whose survey and excavation work at the Oakbank Crannog in Loch Tay led to the construction of the Scottish Crannog Centre, will also lead festival goers on a guided walk.

Interestingly, after MacLean wrote Caledonia, he played it that night to his fellow musicians at their youth hostel. They all packed up their instruments and went home the next day. MacLean returned to his native Perthshire and only now leaves to play his songs across the world.

It must be something about the area, he acknowledges. "It is a very beautiful place. This festival is a chance for people from all over the world to see that."

Perthshire Amber: The 5th Dougie MacLean Festival, 30 October to 8 November, 2009, www.perthshireamber.com or tel: 01350 724281.

This article was first published in The Scotsman on 24 October 2009