Walk of the week: Birnam Hill

A walk from Dunkeld to Birnam Hill gives a partly sheltered wooded outing with a signposted pathway; ideal for a shorter winter's day.

That is exactly what I did when the weather forecast of extensive low-lying cloud and drizzle ruled out a higher hill. My choice of Birnam Hill gave a good leg stretch.

The hill is shown on both Ordnance Survey maps 52 and 53. However, the larger-scale map on the excellent leaflet, Dunkeld & Birnam Walks (available for 1 from the information centre in Dunkeld), is more useful, following what is known as the Birnam Hill Walk, with red signposts showing a small pointing walker. Higher up, some of the signs have weathered so that they are more pink than red.The route

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From the north car park in Dunkeld, head south along Atholl Street (the old A9) to Dunkeld Bridge over the River Tay. Designed by Thomas Telford and built between 1804 and 1809 to replace two ferries upstream, the bridge was paid for by tolls, charged until 1879. Previously, drovers had to get their cattle to swim the river.

Turn left into Little Dunkeld and Birnam and continue to just before the Beatrix Potter Garden, where a signpost directs you into Birnam Glen. Follow the narrow road on the east bank of the Inchewan Burn. The road goes under the A9 and then the railway. A pathway leaves the road at the latter bridge but the road can still be followed as it curves higher up the glen to rejoin the path.

Continue south-east on the road, later a track, that gently rises through charming woodland; a walk not spoiled by the sight and sound of the nearby A9. Before reaching Craigbeithe, look out for another sign on the left-hand side where the narrow path leaves the track. On my visit, on what was admittedly a damp day, the path was somewhat muddy.

I passed two backpackers from Holland. They could not contain their enjoyment at being in such a lovely wooded area, so unlike their homeland, and regretted that their week in Scotland was almost over. The damp only added to their enjoyment.

The undulating path ever so gradually swings away from the A9. The path crosses a track, and then parallels the track to within sight of the railway again. (This slate quarry track goes under the railway to the quarry car park by the B867. The Birnam quarry should not be explored as the old slate workings could become unstable and dangerous.) At this stage it is important to notice where the signposted path heads to the right, southerly, for the start of the steeper pull-up that eventually leads, by now on a grassy track, to open hillside. Just off the track, at Stair Bridge over the Birnam Burn, there is a good viewpoint looking south towards Perth. The burn flows towards Robin's Dam. The track goes west by the burn, then northwards, later reaching a stepped climb that leads to the small but rough summit area where a large cairn marks the 404m high point, King's Seat.

By this time I was into low-lying cloud, clearing from time to time to give grey but atmospheric views. With the trees dripping in the gentle drizzle, a vivid imagination could lead one to think of the much maligned Macbeth. Crowned at Scone on the Stone of Destiny in 1037, his throne was said to be secure until Birnam Wood came to Dunsinane Hill.

An Australian couple could only gasp at the difference between their parched landscape and this inspiring mixture of colour and dampness.

The northern descent path is shorter, thus steeper, and in the initial stage is little more than a quagmire. However, the path does improve lower down – take time to stand at the next viewpoint with a truly staggering vista down to Dunkeld. Return to Birnam then retrace your steps back to Dunkeld.

Map: Ordnance Survey maps 52 or 53

Distance: 6 miles

Height: 400m

Terrain: Road, track and path

Start point: North car park, Dunkeld

Time: 3-4 hours

Nearest town: Dunkeld

Nearest refreshment spot: Howie's Bistro, Atholl Street, Dunkeld

• This article was first published in The Scotsman on Saturday 09 January, 2010.