Singletrack Magazine Issue 113 : Dunkeld Exposé

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We sent Pete Scullion to the small Scottish town of Dunkeld to see if it really is the best mountain bike town you’ve never heard of…

Words & Photography Pete Scullion

Quintessential Scottish spring conditions greet us as we hurtle down an unusually dry Atholl Hill at the northern end of Dunkeld. The sun is out, the trails are dry, but it’s snowing… Only in Scotland and only in April. Regardless of the nonsense falling from the sky, grip is high, and speed keeps growing as we dart through the tall pines and larches that this area is famous for. Local hero and Flotec Suspension main man Taj Hendry is our man on point – setting about whooping his way through turn after turn, all the while leaving dust lingering for us to ride through. Tom Simpson has hopped over the hill to make our group a four and he’s hot on Taj’s heels, with me and Jules MacLean, the other half of Flotec, out the back, but having just as much fun.

Only the buzz of freehubs, the skitter of locked wheels and the muffled sound of tyres over pine needles thick with dust fill the air and there’s a sense of timelessness about the descent. Turns are firm and grippy, but loose enough for some oversteer should the practitioner be keen. Lines usually out of bounds through the winter months seem far too easy, and it’s hard not to push back up to session the really good bits. 

Atholl Hill is one of four hills surrounding Dunkeld and Birnam that contain a bounty of cycling gold, and is by far the least hammered. Escaping the attention of both the Scottish Enduro Series and the Perth Highland Enduro means this end of town is a far cry from the rough and ready hills that overlook the Tay.

Maybe Macbeth.

While Dunkeld is well known to fans of Beatrix Potter and  Macbeth, it has long been famous for something else, and considerably more bike-related too. That is its fierce downhill track. Long revered as one of the steepest, roughest, and least forgiving of any of the Scottish Downhill Association’s quiver of terrifying offerings. The word Dunkeld has struck fear into the hearts of many a mountain biker, long before pedalling to the top was the done thing. So ferocious was this track that categories lower than junior would miss out the fearsome top section of the track and start from the fire road crossing. Even then, at the halfway mark, there is still opportunity to have the infamous bedrock make mincemeat of bike and body. As I write this, I can still recall the amoxicillin-induced zombie state I endured after one particular incident on the upper reaches, whereby I lost most of the skin off my right shin despite wearing shin pads.

Downhill dominated Dunkeld’s proceedings for many a year, with things changing little and the event’s satellite location meaning few racers paying any real attention to what the town had to offer. Fast forward a decade and things began to change. Bikes become more capable and riders start to cut their own lines into the hill. Dunkeld became a place to ride a bike with considerably lower risk.

Tay vs Tweed.

Roll off the A9 and over the Thomas Telford-designed bridge and there isn’t an awful lot to this Georgian town that screams ‘bikes’. The narrow streets seem choked with parked cars, especially on the sunnier weekends, but that needn’t put you off. Scratch just below the surface and you will find a small group of very enthusiastic people in Dunkeld and Birnam who are pushing mountain biking hard. While Dunkeld has always been famous for its downhill track, race action at Craigvinean Forest never really translated to visitors in town. 

Times have changed for the better, and there are people travelling from far and wide to Dunkeld to ride what the area has to offer. 

While the Tweed Valley may have had pounds sterling thrown at it in order to bring the area back to life, Dunkeld has fostered its cycling community very much from the ground up. People are what make Dunkeld and Birnam what it is, and what it will become. This growth, does though need reconciling with the older view of a Dunkeld that got by happily on tourist traffic alone. Mountain biking, it seems, isn’t something Dunkeld needed or still needs, but this group of local riders and business owners are working hard to get other people to see the tangible benefits that cycling brings.

Dunkeld offers far more than the gravity-fuelled madness that Craigvinean has to offer – with plenty of riverside cruises and fire road blasts there is riding for all ages and abilities. Dunkeld has almost everything it already needs for those wishing to turn a wheel on dirt. The four hills above the Tay offer varying degrees of lunacy on their upper slopes, gradually mellowing the closer to the river they get. Atholl, Newtyle and Birnam hills, along with Craigvinean Forest, are within striking distance on the bike, but be prepared to have your legs tested. The hills here rise sharply skyward from the UK’s ninth longest river, so any descent is well earned.

Waymarking isn’t something that Dunkeld and Birnam does all that well. The trails the area is now better known for are handcrafted slithers of gold that lurk in forests of truly enormous woodwork. Thankfully, you needn’t look far before finding an enthusiastic local to nudge you in the right direction. And you will probably meet every one of these locals during your travels through the village for food, spares, and other trail essentials.

Time to refuel.

More than likely your first port of call will be The Scottish Deli on the main street. While this kind of deli is certainly not uncommon, again, it’s the people that make the difference. The 200-year-old building has charm that is quite unique and the proprietors Sarah and Simon Yearsley are very much pro-bike. 

Simon’s background was in youth cycling development long before he and his wife ran the shop, and Big Tree Campervans, both of which sponsor the local bike shop downhill team of which their son, Ed, is a part. 

Big Tree also sponsors the local youth race series, a multidiscipline series supported by Developing Mountain Biking in Scotland (DMBinS) focused on fun racing for eight to 18-year-olds. 

Simon is insistent that “young people on bikes is just good, for a plethora of reasons”, and I can’t find any way of disagreeing with him. Outdoor enthusiasts, I’m told, will always be welcome here, regardless of the state they’re in. 

Everything here seems to be focused on making the community a better place. All the products are those you can’t get at a supermarket, and sourced locally where possible. The smoked salmon travels a whopping 11 metres from the smokehouse to the shelf; local vegetables from the community project ‘The Field’ are sold with no mark-up and the money raised goes straight back to the project itself. Coffee standards are high, with beans coming from nearby Glen Lyon – you’ll be plenty awake enough to hit the trails after sampling the black stuff here.

While the Yearsleys are clearly behind bikes all the way, there is the feeling that an ‘enthusiastically careful’ approach to development is needed. Dunkeld doesn’t need mountain biking, but it would certainly bring benefits, so – as ever – communicating considerately with those not as besotted with push irons is vital to maintaining organic growth with as little conflict as possible. There is a growing realisation that developing mountain biking in Dunkeld and Birnam has tangible economic, as well as social, benefits. Simon is convinced that the sharp rise in bikes heading to the area is because of the hard work of the trail builders in the area, and doffs his cap to them.

Touring the town. 

Once you’ve stocked up on coffee, sandwiches, and the rest, your nose will more than likely do the work for you. Follow your beak to St Ninians Wynd and you’ll find all the bike specialists next door to each other. Both Progression Bikes and Flotec Suspension are pushing mountain biking in the area in their own unique way, but always with an eye on making sure it’s done right. Anyone who doesn’t know where they’re going will always be met by a friendly face, no matter which door they darken. The locals here are keen for riders to sample what they’ve created, knowing they’re not for the faint of heart.

Progression Bikes arrived some six years ago and immediately revitalised the uplift situation at Cragvinean. Many years had passed where illegal shuttles or pushing were the norm, but Adam Flint has more riders wanting to get on the uplift than he can deal with and the forest is again swarming with the downhill brigade. Again, downhill is just the tip of the iceberg, and the shop’s downhill team is now in its second year, aimed at getting more support at the local races for the kids from the uplift days or bike camps. Bike camps, now in their third year, cater for five to 15-year-olds, covering all the skills needed as they progress from brakes and gears to lines and practising. Mini Downhill racing completes the package for the younger generation of potential champions. It would seem the kids have it good in Dunkeld if they’re not into football or tennis. 

The Perthshire Highland Enduro is where all this comes together. Adam is trail builder and logistics before and during the race, and brought the camps, Mini Downhill and the enduro into a weekend. Parents can leave their kids to be coached for the race the following day while they tackle the enduro, then head over to the more gravity-led racing on the Sunday.  

Mirroring Simon’s sentiment, Adam is aware that not everyone wants bikes to thrive in Dunkeld right now. Communication is key, and Adam has become the go-to person for local landowners to pass information back and forth between various user groups. There’s a maturity to proceedings based on the experience of other locations with a rapidly growing bike traffic that seems ahead of the issues for now.

Brown gold. 

Swing yourself round the wrought iron railing into the old coal shed and you will likely find Taj and Jules in the middle of taking apart or putting together a damper of some sort in the Flotec Suspension workshop. Flotec are arguably the diesel engine of the pro-bike push in Dunkeld and Birnam. 

Taj’s decision to move the business from Linlithgow in the Central Belt to his home town of Dunkeld saw a fairly immediate change in the quantity and quality of trail and it’s no surprise that No Fuss came to them as route guides for the Scottish Enduro Series. 

Flotec also sponsors this, and travelling around the country for these events gives them an opportunity to learn from other riding destinations.

Off the back of this sold-out event, it was Taj and Jules who got the local riders together to organise a Take Care of Your Trails Day on Newtyle Hill. No Fuss and Highland Perthshire Cycling put into the pot, and Jessie Mac’s, probably the only specifically bike-friendly accommodation provider in Dunkeld and Birnam, set rooms aside for those needing to stay the night. 

Together, Taj and Jules go about the business of suspension servicing full time alongside full-time trail advocacy in a manner which only Dunkeld can manage. Taj fosters the old school approach of ‘build well and maintain’, something other trail builders could learn from, while also being ruthlessly efficient at crafting brown gold. Jules is Dunkeld born and bred, and seemingly knows everyone. Having worked for years as production manager for her Dad’s Perthshire Amber Festival, Jules knows the pressures and requirements of a brainchild development, and again, there seems to be the running theme of careful consideration of mountain biking’s growth here. Jules stresses that Dunkeld has done well without bikes for years and the feeling is that mountain bikers need to be more considerate and responsible for what they’re doing, regardless of whether they’re locals or visitors.

Look in any direction.

Once you’ve collected your spares and essentials, every direction holds an abundance of trails that vary in ferocity from gentle riverside pootles to hectic forest steeps. Anyone who has raced the Scottish Enduro Series or the Perthshire Highland Enduro will know that there is plenty of eye-melting technicality to be found in a way that’s unique to these forests. 

Each hill has its own charm and a completely different experience on offer. Cragvinean Forest is where rock and root is king. Steep is the law here. Newtyle is bereft of trees but well benched and rapid even in the wet, despite its roots. Steepness is traded for speed, but only marginally. Birnam Hill is fast and flowy. Steep has almost been swapped for speed, but any venture off-piste will not end well. Atholl Hill is the real gem. Trails that lack the hammered feel of the other hills live here. Adam insists there will never be a race on this hill to keep it the way it is. 

Going by experience, we certainly hope that is the case. All hills here require the biggest cog to be used at some point on the way up, long and steep, often together – there’s good reason Taj has larger calves than most people’s thighs. 

Once you’ve sampled all Dunkeld has to offer atop a pair of wheels, you may well want to head for the Taybank.  Roddy Hand is one half of the team getting this wreck back to its former glory. Despite the ongoing works, the Taybank attracts the locals as it’s a locally-owned and run setup, people know Roddy and Roddy knows everyone, having lived here all his life. He doesn’t see a massive amount of riding traffic through his doors, and the focus is on getting the building finished rather than courting their trade, but riders will find they can watch their bikes while they sink a pint in the beer garden. If you arrive in the evening and can’t find anyone to put you in the right direction, plus hunger is starting to strike, then The Taybank will serve both needs. Expect a typical Highland welcome; the people here know how to greet visitors. 

Roddy’s all for bikes as the best way to explore the countryside though, and there’s chat of a mellower (than the Downhill) event linking back to the pub with live music and video in the offing once renovations are complete. He’s very aware that few people stay the night. Edinburgh is only 50 minutes away, Pitlochry just up the road offers more accommodation, and there just isn’t quite enough here to keep people staying over. That, it would seem, is part of the challenge the local community has before it, and there’s no doubt the members of the local tourist association are working towards that end.

Dunkeld is rapidly becoming a mountain biking hotspot and it is largely down to the upward shove from the locals more than anything else. Grow the trail network and races will come – races bring people from further afield and the traffic will grow. There seems to be a mature take on what the area needs to grow its mountain bike scene in a way that’s sustainable that shows the locals have learned from what other riding spots have experienced and are putting those lessons into practice. At the same time, Dunkeld and Birnam boast a remarkable group of very different, though like-minded, enthusiasts that will ensure this upward swing continues, but in Dunkeld’s unique way.

Very optional Dunkeld Boxout

Sitting comfortably? Then Professor Pete will guide you through some of the history of this small Scottish town on the Tay. 

Sitting on the north-eastern bank of the Tay, the UK’s ninth longest river, Dunkeld, to the untrained eye, is a sleepy town that mostly caters for tourists. The main street provides the focus for the town’s layout, being led into by a four-arch bridge of Telford design, but crosses the Y-shaped plan of the older town. A settlement has existed here since before the Iron Age, though more than likely on the hill overlooking the Hilton (which probably wasn’t there then…). What exists today is part of the major reconstruction after The Battle of Dunkeld in 1689, a skirmish between the Jacobites and 26th Foot Regiment. 

Long has Dunkeld been a place of religious importance. The relics of St Columba rest here to protect them from Viking raiders on Iona – the cathedral and abbey shared these great religious artefacts with Kells in Ireland for centuries, with Dunkeld’s cathedral being dedicated to the saint. This made Dunkeld the ecclesiastical centre for eastern Scotland for centuries and ensured vital pilgrimage traffic to the area. The old town would have been based around the abbey and manses that no longer exist.

There is good reason this part of the world is known as Big Tree Country. After the Reformation, local nobility brought trees back from Europe and began to plant the barren hillsides, which gives Dunkeld and surrounds a unique look with monumental plants towering skyward in all directions. Dunkeld’s cathedral sports the Parent Larch, dating from 1738, the only survivor of five brought back as seedlings in a hamper that were planted nearby and was the source of seed for the massive plantations. This sizeable lump set a trend for what now appears to be everywhere. Enormous broadleaves and conifers seem to march ever skyward, and, until only recently, Dunkeld sported the second tallest tree in the UK.

Shakespeare was inspired to visit and wrote in Macbeth about the woods here; Beatrix Potter spent much of her time at the summer house of the 6th Duke of Atholl, now the Hilton House Hotel, and penned the draft of A Tale of Peter Rabbit there, proving that the landscape can attract more than just outdoor enthusiasts. Dougie McLean of ‘Caledonia’ fame is Dunkeld born and bred, with the saying that there is nothing more Dunkeld than the man himself.

In 1977 the A9 moved traffic away from Dunkeld, the former main road to Inverness, and the town took on a different feel, which did much to make it a destination for those looking to escape to the countryside. 

Away from the trails, the town’s former heavy road traffic has left it well stocked with places to eat and stay. The Atholl Arms and Tay Bank hotels are the most instantly recognisable as you enter the town from the Tay-spanning bridge, their Georgian whitewash stands out against the bare stone of the surrounding buildings. The Royal Dunkeld and Perth Arms hotels offer the same bar and sleeping facilities as the rest, but are set back from the immediacy of the road. All provide ample foodstuffs for pre- or post-ride sustenance. Further afield, and unsurprisingly pricier, the Hilton House Hotel sits in a grand setting above the river and is probably worth every extra penny just for the setting amongst yet more giant trees. Beyond these, there are options for staying that are too numerous to mention but offer every variety of budget. 

Food is also something Dunkeld does rather well indeed. The imaginatively titled Scottish Deli sits slap bang in the middle of town and offers everything from expensive wine to locally made ice cream, cheese, cakes and cooked meat. We opted for the latter contained within bread for lunch, and being a deli, you’re not short of options when it comes to what goes down the hatch. Cafes are numerous and plentiful, all offering something slightly different, and when it comes to dinner, you’re just as spoiled, with a curry house thrown into the mix of local Scottish fare.

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