The Strathearn Village of Dunning and its fascinating heritage

 St Serfs

We are fortunate  in having  numerous  small villages and places of historic interest  scattered  throughout the Strath . Undoubtedly one of the villages  which stands out amongst the best in terms of  both ancient and modern heritage  is Dunning . Located south of the River Earn at the  foot of  the Ochil Hills , it  has a unique  past well guarded and protected  by the Dunning Parish Historical Society . The Society has been active over the decades having undertaken  numerous schemes aimed at preserving a respect  and knowledge of life as it was in this  quiet part of Perthshire Founded in 1992 it currently has  over  300 members and apart from a  well designed and informative web site it holds  regular  meetings in the village addressed  by a variety of speakers on selected  topics  of interest .

The Society has transcribed various census  returns  for the village and these are  available  to download  are consult on their  web site . Again in a genealogical vein , DPHS has produced a grave yard  survey of the ancient St Serf’s Kirk where some of the stones date back to the early 1600s . The survey too can  be consulted on the Society’s web site and has proven a  wonderful assistance to researchers  both home and abroad. In 2005 , the Society together  with the Perth & Kinross Heritage Trust  published a superb little  book “ Historic Dunning – A Perthshire Village ” which  can be purchased through their web site .

What then can one  find in and around the village ? Below  are some of the many  interesting  places , buildings and tales  one  can find in and about Dunning and the surrounding countryside .


The Battle of Mons Graupius


This epic  battle  between the native Picts ( the painted people ) and the Romans has  recently been considered as having  been fought  near Dunning  in the Clevage Hills. Roman Scotland stated on their web site
The Clevage Hills are a recognised constituent part of the Ochils “Northern Hills”, a rolling ridgeline (Dorsum) that stretch from Craig Rossie, past Dunning and, fronting the River Earn, along to at least as far as Carpow on the Tay.
The proposed Caledonian position is on the slopes of the Clevage Hills which stretch for some 3km from Middle Third to Craigenroe Hill (circa +290m OD).

The Roman auxiliaries will have deployed out of the side of their camp and marshalled their battleline on the approximate line of the modern Bridge of Earn Road (circa +50m OD) centred near Garvock.

 An initial Roman deployment 1.5 km wide will indeed have been menaced by the length of the Caledonians position on the Clevage Hills and a redeployment to 2.7 km width will have to an extent countered this threat.

 The local feature Bogtonlea suggests that boggy ground lay to the Romans flank and rear near Nethergarvock which explains the position chosen by the Romans for their camp on the slightly higher ground fronting the hillfort on Dun Croup / Crub – fort at the Croup or as it latterly came to be known in Gaelic speaking Scots times; Dun Knock.

The legionaries and Agricola’s cavalry reserve may have deployed out of the front of the camp, and were probably positioned here behind Dun Knock – crowned with its multi vallate hill fort - where they would be hidden from the Caledonians on the Clevage Hills but located sufficiently close to be able to intervene in a matter of only a few minutes if required.

Tacitus tells us they were held in reserve and Maxwell in 1990 cogently argued that the cavalry reserve (at least) had to be held in a position where they would be hidden from the Caledonians in order for their eventual counter attack to be launched to such cataclysmic effect, no doubt on account of the surprise of their sudden appearance on the battlefield at the critical moment.These are points which we shall return to.
This location also convincingly explains Tacitus own much misunderstood phrase, the legions were stationed “pro vallum” . This phrase is usually now – not entirely satisfactorily - translated as “in front of their marching camps defences”. A superior reading would fit at Dunning; i.e. before the (hillforts) ramparts.

Whether or  not this was the site of the battle  will undoubtedly remain controversial but it is clear that the Dunning site is  now considered as  being the correct locus by more than a few historical experts .

The Dupplin Cross


This 9th century sand  stone cross stood originally  in a field  overlooking what was the Pictish royal palace at Forteviot not far from Dunning . Unfortunately the probable deterioration due  to acid  rain and other modern  nasties deemed it necessary to  remove and install it elsewhere where it would  be  properly protected . After  some controversy and disputes  it  was  agreed that it  would undergo some restoration  work through Historic Scotland and be placed  in the Museum of Scotland  for three years  before returning here to Strathearn . The beautiful  13th century church of St Serfs in Dunning  was chosen as its final destination where it  can be admired in comparative  comfort ! Standing some 2.6 metres tall , the main figure on the front face is believed  to depict King Constantine ( c 789 – 820 AD ) on horseback supported  by  ranks of foot soldiers . A blank panel on the  west face revealed lines of Latin script connecting  with the King rather than Kenneth Mac Alpin as had originally been thought .

St Serf’s Church

A most attractive old building similar in many ways to the old parish kirk in Muthill not that far away. St Serf’s was endowed by the Charter of Inchaffray Abbey near Madderty and  dates  back to the early 13th Century if not before . No longer used as place of worship it is in the care of Historic Scotland and houses the Dupplin Cross described above and is  open to the public. A stone slab found within the church would  indicate that  there  may well  have been an older  building  on the site pre dating  the existing.  The “Laird’s loft “was added in 1687. The original medieval church was reconstructed about 1808.
The oldest house in the village


In the aftermath of the 1714 Jacobite uprising , Dunning  like many other of the villages of Strathearn  suffered  from the scorched earth policy of Marr’s Jacobite army. He had  botched up the Battle of  Sheriffmuir when victory was in his grasp displaying little  military skill or ability . Sheriffmuir lies  south of  Dunning  near the town of Dunblane . It was here that the Hanoverian (Government)  general, John 2nd Duke of Argyle had encamped . Marr  unlike Argyle  was no soldier but a politician . Although casualty figures are still a source of uncertainty it is  clear that the Government army  suffered  far greater casualties  than the attacking Jacobites. Marr’s  indecisiveness saw the Jacobites being ordered to retreat .  The winter snows  were deep and Marr adopted a scorched  earth policy  destroying  all  stocks of fodder in the  villages as well as burning the houses .   The  frustrated  army comprising mainly  Highland soldiers and clansmen undoubtedly  vented their  frustration on the  poor inhabitants  who just happened to be in their way . Dunning  was torched and the only  house  to avoid  destruction  can be seen today  in Kirk Wynd in the village . Known as the “ straw house ” it got its name from the actions of the old  woman  who lived there at the time  . She had  set  fire to a bundle of damp straw thus  misleading the  soldiers  who wrongly assumed that the  house was already alight .


Maggie Wall supposed witch


An earlier  blog on witchcraft  covers  the tale of Maggie Wall of Dunning and I replicate it below :
Not far from Crook of Devon lies the village of Dunning . Dunning has a memorial to Maggie Wall a so called witch . Her story has been covered in many books and pamphlets over the years The historian and author Archie McKerracher in his book on Perthshire says that a wreath is left at the cairn each year, with a card saying 'In memory of Maggie Wall, Burnt by the Church in the Name of Christianity'. Nobody knows what her 'crime' was. Perhaps somebody's cow took sick and died and Maggie got the blame. Maybe she just knew too much for her own good about the special properties of herbs and flowers. There again, perhaps the 'Witch Pricker' was called in to look for the 'Devil's Mark' on her body, and found it. This was a patch of skin stained red, brown or blue where his three-inch blade gave no pain when he pushed it in. The truth is blacker. Probably it has more to do with politics than spells, for Maggie Wall lived and died in troubled times. She also had the bad luck to live in an area with a terrible reputation for persecuting witches. Six more were executed in Dunning in 1663, in a wood on the other side of the village. That number is terrifying for a village of perhaps a few hundred souls. Fear and hysteria were in the air and no woman was safe. A recent theory concerning Maggie Walls has been put forward by author Geoff Holder in his book Paranormal Perthshire (The History Press.2011) . Geoff states that in fact there was no such person as Maggie Walls . Indeed examination of the records do not reveal a person of that name suffering with the other unfortunates of the time . His theory is that that it was a mistranslation from an Estate Map of Lord Rollo of Duncrub produced in 1755 The map showed a field close by Duncrub House with a stone dyke referred to as Maggie’s Wall ! So Maggie may well have been around a s a witch but her surname was not Walls !


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