A History of Perth Scotland

By Tim Lambert

Perth in the Middle Ages

The fair city of Perth was made a town or burgh by King David I in the early 12th century. There was probably already a settlement there but it was an obvious place to create a new town. It was at the first spot where the River Tay could be bridged. On the other hand, ships could easily sail up the river to Perth. In the Middle Ages Perth was a busy inland port. Hides, timber, and fish were exported.

Perth was also a manufacturing center. Wool was woven in Perth. It was then fulled. That means it was beaten in a mixture of water and clay to thicken and clean it. At first, the wool was trodden into the water and clay by human feet. (The men who did this were called walkers). Later the wool was pounded by wooden hammers worked by watermills.

There was also a leather industry in Medieval Perth. There were skinners and tanners and leather was used to make things like gloves and shoes. There were also horners. In the Middle Ages, cow and goat horn was used to make things like spoons, combs, and ink wells. There were also the same craftsmen found in any medieval town like butchers, bakers, and blacksmiths.

In the Middle Ages Perth had weekly markets. It also had annual fairs. In the Middle Ages fairs were like markets but they were held only once a year and they attracted buyers and sellers from a wide area.

In 1231 Dominican friars came to Perth. In the Middle Ages, friars were like monks but instead of withdrawing from the world, they went out to preach and help the poor. Dominicans were known as black friars because of their black costumes. Carmelites of white friars came to Perth in 1260. Franciscans or grey friars came to Perth in 1460. In 1429 a small monastery was founded for Carthusian monks.

During the Middle Ages, the only ‘hospitals’ were run by the church. In Perth, there were 5 hospitals. In them, monks looked after the sick and the poor as best they could. (They also provided hospitality for poor travelers). There was also a leper hostel outside the town.

In 1210 Perth was severely damaged by floods. However, the town recovered and King William the Lion made it a royal burgh.

At first, Perth was probably defended by a ditch and an earth rampart with a wooden palisade on top. However, Perth was occupied by the English from 1296 to 1313. In 1304 the English king ordered that stone walls be built around Perth. However, when the Scots re-captured Perth in 1313 they destroyed these walls to prevent the English from occupying Perth again.

In 1329 Robert the Bruce was succeeded by his 5-year-old son. In 1332 Edward Balliol, the son of King John landed in Fife with his supporters. They fought a battle against the regent at Musselburgh. Balliol captured Perth and he was crowned king of Scotland. Civil war followed. Balliol’s forces held Perth until 1339, with English support. It was relatively easy for them to hold Perth because it was a port. Perth could be supplied with water.

In 1396 came the battle of the clans. There are different versions of what happened. Two clans or federations of clans were feuding and the king asked them to settle their differences by choosing 30 champions who would fight each other. The two sides fought on North Inch. One side, the Mackays, were left with just one survivor who fled by swimming across the Tay.

King James I was assassinated by nobles in Perth in 1437. In January the King and Queen were staying in the black friary. At midnight rebels led by Robert Graham broke into his rooms and stabbed him 16 times. The Queen and her children escaped to Edinburgh.

Perth 1500-1800

Perth was one of the birthplaces of the Scottish Reformation. In 1544 6 people were executed in Perth for heresy. However, in 1559, John Knox made a rousing sermon in St Johns Kirk. He claimed that the mass was idolatry. The audience responded by smashing the high altar. They then went on to destroy the friaries and monasteries. Following the reformation, St John’s Kirk was divided into 3 separate kirks.

In 1600 came the Gowrie conspiracy. According to King James VI, he was hunting at Falkland when the Earl of Gowrie’s brother, Alexander Ruthven asked him to come to Gowrie House. Ruthven supposedly told the king that they had a man with a container of foreign coins at the house. The king eventually went with a group of companions. The king was led to a room in a turret by Ruthven who then locked the door. According to the king, Ruthven then threatened him with a dagger. Ruthven left the room and locked the door. Meanwhile, the companions of the king were told that the king had left and they were about to leave as well.

However, the king opened a window and called for help. The king’s companions rushed to the room and killed Ruthven. The Earl of Gowrie then rushed to the scene with his servants and in the ensuing fight, he was killed. It is believed by many that the conspiracy was stage-managed by the king to get rid of a family he disliked.

In the 16th century and the 17th century, there were several metalworkers in Perth. As well as blacksmiths there were goldsmiths and silversmiths and craftsmen who worked with pewter. There were also armorers (armor makers) and, when guns became common, gunsmiths. The leather industry continued to prosper. There were also weavers and fullers in Perth. Furthermore, Perth was still a busy little port.

However, in the late 17th century a linen industry grew up in Perth. It soon became the pillar of the town’s prosperity. By the late 16th century, Perth probably had a population of around 6,000. By the standards of the time, it was a large town.

Like all towns in those days, Perth suffered from outbreaks of plague. It struck in 1512, 1585-87, and again in 1608 and 1645. However, each time the plague struck the town recovered and it continued to slowly grow larger. James VI’s hospital was built in 1569. (The present building is mid-18th century).

A new bridge was built across the Tay in 1616 but it only lasted for 5 years. It was destroyed by severe storms and flooding. The Fair Maid’s House dates from the early 17th century. In 1644 the Royalist Marquis of Montrose captured Perth after he won the battle of Tippermuir. Charles II was crowned king at Scone in 1651. However, in August 1651 an English army captured Perth. Cromwell built a fort on South Inch but it was demolished in 1661.

In the 18th century, Perth was a large and prosperous town. In the 1770s it was estimated the population of Perth was about 9,000. In 1801 the population of Perth was 15,000.

The linen industry in Perth continued to flourish. So did the leather industry. Furthermore, Perth Academy was founded in 1760. In 1772 a new bridge was built across the Tay. In 1776 the town walls were demolished as they now impeded traffic.

Perth in the 19th Century

During the 19th century, the population of Perth roughly doubled. However, the population of Britain quadrupled. So Perth grew relatively smaller and less important.

A piped water supply was created in Perth in 1829. However, like all early 19th century towns, Perth was dirty and unsanitary. In 1832-33 a cholera epidemic killed 148 people. In 1812 a prison was built in Perth for French prisoners of war. It was later converted into a civilian prison.

There were some improvements in Perth during the 19th century. An infirmary was built in 1814. From 1824 Perth had a gas supply (for light). The railway came to Perth in 1848. From 1895 horse-drawn trams ran in the streets of Perth. Marshall Memorial Hall was built in 1823. The Municipal Buildings were built in 1881. St Ninian’s Episcopal Cathedral was built in 1850.

In the 19th century, the linen industry in Perth continued. There was also a dyeing industry in Perth. A bleaching industry also flourished in Perth in the 19th century. Whisky distilling was carried on in Perth on a small scale for centuries but in the 19th century, it became a major industry. General Accident insurance company was formed in 1885. During the 19th century, there was an important industry in Perth for most of the 19th century but it died out by the end of the period. There was also salmon fishing on the Tay.

Perth in the 20th Century

In the 20th century, Perth Harbour declined but the insurance industry and whisky distilling continued. There was also a glass-making industry in Perth. Perth gained an electricity supply in 1901. The first museum in Perth was founded in 1902.

In 1923-26 St John’s Kirk was restored and made into one Kirk again. (It had been divided into 3 for centuries).

In the 20th century, Perth Harbour declined but the insurance industry and whisky distilling continued. There was also a glass-making industry in Perth. Perth gained an electricity supply in 1901. The first museum in Perth was founded in 1902.

In 1923-26 St John’s Kirk was restored and made into one Kirk again. (It had been divided into 3 for centuries).

Victoria Bridge was built in 1902. Queens Bridge was built in 1960. From 1905 electric trams ran in the streets of Perth but from 1927 they were replaced by buses. The last tram ran in 1929.

Bells Sports Centre was built in 1968. Caithness Glass Visitor Centre opened in Perth in 1979. St Johns Shopping Centre opened in 1987. The Fergusson Gallery opened in 1992. A K Bell Library officially opened in 1995.

Perth in the 21st Century

Through the centuries Perth has suffered from flooding. A serious flood occurred in 1993. A flood protection scheme was built in 2001 but Perth suffered another flood in 2010. In 2012 Perth was made a city. In 2022 the population of Perth was 47,000.