Firth of Tay

A historical perspective, drawn from the Ordnance Gazetteer of Scotland: A Survey of Scottish Topography, Statistical, Biographical and Historical, edited by Francis H. Groome and originally published in parts by Thomas C. Jack, Grange Publishing Works, Edinburgh between 1882 and 1885.

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Tay, The, a river draining the greater part of Perthshire and passing off to the sea between Forfarshire and Fifeshire. It issues from Loch Tay, or rather begins there to take the name of Tay; but it is really formed by two great head-streams which rise among the Grampians on the mutual border of Perth and Argyll shires. The northern stream bears successively the names of the Ba, the Gauir, and the Tummel; and, in its progress, it forms, by expansion of its waters, the three great lakes of Lydoch or Laidon, Rannoch, and Tummel. It rises at an altitude of 2309 feet, within ¼ mile of an affluent of the Etive, and 4¼ miles SSW of Kingshouse Inn; and thence it winds 581/8 miles east-north-eastward and south-south-eastward-viz., 291/8 miles to its efflux from Loch Rannoch (668 feet), 15¼ thence to its efflux from Loch Tummel (480 feet), 45/8 thence to the Garry's confluence, and 91/8 thence to its own confluence with the Tay. It traverses or bounds the parishes of Glenorchy (in Argyllshire) and Fortingall, Logierait (detached), Dull, Blair Athole, Moulin, a part of Dowally, and the main body of Logierait. The southern one of the great head-streams bears successively the names of the Fillan, the Dochart, and the Tay; and traverses, in its progress, Loch Dochart and Loch Tay. Rising at an altitude of 2980 feet on the northern side of Benloy, at the boundary of Killin with Argyllshire, it flows 56¾ miles east-north-eastward-viz., 25¼ miles to the head of Loch Tay, 14½ miles through the lake, and 17 miles from its foot to a confluence with the Tummel at an altitude of 185 feet. It bounds or traverses the parishes of Killin, Kenmore, Dull, Fortingall, Logierait, and Little Dunkeld, and receives the Lochy, the Lyon, and other streams. From its junction with the Tummel to its junction with the Earn, where it begins to expand into an estuary, the Tay winds 36¾ miles southward, eastward, southward, and east-south-eastward; and over this part of its course, it has on its right bank Little Dunkeld, Kinclaven, Auchtergaven, Redgorton, Tibbermore, Perth, and Rhynd,- and on its left bank Logierait, Dunkeld and Dowally, Caputh, Cargill, St Martins, Scone, Kinnoull, Kinfauns, and St Madoes. As an estuary, it extends 24½ miles from the mouth of the Earn to the German Ocean; has for the first 15 miles a breadth of from 31/3 furlongs to 3¼ miles, and the direction of NE by E; has over the other 9½ miles a prolonged contraction of from 7 furlongs to 1½ mile, and a prevailing easterly direction; and separates Abernethy in Perthshire and the parishes of Newburgh, Abdie, Flisk, Balmerino, Forgan, and Ferry-Port in Fife on its right bank, from St Madoes, Errol, Inchture, and Longforgan in Perthshire, and Liff and Benvie, Dundee, Monifieth, and Barry in Forfarshire on its left. Its entire length of course, jointly as a river and as an estuary, is thus, if measured from the source of the Ba, 1193/8-if measured from the source of the Fillan, 118 miles.

The tributaries of the Tay, even excluding the secondary ones, are so numerous, that only the principal must be named. Those of the northern great headbranch are only two-the Ericht, which falls into Loch Rannoch, and the Garry, which brings along with it the Edendon, the Erichdie, the Bruar, and the Tilt, and falls into the Tummel a little below Killiecrankie. Those of the southern great head-branch are also but two-the Lochy, which-joins the Dochart at the village of Killin, and the Lyon, which brings along with it Glenmore Water, and joins the Tay 2¾ miles below the foot of Loch Tay. Those of the united stream are the Bran, on the right bank, opposite the town of Dunkeld; the Isla, swollen by the Dean, the Ericht, and other streams, and entering on the left bank, near Cargill station; the Shochie, on the right bank, at Luncarty; the Almond, on the same bank, 2½ miles above Perth; and the Earn, also on the same bank, at the commencement of the estuary, or 2¼ miles above the town of Newburgh. Those of the estuary are all inconsiderable, the largest being Dighty Water, which disembogues itself from Forfarsire, 1¾ mile below Broughty Ferry.

From the vicinity of Broughty Ferry on the one shore, and Ferry-Port-on-Craig on the other, to the mouth of the estuary, there is a sweep of sandbank, called Barry or Goa Sands on the N -side, and Abertay Sands on the S. The opening or breadth of channel beneath the two sides of the sandbank varies from 5½ furlongs to 17/8 mile; and the depth of water is about 3 fathoms, but, higher up the firth, increases to 6. Sandbanks occur elsewhere, especially a large and shifting one opposite Dundee; but they have all been rendered harmless to navigation by means of dredging, buoys, lighthouses, and charts. The estuary in general is shallow, and receives much débris from the steady and large current of the river. Though it cannot compare in spaciousness and some other properties with the Forth, it is not a little commodious, and may be considered as, over large part of its extent, a continuous harbour. The tide flows to a point about 2 miles above Perth; and, in consequence of improvements made in the channel, vessels of 100 tons can pass up to Perth harbour. The Tay Bridge is described under Dundee; and the unrivalled salmon fisheries of the river and estuary are treated of in our supplementary article on the Fisheries of Scotland.

The extent of surface drained by the Tay and its tributaries is computed at 2400 square miles, and that of the Spey, the entirely Scottish river next to it in size, at 1190 square miles. The geographic positions and character of the district whence most of the waters are drawn, being in the case of the two rivers very similar, the Tay may be supposed to discharge about twice as much water as the Spey. Dr Anderson, making a nice measurement for a judicial purpose, determined the quantity of water which, in the mean state of the river, flows through a section of it opposite Perth, to be at the rate of 3640 cubic feet per second. The river, as represented on a map, or imagined after a survey of the vast district which composes its basin, appears emphatically 'the many-headed Tay;' and, in consequence of its great feeders coming down like the main arteries on a half-moon-shaped leaf, it has less inequality in its stream than occurs in either the Spey or any other of our Highland rivers. The variety of its origin, too, affords such a compensation of rain as always, except in seasons of extreme drought, to yield a sufficient bulk and altitude of water for the occupying of its path, and the beautifying of its landscape; while the wide variety in the relative distance of its sources, prevents its floods, however high, from being as sudden as those of the Spey, the Aberdeenshire Dee, and some other upland streams. Yet, owing to the gradual but great extension of the system of draining, which is prosecuted on arable grounds and on reclaimable mosses and moorlands, the river has become considerably less equable than at a former period; it swells, during great floods, to a magnitude which never informer days belonged to it; it subsides, during a continued drought, to a corresponding diminution of volume; and, in its ordinary or mean state, it has very visibly lost some of its ancient greatness and importance. Though averagely charged at Perth, as we have seen, with 3640 cubic feet of water per second, it was reduced, in the course of the summer of 1819, to 457 cubic feet, and at the close of the summer of 1835, to a still smaller volume.

Much of the country which now forms the seaboard of the estuary, and especially the whole of the Carse of Gowrie, and the lower part of Strathtay, exhibit evidence of having, at a comparatively recent period, lain under the sea, and been gradually raised above its level by depositions from the Tay. After the Carse of Gowrie became dry land, too, the Tay seems, for a long series of years, to have made a circle round its N side, along the foot of the Sidlaw Hills, entering what was then the Firth of Earn at Invergowrie, and entirely peninsulating the Carse, or cutting it into a series of islands. Great modern changes have taken place likewise on all the vale or strata of the Tay, S of the confluence of the Tummel. Dr Macculloch, from close and various observations on cuts of corresponding rocks on the opposite sides of the stream, and on the harmonising altitude of series of alluvial terraces in the screens of the valley, calculates that the ancient level of the river, from Logierait downward, was about 100 feet above the present bed; and he adds: 'And thus, while it is easy to see how far the Tay has sunk, it would not be very difficult to compute the quantity of land or earth that has been removed and carried forwards towards the sea. When we look at this enormous waste we need not be surprised at the formation of the Carse of Gowrie, nor at the deposits which are still augmenting it; shoaling the sea about Dundee, and laying the foundations of new meadows. For this operation is still going on, and must go on as long as the Tay shall continue to flow; though diminishing in rapidity as the declivity and consequent velocity of the river itself diminish. If it is curious to speculate on the period when Perth, had it then existed, must have been a seaport, and when the narrow Tay, far above and below it, was a wide arm of the ocean, it is not less so to consider what the aspect of Strathtay itself was when the present place of Dunkeld was buried deep beneath the earth. Nor is it difficult even to see what it must have been. By laying our eye on any of the terraces, it is easy to bring the opposed one in the same plane, and thus to exclude all the valley beneath, reducing it once more to what it was when the river was flowing above. These speculations, thus pursued, may interest the artist as well as the geologist and the geographer; since, not only here, but in every deep valley of the Highlands, he would, in making such trials, be at a loss to recognise in the original shallow and rude glen, the spacious and rich valley which is now the seat of beauty and cultivation. Contemplating, in this manner, not only the Highland mountains and valleys, but those of the world at large, we are lost in the magnitude of the changes which have carried the rains of the Himalaya to the mouths of the Ganges-which, from the sediments of the Nile, have formed the land of Egypt-and which have created, out of the lofty ridges of America, the plains that now form so large a portion of its continent.' The Tay, inclusive of its principal tributaries, is by much the most scenic of the British rivers. Its estuary, and the lowest 3 or 4 miles of its stream, are a continued expanse of loveliness, softly screened with heights or swells of the gentlest beauty. Its vale from the romantic Hill of Kinnoull, a little below Perth, to the Pass of Birnam, 2 miles below Dunkeld, is everywhere lively, frequently brilliant, and occasionally gorgeous. Its scenery hence to the mouth of the Tummel, as seen from a vantage ground in the vicinity of Dunkeld, is pronounced by Dr Macculloch singularly rich and grand, with all its features, for about 6 miles, so minutely detailed before the eye that every part of its various ornament is most advantageously seen. 'On each hand,' says he, 'rises a long screen of varied hills, covered with woods in every picturesque form; the whole vista terminating in the remoter mountains, which, equally rich and various, are softened by the blue haze of the distance, as they close in above the Pass of Killiecrankie. This general view, varied in many ways by changes of level and of position, forms the basis of the landscape for some miles; but so great are the changes in the middle-grounds, and so various the foregrounds, that although the same leading character is observed, the separate scenes are always strongly distinguished. Many distinct pictures can thus be obtained, and each of them perfectly adapted for painting; so that Strathtay is here an object to charm every spectator,-him who desires to see every thing preserved, in his portfolio, and him who seeks for nothing in Nature but beauty, come under what form it may.' 'Though the western and upper branch of Strathtay, from the junction of the Tummel upward to Kenmore, 'is not, perhaps, equal in splendour to the lower and southern one, it still maintains the same character of richness throughout; while, instead of the flat extended meadows which mark the latter, it displays a considerable undulation of ground. Thus the vale of the Tay, from Dunkeld even to Kenmore, a space of 25 miles, is a continued scene of beauty; a majestic river winding through a highly wooded and cultivated country, with a lofty and somewhat parallel mountain boundary, which is itself cultivated as far as cultivation is admissible, and is everywhere covered with continuous woods or trees as high as wood can well grow. It contains, of course, much picturesque scenery; presenting not only landscapes of a partial nature, comprising reaches of the river, or transient views in the valley produced by the sinuosities of the road, but displaying the whole to its farthest visible extremity, under aspects which are varied by the casual variations of level or position, or by the accidental compositions of the fore or middle grounds. Where Ben Lawers is seen towering above all in the remotest distance, these views are peculiarly magnificent; nor is anything ever wanting which the artist could require to give fulness and interest to the nearer parts of the landscape, where, after all, the chief interest must always lie.' 'I believe it is but just to say, that Strathtay is, in point of splendour and richness, the first of the Scottish valleys.'-Ord. Sur., shs. 53, 54, 55, 46, 47, 48, 49, 1865-77.

An accompanying 19th C. Ordnance Survey map is available, or use the map tab to the right of this page.

Note: This text has been made available using a process of scanning and optical character recognition. Despite manual checking, some typographical errors may remain. Please remember this description dates from the 1880s; names may have changed, administrative divisions will certainly be different and there are known to be occasional errors of fact in the original text, which we have not corrected because we wish to maintain its integrity. This information is provided subject to our standard disclaimer

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