Jhe lake reflects scattered clouds, gaps in the sky, sunny mountains and a towering modernist dam. An attentive heron stands on a rock in the shadow of the concrete cliff. Pitlochry Dam is one of nine power stations in the Tummel Valley Hydroelectric Project. Before it opened in 1951, only one in every 200 crofts had electricity. A fish ladder, added two years later to help salmon ascend to their Highland spawning grounds, is now a tourist attraction. SSE, the energy company that harnesses the electricity generated by the dam, opened a visitor center in 2017.
The backdrop includes the wooded hills of Highland Perthshire and the spotted peak of Ben Vrackie. There are plenty of more energetic options for hiking through these landscapes, but this gentle, wooded walk from the station is perfect for an afternoon that ends at the pub. The walk has its share of mountain views across Loch Faskally, created by the dam, and is rich in birds and plants, from Himalayan blue poppies in the Explorers’ Garden to carpets of woodland sorrel in the forest of Faskally. It is possible to spot red squirrels, hire a boat and even swim in the loch.
My first sight of Pitlochry Dam comes shortly after leaving the station, as I descend through woods to an Edwardian suspension bridge. The old village of Port na Craig on the opposite shore is now dominated by the Pitlochry Festival Theatre. Its founder, John Stewart, hid a note near the river during World War II that read: “When peace is declared, I will return to this place to give thanks to God and to establish my festival. The first was in 1951 and for decades the festival took place in a temporary tent-like building. The 1980s theater that replaced it was modernized in 2022 with a glass, brick and timber extension that wraps around the old building. On the hill above, the glades of the Garden of Explorers represent different parts of the world, from North America to New Zealand. Clusters of autumn crocuses bloom pale purple by the way.
Climbing along the 34 pools of the fish ladder, I scan the swirling water, searching in vain for the last salmon, then walk under tall trees. There are views across the whole loch echoing the clouds. This is generally changeable weather in Scotland. One minute the sunlight is shining through the beech leaves and the next I’m doused in a fern-scented shower. A veil of drizzle, with a hazy rainbow hanging in the air, drifts past the pine trees as I cross the Clunie Bridge into Faskally Forest.
The stones of the old bridge, demolished during the construction of the dam, have become a gazebo to admire the artificial lake, surrounded by trees on the verge of autumnal glory. An early 19th century book, Account of the Principal Pleasure Tours in Scotland, describes the “delightful retreat of Archibald Butter, Esq near the Tummel and surrounded on all sides by handsome wooden benches”. Butter Forests became a training center for foresters until the late 1960s. Among the 23 species that flourish there are now oak, Douglas fir and cherry. I follow a hilly path by the lake under fragrant Scots pines.
Little Loch Dunmore, in the middle of the woods, has a wooden footbridge and a boathouse. During an annual fall light show here called Enchanted Forest (October 5-November 5, 2023), colorful spotlights are aimed at the branches of mossy mountain ash and bent beech trees. It’s a night show.
For now, the afternoon sun picks out the golden leaves of a cascading silver birch and the loch’s mosaic of water lilies. There’s no sign of the tree-nesting goldeneyes here, but the forest is full of birdsong and a robin perches quizzically near a spinning disco ball, trying to peck its pixelated reflection.
As I head back towards Pitlochry, a large quack flock of mallards has gathered on the shore near a sign on the cafe that says, “Duck Food 75p.” There are kayaks, rowboats, pedal boats or paddle boards for rent to explore the calm waters. Just before I return to the dam, a red squirrel crosses the path in front of me.
A few steps further and I reach an idyllic beach on the edge of a loch and I can’t help but take my bathing suit out of my backpack. A swimmer tells me the water temperature is still 13C and I manage about 10 minutes, emerging with a post-swimming glow to match the melted light. I warm up with a coffee at the dam visitor center, where the glass-walled cafe is perched on stilts above the riverbank.
A live camera in the cafe shows underwater footage from the fish ladder. Most of the salmon have already swum upstream, but there’s a lively scene of flowing bubbles and larvae darting among the drifting leaves. There are exhibits on the life cycle of salmon and the engineering involved in hydroelectric power.
A hundred steps lead back to the riverbank and finally I head into town via the winding Ferry Road. A fast flowing stream called the Burn Mill runs alongside, rushing towards the River Tummel.
It has driven mills for centuries, supplying local industries: textiles and cornmeal, logging and laundry. He still spins a waterwheel next to an 18th century stone building covered in creepers in the middle of Pitlochry. It was once a corn mill and is now the Old Mill Inn.
Google map of the route
Begin Pitlochry Railway Station
End Hotel The Old Mill Hostel
Distance 5¼ miles
Total ascent 224 meters
GPX map of the route at Ordnance Survey
Sipping whiskey by the mill and watching the waterwheel is a relaxing way to end the walk. There’s food (mains from £17) and, on Fridays and Saturdays, live music. Tonight it’s a rock band from Dundee.
After 9.30pm on music nights, the Old Mill transforms from a laid-back hangout for families into a party hub where it’s not uncommon to dance at the bar. As well as the regular Belhaven beers, there is a rotating cast of guest beers from local breweries such as Inveralmond in Perth. Even closer to home are the distilleries of Pitlochry, including the prolific Edradour, based on a traditional farm. Edradour’s 10-year-old single malt, aged in sherry casks, tastes like liquid plum pudding and shines like molasses.
The Old Mill’s large seasonal beer garden, over a bridge from the pub, with a tent area and outdoor bar, is open from Easter to the end of October.
Where to stay
The Old Mill’s 13 modern rooms start at £149 B&B, though Pitlochry has plenty of other places to eat and stay. The 17th-century Moulin Hotel, in a pretty hilltop village, offers double rooms from £120 B&B, its own brewery and a restaurant in a hurry. I’m staying at the Pitlochry Youth Hostel, a short walk from the pub, where my twin en-suite room is £45. The hostel is licensed and has guest kitchens and lounges, with views of the rooftops and wooded hills.