Sitting on a corner, by the only set of traffic lights in the town of Aberfeldy, is the Black Watch pub. It’s here that an impromptu singalong was led by none other than Ed Sheeran.
That was back in 2019. And now, four years later, Sheeran has released his latest album, Subtract, with a closing number called ‘The Hills of Aberfeldy’.
It’s a folk song; the kind of tune a mournful-looking man sings standing by a bar, holding a glass of whiskey; the patrons in silent reverence, heads bowed.
In the video for the song, Sheeran (clad in a toasty-looking white cable knit jumper), sinks into the hills. He emerges from the sea more appropriately dressed in an anorak. In reality, Aberfeldy is as far from the sea as you can get in Scotland. But it does have hills. Lots of them.
From the doors of the Black Watch, a 90 minute walk takes you up a stunning gorge called ‘The Birks’. This was the inspiration for the second most listened to song about this town, famous Scotttish poet Robert Burns’ poem ‘The Birks of Aberfeldy’, written 200 years ago.
Burns fell in love here too, and lyrics from his poem are etched into signs you can spot on the walk – that’s if you can take your eyes off the red squirrels, swooping buzzards, and trickling waterfalls. This is Scotland at its most alluring.
The appeal of Aberfeldy lies in its position: nestled in the rambling Tay Valley, where clouds cling insistently to the green hills all around. It’s a part of the world that oozes romanticism, a place that’s improved by ‘dreich’ weather – the hills look more enticing in the rain, the glens more ethereal. Lichen clings to every branch, moss to every stone.
It’s the kind of stuff that songwriters live for. Sheeran’s clearly enamoured with the weather and the trees:
“Oh, leaves are covered in snow, And the water’s frozen. Oh, I long for you to be the one that I’m holding,” sings Sheeran, in full Van Morrison mode, before continuing, “Oh, leaves are starting to fall, And the sun goes cold. And my heart might break from the way of it all.”
And the leaves are indeed all around; Perthshire is known as Big Tree Country. Neighbouring village Fortingall is home to a 5,000 year old Yew tree, one of the oldest trees in Britain.
Next door to the Yew, the Fortingall Hotel holds the kind of foot-stomping folk music you might imagine Ed Sheeran enjoying on a Friday night. It’s so remote here, you wouldn’t be surprised if there were Hobbits clanking tankards in a dim corner, too.
But the biggest local nuisance are the beavers, reintroduced in recent years, who leave their tell-tale tooth marks on the trunks of trees along the river. The local Facebook group is up-in-arms about the beavers – best not mention it if you drop into the Black Watch for a pint.
More welcome are the frequent stream of hikers traversing the popular 79-mile long Rob Roy Way. The first pub they come to in town is – yes – the Black Watch.
Back in the 1800s, visitors flocked to Aberfeldy by train. Nowadays the train station is a hotel, and the visitors arrive by 4x4 with stand up paddleboards strapped to their roofs, often heading to Loch Tay, five miles away.
It’s here that Ed Sheeran once hosted a party – renting the entire Hot Box Spa for himself and friends one summer’s afternoon. It’s still open, and visitors can sip champagne in a hot tub with a view of the surrounding mountains before taking the slide into the icy waters.
Looming over the whole area is the iconic peak of Schiehallion – known in Gaelic as Sidh Chailleann, or the ‘Fairy Hill of the Caledonians’. Schiehallion gives its name to a local beer, which is of course served at the Black Watch. Many know Aberfeldy for its eponymous whisky, which is distilled in a beautiful old building, set back from the banks of the Tay on a grassy lawn.
Around the corner is Glen Lyon coffee roastery. The rustic venue hosts a small café where Gaelic singers such as Kim Carnie are known to perform. The roastery recently collaborated with trendy micro-brewery in nearby Blair Atholl on a beer called Volcano Coffee Stout. It’s as dark as the long, Scottish winter nights.
The roastery is named after a local valley dubbed Scotland’s “longest, loneliest and loveliest glen” by legendary Scottish romantic, Sir Walter Scott. Here, a winding, undulating road takes drivers past stone bridges, waterfalls, and moss-clad boulders. In autumn it’s a breath-taking journey among falling golden leaves. One can imagine Sheeran’s cheeky blue eyes grow wider as he ventured down Glen Lyon, scribbling lyrics in his little Ed Sheeran notebook.
Take a walk in any direction and you’ll stumble upon neolithic stone circles, ancient forts or still-inhabited castles.
Back in town, at the market square, are a host of independent shops. The newest of these is ‘The Shop by Ballintaggart’, an outpost of the nearby refined Ballingtaggart Farm and Grandtully Hotel.
There’s an art-deco style cinema too, which shows films, alongside hosting events such as ‘craft and craic’, and a beer club. Add in the rustic homeware store Homer, vintage and vinyl record shop MoJo, bookshop-cum-café in The Watermill, and a zero-waste shop Handam and there’s plenty to keep you busy.
There’s a lot to fall in love with around here, and we haven’t talked about the monthly farmer’s market, quaint putting green, or annual Highland Show. It was clearly enough to turn Sheeran into part folk musician, part romantic poet. With his album surely heading to Number 1, no doubt more are now on their way.
“I have never told you Darling, we fall in love with the hills of Aberfeldy.”