Dunkeld & Birnam, Scotland: Asheville’s Newest Sister City

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By Karrigan Monk ‘18

Famous for its beauty and variety of film locations — most notably the Hogwarts Express scenes in the Harry Potter films —  the Scottish city of Dunkeld & Birnam now means something different to the residents of Asheville.

After five years of planning and visits of representatives between the two cities, Asheville and Dunkeld & Birnam are officially sister cities, a relationship that is known as “twinning” in Europe.

“Creating a sister city relationship is a worthwhile but quite lengthy process,” said Susan Wilson, the principal officer at the U.S. Consulate in Edinburgh. “The relationship can be assisted through embassies and consulates overseas, but for the most part it’s a city-to-city process. It’s facilitated through an organization called Sister Cities International, which was founded by President Eisenhower.”

Sister Cities International is a nonprofit organization that works to create people-to-people and city-to-city connections in an effort of promote worldwide peace.

Dunkeld & Birnam’s newest sister city has a special connection for Wilson. Though she graduated from Georgetown University, she spent her first year of college at UNC Asheville.

“My trajectory would have been quite different without the UNC Asheville experience since it was my faculty advisor who listened to my incoherent babbling about want to work for good in the world and guided me toward Peace Corps as an option after graduation,” Wilson said.

Wilson said she sees many similarities between Asheville and Dunkeld & Birnam, making the pair perfect twins. From the mountain town aesthetic and types of tourists the towns attract to the creativity and arts scenes both cities boast, the two cities seem meant for each other.

What’s more, according to the Asheville Sister Cities October 2017 newsletter, Asheville has a strong Scotch-Irish history with Appalachian music stemming from these ancestors.

Doug Orr, co-chair of the Dunkeld & Birnam Committee for Asheville and former UNC Asheville interim chancellor, said Jean Ritchie, an Appalachian balladeer, led the way for this sister city relationship in the 1950s when she traced her own family roots to Scotland and Ireland.

“It was a reminder to our Appalachian residents of their reach heritage of song and story as drawn from its wellspring,” Orr wrote in an essay detailing the “twinning” of the two cities. “Both Asheville and Dunkeld & Birnam are nestled in bucolic highland settings by the banks of flowing river waters. Both share a culture that celebrates harmony with nature, music and the arts, outdoor adventure, health and wellness, education, gardens and forestry, tourism, and the cultivation of small business entrepreneurship. As we sought a sister city relationship for Asheville, it was Dunkeld & Birnam that we kept returning to.”

Ritchie has not been the only musician to find similarities in these two mountain towns. Scottish musician Dougie MacLean, a Dunkeld & Birnam native, travels around the world touring his music. According to the newsletter, MacLean said Asheville reminded him so much of his home that it became one of his favorite American cities.

Though this is Asheville’s first sister city in the United Kingdom, the city has several other sister cities in Russia, Mexico, France, Greece and Nigeria.

Part of being a sister city is providing community service. Though projects are still in the works for Dunkeld & Birnam, other projects are in place in Asheville’s various sister cities around the world. One of Asheville’s two sister cities in Mexico, Valladolid, was able to send two exchange students to Asheville High School for one school year by partnering with the Asheville Sister Cities committee. In addition, the committee led fundraising efforts and are now able to send 110 wheelchairs to both of Asheville’s Mexican sister cities.

While the cultural relationships are a large part of the importance of a sister city, Wilson said this service, as well as learning about the world, are the biggest things to take away from these types of relationships.

“Every person can do their part as well. Get out there, travel the world, meet new people and build the bonds of friendship,” Wilson said. “It’s a big, exciting, fascinating and amazing world. Study abroad, work abroad, live abroad, learn about your new home and teach people about your own. This is how we build the next, better generation.”