Stirling Castle – Canada Comes to Scotland
This is post number eighteen on last summer’s wonderful Medieval Britain: Castles, Cannons & Crowns tour put on by my friends at Liberation Tours. In the last one we visited Glenfinnan and Glencoe. Sadly we are nearing the end, but definitely not going out with a whimper, but rather a bang as we head for one of the most storied places in all of Britain – Stirling Castle. If any place in Scotland embodies the theme of this trip it is Stirling Castle which has seen more than its fair share of major historical characters pass through its gates including William Wallace, Robert the Bruce and Mary Queen of Scots. Please join us as we tour the castle and meet up with an unexpected delegation from Canada.
History of Stirling Castle
It’s always good to know at least a bit of the history behind a place before you visit it and Stirling Castle is no exception. As always, tour leader Phil Craig has done his homework and has filled us on the importance the place as we make our way here on our bus. Here, in a very Cole’s notes version, is the history of Stirling Castle.
The first thing to know and one that you can hardly miss once you see it, is that the castle was built on a high crag, surrounded by steep cliffs on three sides. This crag also just happens to be at the closest spot to the sea that the River Forth can be crossed, something I’ll come back to later in this post. In other words, it’s a spot that just begs to have a castle built on its crown and that has been the case since the early 2nd millennium.
Here is a photo I took from Bannockburn battlefield, many miles away which is why it’s not sharp, but it shows how abruptly the crag rises from the surrounding landscape. Looking at the River Forth below gives one an idea of just how Stirling Castle towers over the Scottish lowlands at what is the narrowest part of the country. Any one trying to invade from the south would have to take this stronghold first – many tried, and surprisingly, most succeeded.
Although it was no doubt fortified even earlier than the year 1000, possibly by the Romans and almost certainly the Picts, the definable history of Stirling Castle seems to start with King Alexander I, son of Malcolm Canmore the slayer of MacBeth (yes MacBeth was a real person). He died here in 1124 and for the next hundred and fifty years it was the residence of numerous Scottish kings who lived in relative peace, the castle not besieged at any time during that period. However, it was briefly handed over to the English as part of the ransom for King William I who got himself captured by them in 1174, but they never occupied it and Richard I gave it back a few years later. The reality is that Scotland and England were, for a considerable period of time, pretty good neighbours.
That all changed in 1286 when Alexander III died with no obvious successor. Scotland was without a monarch for five years when in 1291 the various claimants to the throne (up to thirteen apparently) made the disastrous decision to invite England’s King Edward I to assist the Scots in sorting out who should be king. Edward chose John Balliol aka Toom Tabbard or Empty Coat as he is often referred to by disdainful Scots who saw him as such a lackey to the English King that he would have made a Trump cabinet member look upright and independent. Whether his legacy was really that bad is debatable, but the bottom line is the Edward invaded Scotland and precipitated a war that lasted 60 years.
Stirling Castle played a major role in that conflict although it didn’t get off to a great start. For some reason the castle was abandoned when the English arrived and they promptly moved in. Big mistake. In 1297 the English were crushed at the Battle of Stirling Bridge by the Scots led by William Wallace and Andrew Moray in one of most lopsided Scottish victories in history. For a more detailed look at the battle watch this interesting video. Oh, and the scene of the battle from the movie Braveheart is not remotely accurate.
After the battle the surviving English retreated inside the castle where they were promptly starved into submission.
Unfortunately the victory at Stirling Bridge was not the end of the war. The English won a huge battle at Falkirk in 1297, effectively ending Wallace’s rebellion. Once again the Scots abandoned Stirling Castle and the English moved in a second time, totally unopposed. In a case of deju vu all over again the Scots once again besieged the castle in 1299 under forces led by Robert the Bruce. Once again the English were starved out.
To speed things up, the Scots, for once, tried to defend Stirling Case when Edward came back in 1303 with the modern equivalent of nuclear weapons – giant siege machines including one massive trebuchet nicknamed ‘War Wolf’. They failed. But the third English occupation went the same way as the first two when Robert the Bruce won the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314 and retook possession for Scotland. In 1336 the English got it for a fourth time and lost it again in 1342 to Robert Stewart who became Robert II, the first of the long line of Stewart monarchs.
It was only after the accession of the Stewarts to the Scottish throne that what you see today at Stirling Castle starts to get built. The oldest part dates from Robert II in 1380, but the bulk of the building took place from 1490 to 1600 when, with the English wars finally over, the castle transitioned to a royal palace. Up until James VI of Scotland became James I of England in 1603, Stirling Castle was the preferred residence of most of the Stewart rulers including Mary Queen of Scots. One might fairly say that these were the golden years of Stewart rule and the castle.
After the Stewart’s decamped for London, Stirling Castle reverted once again to a fortress and was besieged yet again in 1651 by Cromwellian forces. Once again it fell. The only ones who it seems never succeeded in besieging the place were the Jacobites who in 1746 were easily dispersed by the castle’s heavy guns. Leave it to Bonnie Prince Charlie to be the only guy who couldn’t take Stirling Castle.
Subsequently the castle became a barracks, most notably for the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders.
Today Stirling Castle is administered by Historic Environment Scotland, which maintains over 300 historic sites in Scotland through a not-for-profit charitable trust. Over £12 million was spent restoring the Royal Palace to the manner in which it looked during the Stewart’s occupancy. Not surprisingly, it is one of the most visited historic sites in Scotland and has been named Scotland’s Best Visitor Attraction. Let’s find out why.
Admission to Stirling Castle is £15 (going up to £16 in April, 2019) and you can buy tickets online to avoid the line ups at the ticket booth. Admission also includes participation in any of the guided tours that take place at very regular intervals. Alison and I opted to skip the guided tour and pay the small extra fee to get an audio guide which really made the visit much better. These guides contain a wealth of extra information as well as letting one concentrate on the parts of the castle that might be of more interest than others.
Even though Stirling Castle is quite elevated, there is a parking lot for buses near the main gate so you don’t need to worry about a steep climb up from the town below. Stepping out of the bus you come face to face with perhaps Stirling Castle’s most famous sometime resident – Robert the Bruce.
As castle entrances go, Stirling is not that impressive, but it’s what’s on the inside that counts, right?
Once inside there are a number of options of where to begin, but if you have the audio guide it will take you through all of the important sites. This is the official map.
Just inside the entrance are steps up to the ramparts where you can get a look at the countryside around Stirling including the Wallace Monument, Stirling Bridge and Bannockburn. This is the cemetery below the castle walls with the medieval Church of the Holy Rude in the distance.
The Queen Anne Garden, Stirling Castle
If you look at the map you’ll see a green space near the entrance which is the Queen Anne Garden. Apparently this has been a green space since the 1400’s and over the years has served as a bowling lawn, tennis court and maybe even a soccer pitch. Believe or not the world’s oldest football was discovered in the rafters of Stirling Castle in 1981. It has been dated as being over 475 years old! However, it wasn’t until fairly recently that efforts were made to recreate an actual garden in this space. Using the red and yellow colours of the Stewarts as the primary theme the groundskeepers have done a great job.
The roses are especially appealing to both the eyes and the nose.
The Queen Anne Garden is also a good place to look up observe some of the details of the exterior walls including a combination of kings and gargoyles.
Some of the figures are just plain bizarre, like this satyr being eyed by a dragon.
The Great Hall
There is one building that stands out inside Stirling Castle and that’s the Great Hall; mainly because it’s the only coloured building in the complex while all the rest are bare stone. It was difficult to get a clean photo with all the visitors so I borrowed this one from Undiscovered Scotland.
It was built by James IV in the first decade of the 1500’s for one purpose – to impress, and it does. It’s the largest building of its kind in Scotland, substantially larger than the Great Hall of Edinburgh Castle. The Great Hall was used for about a century before the Stewart’s moved to England and featured lavish banquets and entertainments on a scale unlike any seen in Scotland before or since. After centuries of neglect it has been restored to the way it looked over 500 years ago. That’s one impressive wood ceiling.
At the head of the hall you can take your places on the two thrones and pretend that you are James IV and his wife Margaret Tudor, sister of Henry VIII. That’s my sister Anne filling in for Margaret.
The Royal Palace
At first glance the Royal Palace doesn’t look like much from the outside.
But once you step inside, it’s a completely different world – one fit for a king.
The Royal Palace is certainly the highlight of Stirling Castle and your visit their is enhanced by the presence of period dressed courtiers, lutists and even James V wife, Queen Marie de Guise.
The palace contains the royal bedrooms and the several audience rooms, each seemingly more ornate than the last. Pageantry and royal symbolism are an important part of the impression James V was trying to convey, and it works.
The Stirling Heads
The ceilings in the Royal Palace are something to behold, none more so than James’ Inner Hall on which you will find something unique, the Stirling Heads. These are a collection of 37 oval portraits carved from Polish oak that have recently been restored or recreated and returned to the ceiling they once adorned. This is what an original Stirling Figure looks like today after five centuries of neglect. They are on display in a small museum within the Royal Palace.
This is what they look like when restored.
That’s pretty stunning, but then you put all of them on display and it’s overwhelming. There truly is nothing else like this in the world. Unfortunately without a super wide angle lens you can’t get the whole ceiling into one shot. I couldn’t even find a good one on web.
This ceiling is simply mesmerizing and the only thing that stopped me from looking longer than I did is that you get a very sore neck very fast looking straight up.
There were a lot of very pleasant surprises on this tour and for me, none more so than these magnificent Stirling Heads.
Stirling Castle & the Unicorns
The most predominant theme in Stirling Castle is the presence of unicorns, in fact a unicorn head is the official symbol of the place. Unicorns go back a long way in Scottish lore – it’s been on the Scottish Coat-of-Arms since the 12th century. It’s also Scotland’s national animal. Think about that, a national animal that doesn’t and never has actually existed. Well, I suppose it could have been the Loch Ness Monster instead.
Which brings me to what I found a bit puzzling about the Scots relationship to the unicorn. There is a series of seven tapestries, originally probably woven in Paris and now in The Cloisters in New York City, that depict a unicorn hunt. They are considered to be among the best tapestries ever produced. It took thirteen years and £2 million for Stirling Castle to reproduce these tapestries and hang them in the Queen’s Inner Hall. Not unexpectedly, they are stunning.
This is tapestry number four in the series – The Unicorn Defending Himself
And number six – The Unicorn Slain
I found this tapestry very melancholic and asked myself, “Why did they want to kill a unicorn? Especially if it’s the national animal.”
Well, the answer comes in the final tapestry – The Unicorn in Captivity
The unicorn has now been resurrected and lives a peaceful life in captivity. The parallels to the story of Christ are obvious, but there’s a lot more going on than just that theme. Freud could do so much with this image it would make your head spin.
In my more ambitious days I once hooked a rug with this design. Yes, I confess, I was once a hooker and on that dubious note we’ll head for the exit.
But not so fast. As I approach the Queen Anne Garden I can hear the distinct sound of a pipe and drum band heading our way. Sure enough it is and they’re Canadians to boot. How did Liberation Tours manage to pull this off.
Have a listen and think about how fast you can get yourself to Stirling Castle.
Next we will visit the scene of Robert the Bruce’s greatest triumph, Bannockburn. Please join us there.