Royal Scottish Residence. Stirling Castle Scotland
Scotland is lovely. Actually, Scotland is more than just lovely…it is unreservedly friendly, full of unpronounceable words and has some absolutely fascinating history.
My journey into Scotland begins in Stirling.
Located between Glasgow and Edinburgh, Stirling is a quiet, laidback city in central Scotland with its own share of history.
On the Abbey Craig outcrop stands the 19th-century National Wallace Monument, and overlooks the site of the 1297 Battle of Stirling Bridge, where William Wallace defeated the English. This is also where the Battle of Bannockburn took place when Robert the Bruce adopted ‘hit and run’ guerrilla tactics and largely succeeded in driving the English from Scotland.
At the heart of its old town is the medieval Stirling Castle, its impressive architecture and historical value making this one of Scotland’s grandest castles.
Situated on the flat plateau of an ancient volcano, this imposing castle is framed by steep cliffs and can be spotted from afar, making it a safe and strategic place from invaders…and there were lots of them in the good old days of kings, their queens and their defiant kingdoms.
The first record of the Stirling Castle dates from around 1110, when King Alexander I dedicated a chapel there. It appears to have been an established royal centre by this time, as Alexander died here in 1124. Since then, monarchs have come and they have either abdicated, been murdered, vanquished or simply vanished into the pages of historical tomes.
But, today, as I walk through this castle, I am transported back into history and the grandeur and finery that once was.
Here is the King’s Old Building, constructed in 1496 for James IV. Made of stone, it looks impenetrable, yet cold and sullen.
The Great Hall was medieval Scotland’s largest banqueting hall built for James IV in 1503 and was used for feasts, dances and pageants. It has four pairs of tall windows at the dais end, where the king and queen sat, and was heated by five large fireplaces. There are galleries for minstrels and trumpeters.
In 1594 James VI held a banquet in the hall for the baptism of his first born son and heir to the throne, Prince Henry. It was so lavish that the fish course was served from a massive 40-ton model wooden ship complete with firing cannons on an artificial lake in the Great Hall, the weight of which damaged the structure of the building. The exterior walls still have the distinctive colour as it would have been in the 1500s.
The Chapel Royal which stands in the Castle today, was built in 1594 for the christening of Prince Henry. It was the last great royal building to be erected in the castle and was one of the first Protestant kirks to be built in Scotland. It took just six months to complete the Chapel Royal, adorned with grand tapestries, sculptures and a gold ceiling. It was built to be grander, larger and more spectacular than the old Chapel Royal, and its galleries were to entertain the great number of attendees expected at the baptism.
The Royal Palace, built for James V in around 1540. The walls are adorned with lavish tapestries, carved and painted furniture, resplendent ceilings, all of which has a story to tell of the days gone by. I was led through the palace by ‘look-alike courtiers’ who explained the history of the castle in great detail, embellishing each story with anecdotes from the past.
And then there is of course, one of my favourite historical figures, Mary, Queen of Scots! She spent much of her youth and some of her adulthood here. She was only six days old when her father, King James V died making her the youngest ruler of Scotland. Her coronation in 1543 took place at the Chapel Royal, as well as the baptism of her son, James VI in 1566.
Imagine learning that Mary loved sports, especially football, which she had mentioned playing in one of her diaries. During an excavation, a grey leather ball was discovered behind the oak-paneling in her bedroom. Since then, this football has been declared the world’s oldest football. No one knows how it got there, but speculation is that the queen hid it in a safe place to protect it from witch craft. The ball was made from an inflated pig’s bladder, wrapped with cow’s hide. This football is displayed at the The Stirling Smith Art Gallery and Museum
One of the most well-known parts of Stirling Castle is its Forework Gate, a turreted stone fortification built for James IV in the early 16th century. I walked along this fortification with views of the city below. It gave me an indication of how strategic this location actually was.
In the 1540s, James V and his wife, Mary of Guise (parents of Mary Queen of Scots) is said to have owned a large collection of intricate tapestries. According to the royal inventories, James V owned more than 100 tapestries depicting “the historie of the unicorne”. The Unicorn is the national animal of Scotland and is featured widely in many of Scotland’s iconic places. In a separate section of the Castle grounds, I watched the complete reconstruction of the ‘historie of the unicorne’ and the finite detail that goes into creating these masterpieces.
The Queen Anne Garden overlooks the Queen’s Lodgings and the Prince’s Tower. However, Queen Anne herself never actually visited, but this part of the enclave took her name after she ordered the castle to double up on its fortifications in anticipation of trouble from Jacobites. This is also where the body of William, 8th Earl of Douglas was found, brutally stabbed 26 times by courtiers of James II.
James V is known to have owned a pet lion, the symbol of the King of Scots. This open rectangular courtyard was the Lion’s Den.
The Great Kitchens of the castle are an enactment of life-sized figures of what would have been when the King was in residence. I can almost feel the heat, the smells, the bustle as meals are prepped for a royal feast up in the Dining Hall.
The Scots are proud of their history and while the Stirling Castle features highly on their list of favourite places to see and recommend, the small city has a medieval vibe to it. Of course, I couldn’t resist a visit to a Gin distillery!