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HOME AT FIRST's

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CENTRAL SCOTLAND
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             Have you ever explored a real castle? At Stirling Castle you are free to wander the grounds, climb the ramparts, explore the dungeons and scullery, and imagine attending a great banquet in one of the most impressive medieval great halls anywhere. Want armor, weapons, cannons, and ghosts? Stirling Castle has them all. Come along for the adventure!

This article first appeared in AUGUST, 2008.                                       MOST RECENT REVISION: 2015.

Great Castles of Britain

10th of a series

Stirling Castle

STIRLING, CENTRAL SCOTLAND

THE HISTORY

          Mary Queen of Scots slept around a lot. There’s barely a castle in all of Scotland, it seems, that doesn’t claim at least a one-night-stand from the ex teenage Queen of France, controversial Queen of Scotland, and would-be Queen of England. It’s not that Mary was pursuing; it’s that she was being pursued: by Scots, by English, and, eventually, by Scots and English together. The pursuits started early. At 8-months-old Queen Mary I of Scotland was first hidden from pursuers sent by English King Henry VIII who wanted Mary for an arranged marriage to the king’s 5-year-old son, the future King Edward VI. Mary’s French mother, Mary of Guise, wished no such union imposed upon her

Mary Queen of Scots and her son, James VI of Scotland, who became King James I of England. Both knew Stirling Castle very well. Painting from 1583.
Mary Queen of Scots and her son, James VI
of Scotland, who became King James I of
England. Both knew Stirling Castle
very well. Painting from 1583.

daughter and the French and Scottish royal

 

lines, so she ran away with the baby queen to the safest place she could think of

 

in Scotland, Stirling Castle. There the royal

The royal residence (the Palace) at Stirling Castle. Scottish monarchs lived at the castle from the early 1100's until James VI became King James I of England and relocated to London and Windsor. Photo courtesy Shirley Barnes.
The royal residence (the Palace) at Stirling
Castle. Scottish monarchs lived at the castle
from the early 1100's until James VI became
King James I of England and relocated
to London and Windsor.

Photo courtesy Shirley Barnes

infant was hidden for a month until her coronation ceremony at the castle’s Chapel Royal on September 9, 1543.
          Mary Queen of Scots is not the only Scottish icon associated with Stirling Castle. William Wallace and his army of Highlanders (and others) beat back
King Edward I’s (Longshanks’s) English army at Stirling Bridge, almost in the shadow of the castle in 1297. One generation later Wallace’s royal protégée, Robert the Bruce, finished off the English to finally win independence for Scotland at Bannockburn just outside of Stirling. After The Bruce, most Scottish kings and queens maintained residence at Stirling Castle, returning to a tradition started by

 

King Alexander I shortly after the castle

was built in the early 12th century on the site

 

that had been used as a fortress for centuries.
         
The timing of the enlarging and strengthening of the fortress above Stirling is obvious: the ambitious Normans who had just conquered England at the end of the 11th century were doubtless eyeing Scotland just as they were conquering Wales and Ireland. The key to conquering Scotland is to hold the high ground at the crossroads of the country, Stirling, where the Highlands and Lowlands meet at the crossing of the River Forth. The high ground above the Forth is high indeed: Castle Hill is a volcanic outcropping jutting dramatically above the flat river valley with near vertical rocky escarpments on three sides.

Looking north from the walls of Stirling Castle to the Trossachs of Central Scotland. The Highlands meet the Lowlands at Stirling. Photo courtesy Shirley Barnes.
Looking north from the walls of Stirling
Castle to the Trossachs OFCentral Scotland.
The Highlands meet the Lowlands at Stirling.

Photo courtesy Shirley Barnes

The fourth side is a sharply sloping ramp

 

 

leading  up from the old town of Stirling to the

Guarding the keys to the country — cannons at Stirling Castle still look down on the Forth Valley below. Photo courtesy Shirley Barnes.
Guarding the keys to Scotland —  cannons at
 Stirling Castle look down on the Forth Valley.

Photo courtesy Shirley Barnes

heavily fortified gates of the castle.
          Stirling Castle is famed as a royal residence. But its first importance has always been as a fortress. The army possessing Stirling Castle possesses the keys to Scotland. As such, no castle north of England has such strategic importance. Edinburgh Castle may hold the high ground of the Scottish capital, and Inverness Castle the high ground above the capital of the Highlands, but Stirling Castle guards the crossroads of the nation. No wonder Longshanks brought in his secret weapon the Warwolf trebuchet (catapult) for the siege of Stirling. The great warrior King of England

 

knew Stirling held the keys to the country. But

six years after Edward I routed Wallace’s Scots at Falkirk it took four months and thirteen giant siege engines before the English king could finally gain control of Stirling Castle, and reclaim Scotland for England. Longshanks’s lessons were not lost on history. In all Stirling Castle was put under siege eight times in 450 years, three times by English, and five times by Scots who knew better than anyone that he who holds the keys to Stirling Castle holds the keys to Scotland.

 STIRLING CASTLE TODAY

          Siege warfare is not kind to architecture. After seeing its value to the English King, Robert the Bruce had Stirling Castle destroyed after gaining Scottish independence in the 14th century. Seven centuries later not much of the original 12th century castle remains. Some parts of the 14th century rebuild are still in place, but most of what visitors encounter today at Stirling dates from the 15th and 16th centuries or later. The imposing castellated gatehouse dates from the time of Columbus, and continues to serve as entrance to Stirling Castle. It was ordered built by King James IV, who lived at the castle and hunted and played golf 500 years ago in the grounds at the base of the castle’s vertical cliffs. Because the castle was built and rebuilt over seven centuries, its architectural style varies considerably. However, Stirling Castle is best known for its renaissance and late-gothic portions, especially for its Great Hall — also built during the reign of James IV — that was restored

The castellated gatehouse guards the entrance to the inner grounds of the castle. Originally built 500 years ago by King James IV, the gatehouse was badly damaged by Cromwell's siege during the Civil War 150 years later. Behind the gatehouse is the James IV's Great Hall. The gatehouse and other 16th century fortifications were originally covered in the same bright limestone coating and could be seen for miles. Photo courtesy Shirley Barnes.
The castellated gatehouse guards the
entrance to the inner grounds of the
castle. Originally built 500 years ago  by
King James IV, the gatehouse was badly
damaged by Cromwell's siege during the
Civil War 150 years later. Behind the
gatehouse is James IV's Great Hall. The
gatehouse and other 16th century
fortifications were originally covered
in the same bright limestone coating
and could be seen for miles.

Photo courtesy Shirley Barnes

to its original medieval grandeur in 1999 after

 

 

500 years of use for medieval feasts, royal audiences,

Interior of the Great Hall showing the elaborate hammerbeam ceiling. Photo © Home At First.
Great Hall interior showing the
 elaborate hammerbeam ceiling.

Photo © Home At First

and as a military barracks. The royal residence portion (the palace, itself currently under restoration) of the castle dates principally from the 16th century and is ranked with Scotland’s most important architecture for the quality of its late medieval craftsmanship.
          There is still a Chapel Royal at Stirling Castle, but this one replaced the medieval chapel where Mary Queen of Scots was crowned almost 500 years ago. The new chapel was built in renaissance style by Mary’s son, King James VI of Scotland for the baptism of his son and heir, Henry, Prince of Wales. In one of the castle’s great historic ironies, Mary and Henry never realized their highest ambitions, despite the expectations placed upon them as infants at Stirling Castle. Mary, viewed as a dangerous traitor by powerful Scottish countrymen and her even more powerful cousin, Queen Elizabeth I of England, was hunted down, jailed and ultimately beheaded. Prince Henry, Mary’s grandson, showed great

 

promise as heir to the thrones of Scotland and England,

but died before he inherited either, from

 

sickness (possibly typhoid fever) at 18 years of age. It is Henry’s father, Mary’s son, James VI of Scotland who ultimately claimed the keys to Stirling Castle, and to Windsor Castle as well, as King James I of the United Kingdom. More irony: although James VI/I was born in Edinburgh Castle, he was raised in Stirling Castle. However, as a one-year-old, he was crowned King of Scotland — but not in the castle, rather in the nearby 15th century Church of the Holy Rude, Stirling’s second oldest building, also worth a visit when you see the castle.


Interior of the Chapel Royal. Photo courtesy Shirley Barnes.
Interior of the Chapel Royal.
Note the wooden barrel vaulted ceiling.

Photo courtesy Shirley Barnes

 

IF YOU GO –

TO STIRLING CASTLE

Getting There:
Stirling Castle is easily reached from HOME AT FIRST’s lodgings
in
CENTRAL SCOTLAND, EDINBURGH, and GLASGOW.

By Car from Central Scotland cottages: drive south on the
A84 and then into downtown Stirling. Follow signs for Stirling
Castle. Drive up Castle Hill. Park in the parking lot by the
castle entrance.

By Train from Edinburgh’s Waverly Station or Glasgow’s
Queen Street Station:
take the train approximately 30-50
minutes to Stirling. From Stirling Station, it’s a 5-minute
taxi ride or a 30-minute uphill walk to Stirling Castle.

Opening Times & Admission:

Stirling Castle is Open:

April through September:
9:30AM-6PM daily

October through March:
9:30AM-5PM daily

Closed December 25-26.

Admission: £14.50/adults 16-59;
£11.60/seniors 60+;
£8.70/children 5-15;
children under 5 free.

Scullery diorama at Stirling Castle. Photo courtesy Shirley Barnes.
Scullery diorama
at Stirling Castle

Photo courtesy Shirley Barnes

 

SPECIAL NOTES:
Parking: £4 for 4 hours.
Free hourly guided tours and rented audio guides available.
Some portions of the castle not suitable for wheelchairs.

Courtesy bus available for visitors who have trouble
with steep inclines and/or steps.

Café and gift shop.

Although Stirling Castle is not
lavishly furnished, it does maintain exhibitions in several areas designed to show life at the castle.

Stirling Castle has served as a military barracks for several centuries. A museum devoted to the regimental history of the Argyll & Sutherland

Artisan producing period tapestry at Stirling Castle. Photo courtesy Shirley Barnes.
Artisan producing period
tapestry at Stirling Castle

Photo courtesy Shirley Barnes

Highlanders is incorporated into
the castle. No additional fee is charged for entry
to this interesting to this interesting museum that chronicles the 200+ year history of this decorated unit.-

 

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