One of the great things about Scotland is that it’s chock full of castles. Everywhere you go, there’s a castle. And I love a good castle. One of my favorite so far is the castle at Stirling.
Stirling is a town about an hour outside of Edinburgh by train. For such a small town, they really have a lot of interesting stuff packed in there; they’ve got a castle, a 900-year-old church that was the venue for a coronation, a massive monument to one of Scotland’s national heroes, and a university. All that in a town with a population of less than 50,000.
Being so close to Edinburgh, Stirling made a great spot for a day trip out of the city. Of course, who needs an excuse to visit a castle?
Stirling is said to have had a castle since the 1100s, when King Alexander I dedicated a chapel on the hill for royal use. However, the majority of the castle wasn’t built until the 1300s, and most of the buildings that stand today date from the late 1400s. That being said, the hilltop was fortified long before then, because the wee town of Stirling was situated on some prime real estate.
The division between the highlands and the lowlands in Scotland is a real one. In fact, you could pretty much say that the division is the River Forth. If you wanted to move all of your clan and herds from the highlands into the lowlands, you’d have to cross the River Forth at Stirling. If you wanted to go north to collect taxes from the clans, you’d have to cross the River Forth at Stirling. For many years, Stirling was the only crossing point, complete with its own precarious bridge (which features prominently in the story of how William Wallace handed the English their butts in the Wars of Independence, but we’ll save that for another time).
Because Stirling Bridge was so important in the affairs of Scotland, it was hotly contested. In order to protect the bridge – and the people on that side of the river – the castle was built on an outcropping that looms over the countryside. Of course, that means that whoever controlled the castle controlled the bridge. Therefore, the castle was hotly contested in its own right. Needless to say, it changed hands several times over the course of its history.
But, to paraphrase Monty Python, let’s not bicker and argue about who stole the castle from whom. Let’s instead take a look at some of the things that make Stirling Castle great. The Stewart dynasty has strong connections with the castle: James I and James II lived there, and the successive Stewarts all sojourned at Stirling for some reason or another. Perhaps the most famous Mary of Guise and her infant daughter, who fled to Stirling to avoid Henry VIII’s ravaging of the borderlands in what has been dubbed the “Rough Wooing.” Within the safety of the castle, Mary’s infant daughter was crowned Mary, Queen of Scots. She stayed there until she was about five years old, when she was sent to France to be well out of Henry VIII’s reach.
The next most famous Stewart, the son of Mary, Queen of Scots, was baptized in the chapel in Stirling Castle in 1566. He was crowned James VI when his mother was forced to abdicate her throne, and, upon the death of his mother’s cousin in 1603, became James I of England – or James VI/I (the sixth the first), as the Scottish call him (because royal family trees aren’t hard enough to follow already).
After James VI/I moved to England, and effectively the Crown with it, the royal status of the castle slowly declined, until the 19th century, when it was used as barracks for the military. Honestly, the number of royal castles and palaces that were used as military barracks – and largely disfigured as a result – is appalling, but such is the history of this castle. In 1964, the military moved out, and the fundraising for restoration began. The restoration work was painstakingly conducted, using textual descriptions of the castle as guidelines and using only techniques that would have been available to the contemporary builders. It’s finally complete, and all that work really paid off.
When you visit the castle, you can take a guided tour of the castle (included in the price of your ticket). They’ll take you into the major parts of the castle, such as the Great Hall, the Royal Palace, and the chapel, and it’ll take about an hour. However, I recommend you spend much more than that there. The gardens are worth taking a stroll through, and you can walk along the ramparts. Inside one of the buildings is a museum dedicated to the highlanders military division that was stationed in the castle until 1964. The former kitchens have models depicting what a working kitchen would have looked like in the 17th century, as well as recipes from the time, should you care to try any. My personal favorite was the Stirling Heads Gallery, which showed original ceiling tiles from the Royal Palace and had video displays describing the restoration work that went into the ceiling alone.
So, if you’re also a fan of castles, this is definitely one you should visit.
Plan your visit here.