For a half-term treat recently, we met up with Granny for a day out at Stirling Castle. Scotland is stuffed with historic castles, yet this one is really special.
You can see the castle miles before you reach it. Stirling is everything a Scottish castle might be in your imagination: a grim stone fortress set high on a crag, dominating the plains beneath and set against a backdrop of purple hills. Looking at it, it is easier to imagine armoured knights riding out of it than to believe that any of us are now welcome to enter under its gates. But we are.
Stirling Castle’s heyday was centuries ago, in the time of the later Stewart kings. After the Union of Crowns in 1603, the royal court moved south and the castle fell gradually out of use, except as a military garrison. Today it is cared for by Historic Scotland, under whose aegis the buildings have been restored and transformed into one of the most memorable places to visit in the country. If you are visiting Scotland as a tourist, do make sure that this castle is on your list!
Both in its strategic importance and its grandeur of location, Stirling arguably beats even the castle in Edinburgh. Built, like Edinburgh’s, on a spur of volcanic rock, Stirling Castle rises from boggy flood plains, between rough hills to north and south and the great river Forth meandering west to east.
In the long centuries before the marshes were drained and roads were blasted through the hills, whoever controlled Stirling Castle controlled access across the whole of central Scotland. It has been described rather poetically as the brooch pinning Highlands and Lowlands together. No wonder there have been memorable battles fought beneath its walls (Bannockburn, anyone?) and no wonder that the castle is defended by massive walls, bastions and canons.
These days the defences are purely historic: the last military threat to face the castle was the Jacobite rising of 1745. The canons remain only for ornament and, of course, for children. Was there ever a child who could set eyes on a canon without feeling the urge to climb aboard?
There is plenty to see and do for all ages inside the walls as well. Once you have passed through the several guarded gateways and under the ominous portcullis, a surprise awaits you. The grim fortress you first spotted from afar is, in fact, an elegant palace, ‘arguably the finest complex of late medieval and Renaissance royal buildings in Scotland’.* Although there has been a royal castle at Stirling since the reign of Alexander I in c. 1107, the buildings were heavily altered or replaced by the Stewart kings, culminating in the 1530s with James V’s building of a palace in French style to house his French queen, Mary of Guise.
Five hundred years of Scottish weather – and it is very windy up on the castle rock – have taken their toll on much of the exterior finery, it is true. However, recent restoration work on the interiors has re-created some beautiful rooms, including the bedchamber of Mary of Guise (mother of Mary, Queen of Scots):
and the Queen’s Inner Hall, on the walls of which hang the famous Unicorn Tapestries.
These tapestries are a tale in themselves. Closely modelled on the Flemish set now held in the Cloisters Museum in New York, this set is brand new and were woven in situ, on looms set up in the old gunpowder store in Stirling Castle. They were commissioned as part of the restoration of the castle, because it is known that James V possessed two sets of unicorn tapestries, now lost. The unicorn, of course, is a beast rich in symbolism. Its particular significance here is that it represents Scotland, being one of the supporters of the royal coat of arms. (You can read more about the tapestries here.)
Several smaller rooms have been restored to house entertaining, interactive exhibits about the building of the castle and about courtly life within it. My boys’ favourite was the room about clothing in the era of James V (early 16th Century): there are lots of costumes to try on! I swear the boys grew an inch in stature once they were buttoned into damask doublets and fur-trimmed cloaks. The younger one would happily have made off with a full set to wear back home. ‘Little Lord Fauntleroy’, observed Granny.
One of the most memorable areas is the kitchen, or rather kitchens. They are populated by a full complement of plaster model cooks and kitchen boys in sixteenth century mode, and stuffed with plaster food fit for a royal feast: mussels, eels and sides of beef, raised pies and roast swan, loaves and bannocks by the dozen. It is very atmospheric, if slightly spooky, as you thread your way between the ghostly workers.
To round off your visit, there is a very good cafe tucked into some of the old vaulted rooms nearby – and no, the food is not made of plaster! A final compulsory look in the gift shop finished off a wonderful day for us. This is history brought to life, at levels which every age can enjoy.
As a new visitor centre is opened at Bannockburn (almost within sight of the castle walls) to celebrate the Scots’ important victory over the English invaders seven hundred years ago, Stirling Castle still feels at the heart of Scottish history. A word of advice, however, to English visitors. Perhaps you should come and see it sooner rather than later: if Scotland chooses to recede from the Union in the coming referendum, you might find those armoured knights riding out to meet you after all…
*The quotation and much of the information in this post is taken from ‘Stirling Castle’ by Richard Fawcett, Principal Inspector of Ancient Monuments (Historic Scotland, 1999). You can find good information online at the official website for Stirling Castle.