If you’re looking for a castle steeped in mysterious history, set in a picturesque Scottish town, with panoramic views of the surrounding glens, have I got the place for you…did anybody else read that in the voice of Stefan from Saturday Night Live? Just me? Well, alright. Either way, Stirling Castle is a must visit if you’re in Scotland and have a free afternoon or day.
Fraser and I made the trip from Aberdeen to Stirling (he drove, I acted as car DJ) the first weekend of September, and though we faced cloudy skies for most of the day we were lucky with the rain holding off! After stopping at one of the best bacon roll joints in Scotland we made our way to Stirling and were granted views of the castle and William Wallace Monument rising from the fog—no joke—as we neared the town. If you take the train into Stirling you don’t have to worry about parking, but for those coming by car you’d be best off parking in one of the car parks near town. We took the bus from Castleview Park and Ride; buses run every 25 minutes during the day and a round-trip ticket will only run you £1.20, so if you’re looking to save yourself some change—or your sanity, Stirling Castle’s car park was way crowded—I’d definitely recommend taking this route!
Once our bus got stuck behind some hapless driver stuck on the hill through Stirling we disembarked and made our own way up the hill. If we’d had more time in the town we definitely would have stopped in some of the pubs and stores we passed by. Many storefronts are housed in original buildings, and the old high school has been transformed into a hotel and whisky shop! One of my favourite parts of visiting new cities and towns is seeing how older architecture is used today, and Stirling certainly didn’t disappoint. Now buckle up because it’s time to get historical, and Stirling Castle’s history is not brief.
Stirling Castle sits atop a rocky crag and, while historians believe its location may have been occupied as early as 3000 years ago, the first known king to take hold of Stirling Castle was Kenneth MacAlpin. MacAlpin was the first to establish rule over both the Picts and Scots, uniting them, and in his quest to form the kingdom we now know as Scotland he besieged Stirling Castle in 843 AD. Stirling Castle wasn’t formally known as a royal castle until nearly 300 years later, when written records indicated King Alexander I dedicated a chapel on the castle grounds in 1110.
Fast forward 100 years to when our dear friend William Wallace entered the scene. You probably all know the name from Mel Gibson’s Braveheart. Now forget what you know from that film because most of it isn’t all that accurate, but hold onto the whole bloody bit cause let me tell you what, they got that right. At this point the English held Stirling Castle, as part of some ridiculous back and forth power struggle. Feel free to research it more because it really is interesting, but if you want the summary here it is:
The English got Stirling as part of William the Lion’s ransom in 1174. Richard I was nice and formally gave the Scots their castle back fifteen years later. Everything was great until Alexander III died in 1286, starting a succession crisis since all of his children died before him. His granddaughter in Norway was eventually appointed Queen of Scots but, in 1290, died on her way to Scotland. This led Edward I of England to come north and demand that all Scottish royal castles be put under his control; he tried appointing a puppet ruler, John Balliol, who was having none of that thank you very much. Apparently kings don’t like it when their puppet rulers disobey because Edward I invaded Scotland and took control of occupied an empty Stirling Castle in 1296.
Still with me? Good, because here’s where our friend William comes in. Acting as guardian of Scotland, William raised a revolt against Edward and his English occupation. After he and his pal Andrew Moray dominated the Battle of Stirling Bridge on September 11, 1297 and Wallace went on to starve out the English who remained at Stirling Castle. Sadly, a year later Wallace led the Scots against the English once more, with the English emerging victorious at the Battle of Falkirk. This time it took Stirling Castle six years to change hands—yes, Edward I besieged the castle for six years before he finally built a siege machine large enough to intimidate the Scots into surrender. And no wonder it did: nicknamed the War Wolf, this trebuchet was the largest ever constructed and could hurl missiles up to 300 pounds towards the enemy.
At this point Edward I probably thought he was doing well maintaining his grip on Scottish territory, as he held Stirling Castle for the next ten years. But if you guessed it changes hands yet again you’d be right…enter Robert the Bruce, another of Scotland’s national heroes!
When William Wallace resigned as Guardian of Scotland, Robert the Bruce and Sir John Comyn took joint Guardianship. Now, Comyn was supposed to be crowned King of Scots in 1306 but Robert didn’t much like that idea. So he killed him. As you can imagine, Edward I wasn’t terribly happy about this turn of events and outlawed Robert (didn’t matter because Edward died in 1307 oops), who went on to wage guerrilla warfare against the English occupiers from 1307 until Stirling Castle remained one of the only Scottish Castles in English hands in 1314. Not content with letting them retain control, Robert the Bruce and his army won the Battle of Bannockburn, forcing the English to again surrender Stirling Castle to the Scots.
If your head is spinning from this historical tennis match with Stirling Castle starring as the ball, I’m sorry because it isn’t over quite yet. The second War of Independence meant that by 1336 Stirling Castle was again in English control. Andrew Murray (long forgotten ancestor of Andy Murray, perhaps?) attempted a siege in 1337, but it wasn’t until 1342 that Stirling Castle was again in Scottish hands, this time thanks to a siege carried out by Robert Stewart (later King Robert II).
The Stewarts oversaw reinforcements of the castle, and some of their work can be seen in the oldest surviving buildings on the grounds today. King James I made his wife, Joan Beaufort, co-monarch upon their marriage and granted her Stirling Castle as part of her marriage settlement, which became a tradition of Scottish kings and came in handy after James I was assassinated. Upon his death, Joan smuggled her infant son (James II) into Stirling Castle for their safety and ruled as regent from the stronghold. James II became King of Scotland at the tender age of six and, as his reign was riddled with struggles between rival families, he was a bit insecure in his role. The Douglas family posed a larger threat than most and, in 1440, the 6th Earl of Douglas died at the hands of James II’s advisors, in an event now known as the Black Dinner, at Edinburgh Castle. Sound like Game of Thrones-worthy inspiration to you? Not yet? How about this: twelve years later the 8th Earl of Douglas met a similar end. After refusing to obey James II’s commands he was stabbed to death by the king, then flung from a window into the gardens below. James III, the next king, was generally regarded as weak and none of his modifications to the castle survive. He was killed fleeing the Battle of Sauchieburn near Stirling, the result of a revolt led by his son (just guess his name) James IV.
This time, the Stewarts focused on diplomacy; James IV signed the Treaty of Perpetual Peace with England and married Margaret Tudor, daughter of King Henry VII. King James IV also hoped to create a castle worthy of European grandeur. He kept a full Renaissance court, commissioned grand building works including the Great Hall, and passionately supported arts and culture. After his death in 1513 his son—wait for it—James V was crowned king at seventeen months of age. I couldn’t even be relied on to go without diapers at that point, no clue how I’d run a country, but do what you must, right? Eventually James V continued the building programme his father started and, after marrying French noblewoman Mary of Guise, began constructing a royal palace to rival the finest French chateaux. Also FINALLY we have a queen come forward, as James V’s daughter Mary became Mary, Queen of Scots upon her father’s death when she was a mere six days old. Although Mary had a son, James VI of Scotland (and later James I of England) she and Queen Elizabeth I of England had some serious family/succession drama going that meant she was forced to abdicate her throne. James VI spent much of his childhood at Stirling Castle, and graffiti allegedly made by him while he was meant to be studying can still be found on the castle walls if you look hard enough!
James VI built the Chapel Royal for his son’s baptism in 1594, but had to leave Stirling Castle and Scotland ten years later. With Elizabeth I dead and without an heir, James VI became James I of England as well, uniting Scotland and England under the same monarch. He moved to London to better run England in 1603 and, in anticipation of his return to Scotland 13 years later, extensive work to repair the royal residences was underway. Stirling Castle alone had £13,000 in repairs done. Doesn’t sound like much for a castle until you consider that, with inflation, it amounts to about £2 million today. When James VI passed, his son Charles I took control. His return to Scotland for his coronation meant even more renovation work; part of the changes made for his return included re-designing the gardens around the castle, which you can still walk through today. As you might know Charles I became unpopular pretty quickly and, after the country was thrown into civil war, he was tried and executed for treason. His son Charles II fared a bit better; the Scots declared him their king upon Charles I’s execution and he took up residence at Stirling Castle until Oliver Cromwell’s army forced him to flee to France. Cromwell’s army laid siege to Stirling Castle, and damage from the siege can still be seen. Walk around the outside of the Great Hall and you’ll see shot marks on the upper walls…thank Cromwell and his forces for that.
Although Charles II was the last monarch to reside at Stirling Castle, its history doesn’t end with his escape in 1651—that would be too simple. Remember the Jacobite Risings? Right, combine that with Stirling Castle’s strategic position and reinforced walls thanks to Scottish kings knowing what they needed to do to keep English forces out, and you’ve found the perfect place for Bonnie Prince Charlie and his Jacobite army to seize. Prince Charles Edward Stuart, or Bonnie Prince Charlie, claimed a right to the throne through his grandfather James VII and II (who was booted, by the way). The Jacobite Rising was ultimately unsuccessful, with a decisive defeat at the Battle of Culloden in 1746, but before that he and his army marched to Stirling Castle in hopes of taking it for their army’s stronghold. The town of Stirling surrendered but the castle’s governor refused; without any heavy artillery (a contributing factor to their loss at Culloden) their siege failed. It was Stirling Castle’s last siege.
Although the castle was no longer used as a royal residence, the governors of the castle remained responsible for its appearances. One incredible feature of the castle is the Stirling Heads, enormous carved wood roundels made from Polish oak dating from the 1540s. Commissioned by King James V, each head represented different figures from Scottish and European royal courts, along with older historical and mythical figures such as Julius Caesar and Hercules. The Heads decorated a vast ceiling in the Royal Palace until it collapsed under their weight in 1777. The Heads were dispersed to different organisations and families afterwards, but while General Graham, Governor of Stirling Castle, and his wife Jane Ferrier lived at Stirling Castle she made sketches of as many of these Heads as she could. The Stirling Heads Gallery holds replicas of every head she sketched, along with a few of the original heads, and is definitely worth your time to see. Just when you think they can’t get any more interesting, whoever carved the heads also carved binary code into one of them—turns out it’s code to a song that was played at court nearly 500 years ago! Thanks to scientists and researchers cracking the code, this same song now plays throughout Stirling Castle; maybe you’ll hear it on your trip there!
I swear we’re nearly done with this history novel. If you’ve managed to stay with me this entire time, I am impressed and incredibly grateful so here’s a picture of some highland cows that I fell in love with.
The castle’s reputation as a military stronghold persisted into the later 18th century, as it took on the role of army barracks during Britain’s war against France in the 1790s. Although it still entertained the occasional royal visit—in 1849 Queen Victoria became the first reigning monarch to visit since Charles II 200 years before—Stirling Castle maintained a military purpose. The Argyll and Seaforth Highlanders used the castle as a military depot from 1881 until 1964. At this point the historical societies realised how much work needed to be done to restore the castle, and got down to it. Tapestries were recreated, a renowned woodcarver was contracted to design the Stirling Heads all over again, and sumptuous paintings and furniture were crafted to fill out the Royal Palace. In 2011 the Palace of King James V finally opened to the public after extensive refurbishments, and is a fantastic example of a restored palace. The Stirling Heads ceiling, along with the Hunt of the Unicorn tapestries, are a sight to see and the guides know their history (and the lingo of their times!)
Final admission to the castle is 45 minutes before closing, but I’d give yourself a solid two or three hours to explore. Tickets are more than reasonable for the information and experience: £14.50 for adults 16-59, £8.70 for kids from 5-15 (under 5s get in for free) and £11.50 for concessions (60+ years and others, conditions apply). Stirling Castle is full of history, art, and sculptures galore (see how many you can find on the outside of James V’s Royal Palace alone) and rushing through the exhibits and galleries is nothing but a disservice. Besides, you just climbed a crag to reach a castle besieged eight times—you deserve to take it all in!
By the time we left Stirling Castle we were too late to visit the William Wallace Monument, though we did drive up to the car park so we could get a better view. Next time we’re in Stirling we’re undoubtedly visiting that monument, and hopefully spending a day and night exploring the old town! If you’ve never been, let me know how you like it once you go—and if you’ve taken some time in Stirling, leave any favourite places or hints for us below!