Perched atop Castle Hill, a volcanic rock erupting from the heart of Stirling, lies Stirling Castle – an impressive sight, seen for miles from every direction. This magnificent castle – which offers stunning views over Stirling, the Forth, the Wallace Monument, and the Ochil Hills – has a long, turbulent, and bloody history.
Stories of battle
Situated at the lowest crossing point on the River Forth, Stirling Castle has been the gateway to the Highlands since the Middle Ages. It was the strategic heart of medieval Scotland; whoever held this mighty fortress controlled the crossing, and therefore held Scotland. It was the key to the kingdom that was fought over for centuries. Having been attacked at least 16 times, there are many fascinating stories to be told.
During the Scottish Wars of Independence between 1296 and 1342, the castle changed hands 8 times between the Scots and the English. Two major battles were fought here during these years – The Battle of Stirling Bridge (where William Wallace and the Scots army defeated the larger army of King Edward I), and the Battle of Bannockburn (where Robert the Bruce, King of Scots, led his army to inflict a crushing defeat on King Edward II).
The English Civil War was not confined to England. The conflict spread to Scotland, and in 1651 Stirling Castle was taken by Oliver Cromwell’s army. In later years, the castle also played a vital role in the final Jacobite defeat in 1746. After the victory at Falkirk, Bonnie Prince Charlie and his troops attempted to take Stirling Castle. The Castle’s newly built outer defences proved too much for the naively confident Jacobite army and they were forced to flee to the Highlands, where they ultimately met their demise at Culloden. This was the final assault on Stirling Castle.
Stories of peace and victory
It isn’t all stories of blood and battle though. In stark contrast to over 250 years of battle, Stirling Castle was also the site of a peace agreement – The Treaty of Perpetual Peace. An agreement was made in 1502 to end the intermittent warfare between England and Scotland when King James IV agreed to marry Margaret Tudor. Evidence of this can be seen on the castle walls, with engravings of a Thistle and a Rose, to symbolise the union. Although the treaty failed initially, it led to the Union of the Crowns 101 years later.
The castle was the favourite royal residence of the Stewart monarchs, and played a pivotal part throughout their reign. King James IV, grandfather of Mary Queen of Scots, built much of the castle as it is today. As you walk through the main castle gate, you enter in to the 16th Century Stewart courtyard, and you are immediately met by the Great Hall – a grand banqueting hall, lime-washed in King’s Gold. The Great Hall was one of James IV’s masterpieces, and it is the largest of its kind ever built in Scotland. It was the setting of many ceremonial occasions, including the baptism of Mary’s son, King James VI.
Opposite the Great Hall, is the castle’s oldest structure – the North Gate. Built in 1381 during the reign of King Robert II, this brick archway links the Great Hall to the original kitchens, which would have been the heart of the castle during the Stewart’s reign. This ancient feature contrasts magnificently with the golden washed walls of the Great Hall.
As you make your way to the other side of The Great Hall, you will see the Royal Palace, situated within the inner close. This is one of the best preserved renaissance buildings in the UK and was built by King James V in the 1500s. Widely acclaimed as one of the most impressive buildings in Scotland, the Royal Palace blends renaissance architecture with late-gothic influences. The palace portrays a magnificent insight into the grandeur of life for the Stewart nobles, and is also home to the famous ‘Hunt of the Unicorn’ tapestries.
After the death of her father, King James V, Mary Queen of Scots was taken to Stirling Castle for safety. Mary was crowned at Stirling Castle in 1543 at the age of 9 months, and she spent much of her childhood growing up in the Royal Palace. Her future son would also be crowned at the castle, to become James VI of Scotland, and eventually James I of England with the Union of the Crowns.
Stirling Castle is also home to one of the first protestant churches in Scotland – The Chapel Royal. This elegant building, was built in only six months by order of King James VI for the baptism of his son Prince Henry. It is an exact replica of King Solomon’s temple and is also the last royal building built at the castle, dating from 1593.
In more modern times, the castle has been the location for many popular films throughout the years, including Michael Caine’s ‘Kidnapped’, and the 2004 film ‘Burke and Hare’, with Andy Serkis and Simon Pegg.
To find out more about this fascinating stronghold, join us on our Glasgow shore excursions, as we journey through the Highlands and Lowlands, before stepping back in time to hear the stories of Stirling Castle.