After our adventures in Cumbria, we crossed the border into Scotland. We stayed in Glasgow for two nights before heading into the beginning of the highlands. We needed to pass through Stirling to get to our final destination, and we decided that Stirling Castle, as our first ‘real’ castle, would be a worthy stop. Just like Wray Castle, we first glimpsed the building from afar. Driving on one of the major motorways, I could see a large castle perched on top of a isolated cliff-face. “Could that be it?” I asked nonchalantly, screaming with excitement on the inside. It was.
Our car climbed the steep hill and we passed through Stirling’s old town before parking within the castle grounds, buying tickets and starting our exploration. Despite the rainy and windy Scottish “summer day”, the castle was bustling- we even had to wait ten minutes to get into a parking spot! It didn’t take me long to realise why the place was so popular. We started with the Queen Anne Gardens, a little terrace that was converted to a bowling green in the 1620s. It offered us stunning views over the Scottish landscape. The rain held off long enough to perch on the wall and just soak in everything I could see. Everything was just so green! A little plaque told us about the oddly shaped earthworks we could see were once impressive gardens in the 16th century. I could just about let my imagine go wild and picture what the countryside once looked like!
As rain threatened again, we scurried into vaults that house the Castle Exhibition. These rooms told us the history of the site and Stirling Castle itself. As a key feature of the natural landscape, it’s not surprising that ancient tribes of Scotland have long used the site as a stronghold. As the town grew in importance, so did the site, and in 1110 King Alexander I of Scotland used the spot to dedicate a chapel. From there the castle’s had a very bloody history, passing frequently between English and Scottish hands through the Wars of Scottish Independence. In fact, the castle’s been involved in at least eight sieges! Many Scottish Kings and Queens have been crowned at Stirling Castle, perhaps the most famous was Mary, Queen Scots. Both Mary, and her father, James V, actually grew up in the safety of the castle. Much of the castle buildings we see today date from the 16th and 17th centuries, due to the significant works of three James; James V, his father James IV, and his grandson James VI (you may also know him as James I of England). The castle was also given a bit of a spruce up in preparation for Queen Victoria‘s visit in the mid-1800s. The exhibition was set out really well and the short, but detailed, history lesson given to us was very interesting and allowed us to contextualise everything we were seeing.
With the weather clearing again, we passed through the battle-scarred Forework Gatehouse and into the central bailey of the castle. Here we had even more gorgeous views and could see some of the key buildings of the castle (more on that later). I had a quick look through the Palace Vaults, full of exhibitions about castle life for children to enjoy (admittedly, I also enjoyed both the Musician’s and Tailor’s vaults). There was also an Access Gallery to allow individuals with mobility difficulties to experience parts of the castle they may not be able to access. On the other side of the Vaults was the Ladies’ Lookout, with, you guessed it, even more stunning views.
From outside we went into the Royal Palace, beautifully decorated in a 1540s fashion, and possibly similar to how it once was when James V and Mary, Queen of Scots, lived there. I was surprised at just how colourful all of the rooms were! I really liked all of the details over the fireplaces as well, especially the famous Stirling Unicorn in the King’s Bedchamber. The other colour that catches your eye in the palace is actually on the ceiling in the form of Stirling Head replicas; metre-wide oak medallions carved with famous historical figures including Kings, Queens, Roman Emperors, and biblical and mythological characters. I pretty much spent my whole time in the room looking up, they were fascinating! Another great work of art in the palace is the Stirling Tapestries, hanging in the Queen’s Inner Hall. Replicas of the ‘Hunt of the Unicorn‘ tapestries, they are certainly impressive, even as a modern addition.
You can also access the Great Hall from the Royal Palace, through what would have been exclusively the royal entrance. The Great Hall, the largest of its kind in Scotland, is just as impressive as you’d expect. In stark contrast to the Palace, the ceiling beams here are exposed and unpainted, somehow making the impressive room more modest that what it would otherwise appear. One thing that I loved throughout both the Royal Palace and Great Hall were the staff in period costume playing instruments, giving talks, and demonstrating what the castle would have been like a few hundred years ago. Something so small really brings the whole place to life!
The other key building of the castle that we visited was the Chapel Royal, dating from the 1590s. Its most well known feature is the hand-painted frieze which includes a fake window. I was surprised to find it a rather small and modest chapel and it reminded me very much of the Great Hall. James VI’s son, Prince Henry, was baptised in the chapel.
The other places we visited in the castle included the Stirling Heads Gallery and the Regimental Museum. The gallery told us everything we wanted to know about the Stirling Heads and also houses the original heads, but also pointed out some other architectural features of the castle. I was particularly interested in the statues of mythological and historical figures that made up the Prince’s Walk, which is mounted on the outside walls of the Royal Palace. The museum is dedicated to the Argyll and Sutherland Highland Regiment, and definitely worth the stop for lovers of military history.
I absolutely adored Stirling Castle, and would recommend a visit to anyone in the area! With stunning views, interesting history, beautifully restored rooms, and even activities for children, it has something for everyone, plus more. I wish we had more than an afternoon there, because I would have loved to go on a guided tour, see the Great Kitchens, and take the wall walk down to the Tapestry Studio. I would have also really loved to explore Stirling’s Old Town, including Argyll’s Lodging, a 17th century townhouse that can be entered with a ticket from Stirling Castle. If I ever get a chance to go back to Stirling Castle, I will certainly be looking to do these things!