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Issue 15 - Royal castles and palaces

History & Heritage

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Scotland Magazine Issue 15
July 2004


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Royal castles and palaces

John Hannavy's castle trail takes him to the very best royal castles and palaces

Our subjects this month are Scotland’s two greatest castles, and the country’s three finest palaces. Between them, they have embraced centuries of Scottish history, and visiting them today presents a unique picture of Scotland’s past all within a relatively few miles’ driving.

To many visitors to Scotland, the image of Edinburgh Castle sums up their expectations of Scotland – whether it is the sight of the huge fortress bathed in summer sunlight, or seeing its floodlit form silhouetted against a black sky from the stands on the Esplanade during the annual Edinburgh Military Tattoo. So where better to start than the great fortress in the royal apartments of which Mary Queen of Scots gave birth to the future King James VI of Scotland (later James I after the Union of the Crowns) in 1566.

This castle occupies a site which has probably been fortified in one form or another for about 1500 years, but the oldest fragments of today’s castle probably date back no more than a mere 900 or so!

Much of what is most easily identified with the castle today dates from extensive remodelling projects from the middle of the 18th century through to the end of the 19th – the Esplanade, for example, was laid out in the 1750s, and the impressive gatehouse dates from the 1880s. But deep in the heart of the complex, St Margaret’s Chapel dating from the early years of the 12th century, reputedly occupies the site where the Queen of Scotland worshipped in the second half of the 11th.

At the opposite end of the Royal Mile stands the Palace of Holyroodhouse, which stands uncomfortably married to the ruins of the great Augustinian Abbey church of Holyrood. The abbey was still a working church until the middle of the 18th century when a bungled repair caused the roof to collapse. Holyrood Abbey, a royal foundation, was no stranger to royal visitors through much of its existence, but it was James IV who started work on the great palace to the west of the abbey in the early years of the 16th century – as a fitting residence for his Queen, Mary Tudor. The palace was completed by James V, and fragments of it can still be seen in today’s building, despite extensive rebuilding and enlargement over the years.

It was James V’s palace that was home to Mary Queen of Scots for several years, and was also where she married Lord Darnley in 1565. Today’s palace, however, largely dates from a complete remodelling by Sir William Bruce to create a royal residence suitable for King Charles II.

Mary, like her father before her, had been born not in Edinburgh, but at Linlithgow Palace, and she returned to the palace periodically through her life in Scotland. The palace, which sits at the edge of a small loch on the outskirts of the town of the same name a few miles west of Edinburgh, stands about half way between Edinburgh and Stirling.

After a fire brought about the destruction of his small manor house nearby, James I initiated the creation of this great palace in 1425, and work on the construction over the following ninety years created the huge structure we see today.

Further alterations, improvements and embellishments continued until 1624, just short of two centuries after work started. From the outside, the palace presents an austere and forbidding appearance, but once inside, the feeling today is very different. The great quadrangle around which the palace is built remains today, on three sides at least, as Mary would have known it.

In the centre stands an ornate early 16th century fountain installed by James V.

The north face was extensively remodelled in the first quarter of the 17th century during the reign of James VI. Adjacent to the palace, St Michael’s church dates from the same period as the original construction of the palace.

Falkland Palace was originally a royal hunting lodge, set amidst the fertile countryside of Fife, where the Stuart kings went stag hunting, and indulged in their enjoyment of falconry, archery and other sports.

The last monarch to live at Falkland for any length of time was Charles II in the mid 17th century, and several histories of the palace’s royal residents make much of the violent or untimely deaths many of them met. These have included James II (died in battle), James III (stabbed to death), James IV (died at Flodden), James V (died in the palace), Mary (executed) and the unfortunate Charles I.

Stirling Castle shares with Edinburgh a dominant position on a rocky volcanic outcrop high above its city, and has probably done so for about the same length of time. It first appears in written history in the early 12th century, but its most recognisable features are much later.

The great gatehouse or ‘forewark’ dates from the early years of the 16th century during the reign of James IV, the Palace dates from about 1540, and the recently restored Great Hall is probably half a century older. This magnificent building had been crudely converted and used for a century and more as the barracks for the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, and its restoration occupied nearly two decades.

The bright colouring of its walls, applied at the end of the restoration, caused a lot of controversy when unveiled in the late 1980s and, despite assurances that this is what it would have looked like, it will take a long time to mellow and blend in with the soft colours of the surrounding stonework.

All five of these buildings are within relatively short driving distances of each other, and any visit to central Scotland should include them, so much of the country’s history can be touched within their walls.

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