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Issue 51 - 24 hours in Stirling

Scotland Magazine Issue 51
June 2010


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24 hours in Stirling

Charles Douglas takes us round the essentials of this medieval city.

Clustered around its medieval old town and castle, today’s Stirling has a great deal to offer, not only for shoppers, providing such diversions as the colourful Stirling Arcade, but for holidaymakers and visitors intent on exploring the city’s pivotal role in the great sweep of Scotland’s narrative.

However, I can remember a time, not so very long ago, when Stirling could barely boast a restaurant or hotel of note. All that has changed now with a veritable cornucopia of choice, remarkable for a citywhich, although officially designated a city, is smaller than many of Scotland’s larger towns.

Within the centre of Stirling today there are now the classy Stirling Highland, Stirling Golden Lyon and Stirling Terraces hotels, and in suburbs such as Bannockburn, and further afield at Bridge of Allan, there is a superlative range of hostelries, guest houses and bed and breakfasts to choose from, not to mention the elegant Cromlix House at Kinbuck.

Moreover, Stirling restaurants now range from the traditional to the full quota of ethnic cuisines.

Being essentially a market town and therefore catering for all of the surrounding countryside, there is additionally a wide range of retail activity on offer, such as is to be found within the Stirling Arcade. Designed and built by a china merchant and Town Councillor between 1881 and 1882, it cost him the princely sum of £20,000 Stretching from Murray Place, a few steps from the railway station, to King Street at the foot of Castle Rock, the Stirling Arcade has long been an important feature in the neighbourhood.

With its stunning glass roof and central walkway, it today provides an attractive and popular retreat into the world of quality merchandising.

On reflection, I suspect that Scotland’s great renegade champion, Sir William Wallace, did have a lot to do with the regeneration of Stirling, not so much during his lifetime seven centuries ago but following Mel Gibson Hollywood epic Braveheart which premiered in 1995. Virtually overnight, Stirling was perceived as not just the Gateway to the Highlands of Scotland, just somewhere to look in on before heading north, but as a romantic, must visit, destination, thus causing local businesses and politicians to respond appropriately.

But an important part of that response was also to pay homage to a rich and vibrant heritage. The best way to inspect Stirling is therefore on foot, and probably the best option is to start off at the old castle which we know was in existence as early as the twelfth century, if not in the ninth. Of course, tradition tells us that Kenneth MacAlpine, the incoming first King of Scots, lay siege to a fortification somewhere in the neighbourhood, but there is no evidence to confirm that it was on exactly the same spot.

Thereafter, however, from the Wars of Scottish Independence and throughout to the reigns of the Stuart monarchs when it became a medieval burgh, Stirling and its castle have occupied central stage. On that basis, the first stop has to be the Royal Burgh of Stirling Visitor Centre on the castle esplanade, and, after that, the castle itself.

Remember that Stirling Castle was Scotland’s key Royal administrative centre from the 15th century until its monarch, James VI, headed south to become King James I of England. Almost all of the existing buildings were built between 1488 and 1513, the grandest works being personally commissioned by James IV and James V. As is only to be expected, a great deal of restoration work has since taken place and some of the full grandeur of the past can best be absorbed from an inspection of the Royal Palace and the King’s Presence Chamber, originally decorated with a series of carved oak portraits known as the Stirling Heads, Considered to be “among the finest examples of Scottish Renaissance woodcarving now extant.”, these Stirling Head roundels were removed after the collapse of a ceiling in 1777, and of an estimated fifty six, thirty eight survive, some of which are preserved within the castle, some being held at the Stirling Smith Museum & Art Gallery, and three being in the National Museum of Scotland’s collection in Edinburgh. It is eleven years now since the latest restoration of the Great Hall was completed and while there are those who might be ambivalent about the outer walls being rather luridly lime washed, nobody can surely find fault with the impressive replacement of the original hammerbeam ceiling and parapet .

Close to the castle there are several unique buildings, all of which are accessible to the public. For example, there is Argyll’s Lodgings, a 17th century town residence built circa 1630 by Sir William Alexander, the founder of Nova Scotia and who before his death in1640 became Viscount Canada.

Earlier he had served as Secretary of State for Scotland and for his commitment was created the first Earl of Stirling. As the name of the lodgings suggests, his house was acquired after his death by the earls of Argyll.

Charles II stayed overnight before being crowned at Scone in 1651, the second Duke of Argyll set up his headquarters here in1715 before the Battle of Sheriffmuir, and the Duke of’ Cumberland briefly took up residence on his way north to fight the Battle of Culloden in 1746.

Situated at the top of Broad Street is Mar’s Wark, commissioned around 1569 by the powerful John Erskine, Earl of Mar, Hereditary Keeper of Stirling Castle and the Regent of Scotland during the minority of James VI. What we see today is the shell of a splendid renaissance style town house , its facade decorated with a patchwork of stone carvings, panels and gargoyles. The eleventh Earl of Mar supported the Jacobite Cause and when forced into exile following the failure of the 1715 Rising, his house was seized and converted into barracks. During the 1745 Rising, it was damaged by cannon fire and fell into ruin.

The Church of the Holy Rude in St John Street has been Stirling’s principal parish church for more than five hundred years, the original wooden church having been burned in1452 to avenge the murder of the sixth Earl of Douglas. The present church, however, was developed in two stages, the first half completed around 1470, the second half around 1555.

But the fascination remains. A plaque on the floor marks the spot where in 1567, the infant James VI was baptised in a gold font gifted by Queen Elizabeth I of England, and he was carried into the chapel by the Count of Brienne, proxy for James’s godfather, the King of France. For his own reasons, James’s father, Lord Darnley, sulked in his apartments, refusing to attend the ceremony or the festivities that followed.

An intriguing ruin in St Mary’s Wynd is John Cowane’s House which was still inhabited as late as 1900. Cowane, born here in1570, was one of Stirling’s most eminent benefactors and during his lifetime served as a Burgh Councillor, a Bailie, as representative at the Convention of Royal Burghs, Dean of Guild, then the Burgh’s Member of Parliament from 1625 to1632.

When he died in October 1633, he left 500 merks to the Church of the Holy Rude, and 40 000 merks for the provision of an almshouse or hospital for “twelve decayed Guild brethren of Stirling.” As a result, Cowane’s Hospital was built as an almshouse for merchants, and it stands close to the Church of the Holy Rude. Open to the public, there is a statue above the doorway of the man himself, and a local superstition claims that every year he celebrates Hogmanay by jumping down from his ledge and dancing the night away. Curiously, nobody has ever been sober enough to record the event.

For those expecting to find the wooden bridge upon which William Wallace and his side-kick Andrew de Moravia exterminated the English army in 1297, there is a disappointment in store. Today’s Stirling Bridge was built around 1500 and the original bridge, it is thought, was relatively nearby. Stirling’s New Bridge, however, was designed by the engineer Robert Stevenson, grandfather of the author Robert Louise Stevenson, and it opened in1833.

On a personal note when visiting Stirling, I would always give priority to checking in at the Stirling Smith Art Gallery & Museum on the Dumbarton Road. Founded in 1874 with a legacy from Thomas Stuart Smith, a painter and collector of artefacts, it has since emerged triumphant under its remarkable director Dr Elspeth King as the most innovatory gallery and museum centre in Scotland.

There are, however, two final requisite demands to be made for anybody who has not been here before. The first is to pay homage at the Bannockburn Heritage Centre which is located two miles south of the town on the Glasgow Road. The battle which took place 604 years ago in this vicinity changed the destiny of Scotland, and a bronze statue of the victor, Robert the Bruce on his war horse stands outside the centre on the rotunda.

The other excursion I most certainly recommend is to the Wallace Monument which sits haughtily on Abbey Craig, the rocky crag from which William Wallace watched the English army gather on the south side of Stirling Bridge. Opened in1869 and financed by public subscription, the 220 feet (67m) high Victorian Gothic tower lies at a short distance from the town centre, but there is a shuttle bus operating from the visitor centre car park.

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