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Issue 59 - The Centre of Ascendancy

Scotland Magazine Issue 59
October 2011


This article is 6 years old and some information provided may be time sensitive. Please check all details of events, tours, opening times and other information before travelling or making arrangements.

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The Centre of Ascendancy

Charles Douglas spends a day in the epicentre of the fight for nationhood

In two years time, on 24th June 2014 to be exact, all of Scotland will celebrate the 800 year old victory of Bannockburn, where Robert the Bruce, the figurehead of Scotland’s Norman-Scottish Royal ascendancy, finally persuaded the Scottish nation to assert its identity over an invading English plutocracy.

Although the exact location as to where this immensely symbolic battle actually took place is often disputed, we know that it was just outside of the canon range of Stirling Castle, which at the time was occupied by the English army. We also know that the heat of the action took place south of the castle, and that the bulk of the slaughter took place around the Bannock Burn, where the bulk of the English army was impaled on Scottish pikes. The National Trust for Scotland’s heritage centre, however, is considered to be near enough to the exact spot, and with its 1960s Pilkington Jackson statue of Scotland’s hero king presiding over the enclosure, it has developed into one of Scotland’s most popular visitor attractions.

Stirling, on the furthest inland crossing of the River Forth, has occupied an important strategic position in Scotland’s history since Roman times, serving not only as the “Gateway to the Highlands”, but as both a Royal residence and medieval seat of government.

It should not be forgotten that the Scottish victory at Stirling Bridge in 1297 was a precursor to that of Bannockburn and was to lead to William Wallace’s appointment as the Guardian of Scotland at the height of the first round of Scottish Wars of Independence. His monument on Abbey Craig, a hill to the east, was completed in 1869. It was designed by the Victorian architect John Thomas Rochead at a cost of £18,000, the funds raised by public subscription.

It was in Stirling that James VI (I of England) was crowned King of Scots in 1567, and the recently restored Renaissance Palace built by his grandfather and great-grandfather is said to have been unrivalled by any building in Europe at the time.

In the King’s Old Building of Stirling Castle, the eighth Earl of Douglas and his brother were brutally murdered in 1452 at a meeting orchestrated by James II. Almost all of the surviving castle buildings of the 21st century, however, were created between 1488 and 1513, the grandest being personally supervised by James IV and James V themselves.

The King’s Presence Chamber, for example, was originally decorated with a series of carved oak portraits known as the “Stirling Heads”.

Considered to be the “finest examples of Scottish Renaissance woodcarving now extant” they were removed after the collapse of a ceiling in 1777, and of an estimated 56, 38 survive, some of which can be seen in the castle, the remainder held by the Stirling Smith Museum and the National Museum of Scotland’s collection in Edinburgh.

Close to the castle, there are several other buildings, all of which are open to the public.

Argyll’s Lodgings, for example, is a 17th century town residence once occupied by Sir William Alexander, the founder of Nova Scotia. As the name of the house indicates, it was acquired after his death by the earls and dukes of Argyll.

Charles II stayed here overnight before being crowned at Scone in 1651, the second Duke of Argyll had his headquarters here before the Battle of Sheriffmuir in 1715, and the Duke of Cumberland briefly stayed here in 1746 on his march north to confront the Jacobite army at the Battle of Culloden.

At the top of Broad Street is Mar’s Wark, created in 1569 by John Erskine, Earl of Mar, Hereditary Keeper of Stirling Castle and Regent of Scotland during the minority of James VI. The 11th Earl was a supporter of the Old Pretender, and during the first Jacobite Rising in 1715, his house was seized and occupied as a barracks by Government troops. In the following Jacobite Rising of 1745, it was damaged by canon fire and allowed to fall into ruin. All that can be seen today is the shell, its façade decorated with stone carvings, panels and gargoyles.

The Church of the Holy Rude in St John Street has been Stirling’s principal parish church for more than 500 years. Although not the original building, the original having been burnt in 1452, there is a plaque on the floor marking where James VI was baptised in a golden font provided by Elizabeth I of England.

On the Dumbarton Road is the impressive Stirling Smith Art Gallery and Museum. Founded in 1874 with a legacy bequeathed by Thomas Stuart Smith, a painter and collector of artefacts, it has emerged under its inspirational director Dr Elspeth King as “the soul of Stirling at Scotland’s heart”, a place where visitors can inspect the oldest football in the world, the oldest curling stone in the world, the earliest known Christian gravestone in Scotland, and the sculptor Alexander Stoddart’s bronze of the medieval poet Blind Harry.

Although Stirling, along with its catchment areas of Bannockburn and Bridge of Allan, has a population of less than 45,000, it was awarded city status in 2002. Having prospered as a centre for some of Scotland’s richest and most productive farmland, it has maintained its importance as a centre of Scotland destination, and there are thriving shopping centres such as the Thistle, the Raploch, and Springkerse Retail Park.

Adjacent to the railway station, on the riverside, a major regeneration project on a former Ministry of Defence site is underway. The University of Stirling was founded in 1967 and is located on the Airthrey Castle Estate attracting a range of research and development and life sciences industries to the region.

Twenty four hours in Stirling naturally involves somewhere to stay and a degree of eating out.

Within the centre there are the 4 -star Barceló Stirling Highland, the Stirling Golden Lyon and the Terraces hotels. In Bannockburn and Bridge of Allan, there is a superlative range of hostelries, guest houses and bed and breakfast establishments to choose from, and relatively close by, the luxurious Cromlix House at Kinbuck, In addition, a number of eateries to be highly recommended, these including the Birds & Bees in Causewayhead; Henderson’s Bistro in Albert Place; the Italia Nostra and Brea Cafe and Restaurant, both in Baker Street; La Ciociara Italian Restaurant in Friars Street, and the Mediterranea in Viewfield Place. Slightly out of town is the Riverhouse Restaurant, with bar and conference centre. At Bridge of Allan there is the Vecchia Bologna Italian restaurant, and the family owned Allanwater Cafe, For excursions a bit further afield than Stirling’s city centre, bear in mind that there is the nearby Blair Drummond Safari and Adventure Park which is full of wild and exotic animals and will certainly fill up most of your day. At Briarland’s Farm, run by the Inglis family, there is a “Fun Yard” for the children; at Muirhall Farm at Larbert there is the highly recommended Barbara Davidson Pottery, and on the Keir estate there is quad biking, falconry and archery.

Finally, for Scotch whisky connoisseurs, Stirling is in easy reach of the Tullibardine Distillery at Blackford, and the Deanston Distillery at Doune.

However, it has to be said that if you only have twenty four hours at your disposal, you will definitely be spoiled for choice.