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Issue 67 - Stirling Castle - Looking Down on History

Scotland Magazine Issue 67
February 2013


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Stirling Castle - Looking Down on History

Charles Douglas visits this strategic and imposing building

Flanked on three sides by steep cliffs, Stirling Castle, occupying an uncompromising and dramatic site close to the source of the River Forth in central Scotland, serving as the sentinel watch tower standing between the Scottish Lowlands and Highlands.

Not much is known about its earliest existence except that it was possibly occupied by an outpost of the Gododin, a Celtic tribe with Welsh connections. Although the Romans built a defensive fort eight miles away at Doune, settlements are known to have existed on the rock at Stirling long before their arrival, and its strategic location would most certainly have played a significant role in the early campaigns of the Roman general Agricola in the year 77AD.

The earliest credible documents, however, record that Alexander I built a chapel here in 1110, so it can be assumed that by then Stirling must have become an established administrative centre. This changed in 1174 when Alexander's great nephew William I made an impetuous invasion of England and under the Treaty of Falaise was obliged to surrender Stirling Castle for a period of fifteen years. Nevertheless, when its ownership reverted to him, it became his favoured Royal residence until his death in 1214.

During the first of the Scottish Wars of Independence (1296-1328), English soldiers on-and-off took control and it is impossible to forget that on 24th June 1314 , its occupants were obliged to become spectators only at the most significant altercation in Scotland's history.

Out of the range of his canon fire, the castle's English commander Sir Philip Mowbray was powerless to intervene in the ensuing Battle of Bannockburn being fought only a couple of miles away. This was the decisive Scottish victory that radically influenced the history of both Scotland and England in the centuries to follow.

Thereafter, it was during the reigns of the early Stewart kings that the surviving parts of the castle that we see today were built. In 1424, it became part of the marriage settlement of Joan Beaufort when she married King James I, and it was here that she took up residence with her infant son following the murder of her husband in 1437. Fifteen years later, it was in a banqueting hall at Stirling castle that the twenty two year old James II stabbed and killed the seventeen year old sixth Earl of Douglas and his younger brother, whom he accused of having set up a treasonable alliance with the Lord of the Isles.

James III was born at Stirling Castle in 1460, but it was his son and grandson who deserve to take the credit for the embellishment and transformation of its interiors into their present glory. It was James IV who introduced the King's Old Building, the Great Hall, and the Forework, of which little now remains, and who renovated the Chapel Royal, one of two churches within the castle at this time.

His successor, the infant James V, was crowned in the Chapel Royal in 1513, and, growing up in the castle, both continued and expanded his father's building programme, employing Sir James Hamilton of Finnart and French masons to create the Royal Palace. After his death in 1542, his widow Mary de Guise completed the work, bringing their infant daughter, Mary Queen of Scots, to be crowned here in the Chapel Royal on 9 September 1543.

The Chapel Royal was again used in 1594 for the baptism of James VI's son, Prince Henry and in 1633 redecorated for Charles I's coronation visit by the painter Valentine Jenkin. Jenkin’s handsome interior frieze survives to this day and includes a trompe l’oeil window and the Honours of Scotland (crown jewels) alongside the monogram CR1 – Carolus Rex being the Latin form of King Charles.

Stirling Castle is now registered as a Scheduled Ancient Monument and managed as a visitor attraction by Historic Scotland, which is to be congratulated for its masterly refurbishment of this masterpiece of medieval splendour. It has taken thirty five years, employing 780 tonnes of stone, but the achievement is spellbinding. Three hundred and fifty oak trees were felled to create the replacement hammerbeam ceiling in the Great Hall, which is modelled on the early sixteenth century example at Edinburgh Castle.

This Great Hall was by far the largest banqueting hall to be built in medieval Scotland. The exterior walls have been rendered in Royal Gold harling, as they would have been seen in the 1500s. Two high windows light the dais, the platform on which the King and Queen would have sat holding court.

Five enormous fireplaces provided heating, and it was in this very same room that over Christmas 1566, Mary Queen of Scots hosted a banquet for her only child, the future James VI of Scotland, I of England, providing an entertainment that was followed by Scotland's first ever firework display.

The ceremony was repeated in 1594, when James celebrated the baptism of his firstborn, Prince Henry. The climax to this event was the arrival of the fish dishes on a model Ship of State, over 5 metres long and more than 12 metres high, floating on an artificial sea.

The so-called Stirling Heads, originally numbering fifty six, were previously on show in the King's Chamber, representing palace courtiers, and figures from classical antiquity. They were dispersed when the Palace ceilings were taken down in 1777 and although some were lost, thirty eight of the original have been retrieved and can be seen on display in a gallery on the upper floor.

Documents reveal that James V owned two sets of tapestries featuring unicorns, and the magnificent tapestries which decorate the Queen’s Inner Hall of the Palace were commissioned especially for Stirling Castle and woven by hand, using techniques dating back to the 1400s. Work began on them in 2001 and they are scheduled to be completed this year. Incidentally, they are closely based on a set of seven held by the Metropolitan Museum of New York.

Aside from its opulent Royal interiors, another of the historic roles occupied by Stirling Castle is as the headquarters of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, an infantry regiment belonging to the British Army. Founded in 1881, it was in 2006 amalgamated into the Royal Regiment of Scotland, but retains its regimental museum here.

Among objects of interest on display are a magnificent silverware collection presented in honour of the regiment’s involvement in the Boer War in South Africa, and portraits of two of its Colonels-in-Chief – Princess Louise, Duchess of Argyll and daughter of Queen Victoria, and Her Majesty the Queen, who became Colonel-in- Chief in 1947, on her 21st birthday.

A visit to Stirling Castle in the 21st century is to take a step back into the very heart of Scotland's history. Even on the castle esplanade, there is an inevitable encounter with Robert the Bruce, Scotland's great hero king. As a reminder of the commemorative events scheduled next year for the 700th anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn, his fine statue, sword in hand, by Andrew Currie of Darnick, and erected in 1877, gazes wistfully across the Strath towards Abbey Craig and the towering monument erected in 1869 in memory of his great contemporary and companion-in-arms, Sir William Wallace