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Issue 88 - The Heart of Scotland (Regional Focus: Stirling and the Trossachs)

Scotland Magazine Issue 88
August 2016


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The Heart of Scotland (Regional Focus: Stirling and the Trossachs)

Charles Douglas sets off from Stirling into the wilderness wonderland of the Trossachs

It was the location on the River Forth, inland from its confluence with the North Sea, and sheltering under the foothills of the Scottish Highlands, that gave Stirling such a strategic advantage in Scotland's history. Central and far enough north of the border with England to feel safe, there was the added advantage of access in all directions that enabled the control of family and clan rivalries of north, south, east and west. Not without reason was Stirling, with its sturdy fortress on a rock, described as ‘the brooch which clasps the Highlands and Lowlands together.’ With its medieval old town and castle rock sited against a backdrop of the Ochil Hills, 21st Century Stirling readily embraces the best of the old and new with a fine array of hotels, restaurants and its Thistles Shopping Centre with over 80 stores and big name retail brands.

There was once a renaissance palace in Stirling Castle where Mary, Queen of Scots was crowned in 1542. Four centuries earlier, Alexander I dedicated a Chapel Royal and 14 years later died there. From then on, safe and secure, Stirling became a popular royal residence with William I expiring here in 1214, and Alexander III laying out the New Park for deer hunting in the early 13th Century.

However, it was after Alexander III's death in 1286 that Stirling first came under a genuine threat, with the arrival of King Edward I of England igniting the Scottish Wars of Independence. When the English army arrived, it found Stirling Castle abandoned and empty. Edward promptly took control, only to be dislodged in the following year by the fighting double act of Andrew Moray and William Wallace at the Battle of Stirling Bridge, where the former was mortally wounded. Abandoned by the Scots following the subsequent English victory at Falkirk, the castle was strengthened by King Edward before being yet again besieged, this time by supporters of Robert the Bruce in 1299.

Still held by the English at the time of the decisive Scots victory at the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314, the castle's canons were well out of range to be of any help to the desperate soldiers of Edward II fleeing south from the carnage. However, undeterred, the English were back in 1336, with control finally returning to the Scots after another siege in 1342.

After that, Stirling Castle formed part of the marriage settlement of Joan Beaufort when she married James I in 1424, and she and their infant son James II took shelter within its walls after her husband's murder in 1437. Fifteen years later, again within the castle, this same James II stabbed and killed the 8th Earl of Douglas for refusing to terminate a treasonable alliance with the rebellious Earl of Crawford and John of Islay, Lord of the Isles. Douglas' body was thrown out of a window.

Although there is some dispute over whether he was born at Stirling or St Andrews, James III fought and died aged 37 at the Battle of Sauchieburn, which took place almost on the same ground as the more famous conflict of Bannockburn to the south.

Hitherto a setting for intrigue and violence, undoubtedly Stirling Castle's golden age came about during the reigns of James IV and James V. Virtually all of the existing buildings we see today were built between 1488 and 1513, the grander works such as the Royal Palace and the King's Presence Chamber, now so splendidly restored, personally supervised by the two enlightened monarchs. Although both reigns ended badly, Scotland was undergoing a transformation in terms of education and taste. To illustrate this, Historic Environment Scotland has recently completed a £12 million project to recreate the remarkable carved oak medallions that once graced the ceilings of the King's Inner Hall.

Also within the castle walls is the Regimental Museum of the Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders (Princess Louise's Regiment) that contains the history of the 91st Argyllshire Highlanders and the 93rd Sutherland Highlanders. In 1881, these famous regiments were combined into the 1st and 2nd Battalions of The Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders Regiment, now amalgamated into The Royal Regiment of Scotland.

On the approach to Stirling Castle are several unique buildings, all accessible to the public. Argyll's Lodgings is a town residence built circa 1600 for Sir William Alexander, founder of Nova Scotia who, shortly before his death, was created Viscount Canada. The house was later acquired by the earls of Argyll, and it is where Charles II stayed the night before being crowned King of Scots at Scone in 1651. Just short of a century later, the Duke of Cumberland took up residence here on his way north to confront the Jacobite Army at the Battle of Culloden.

At the summit of Broad Street is Mar's Wark, commissioned around 1569 by the influential John Erskine, Earl of Mar, who became Regent of Scotland during the minority of James IV. His descendant, the 11th Earl of Mar, was a devout Jacobite, and when forced into exile in France his house was converted into a barracks; it was later damaged by canon fire and allowed to fall into ruin. An intriguing ruin in St Mary's Wynd is that of Baillie John Cowane's House which was still inhabited in 1900. The Burgh's Member of Parliament from 1625 until 1632, he bequeathed 500 merks to the Church of the Holy Rude and 40,000 merks for the provision of an almshouse for ‘twelve decayed Guild brethren of Stirling.’ This led to the erection of Cowane's Hospital that stands close to the Church of the Holy Rude and is open to the public.

Unfortunately, those in search of the original wooden bridge, from which William Wallace and Andrew Moray repelled the English in 1297, are in for a disappointment. Today's Stirling Bridge was completed around the year 1500. Stirling's New Bridge, which opened in 1833, was designed by the engineer Robert Stevenson, grandfather of the author Robert Louis Stevenson.

The University of Stirling is ranked among the world's very best seats of learning. It was established in 1967, the first to be created in Scotland for nearly 400 years, and a modern house was designed to house the University Principal Dr Tom Cottrell by the leading Edinburgh architects Morris & Steadman. The university campus is situated within 300 acres on the former 18th Century Airthrey Castle estate (formerly owned by the Hope and Haldane families). The MacRobert Arts Centre is a small theatre and cinema complex open to the student community.

Overlooking the town on Abbey Craig, the hill from which William Wallace watched the English army assemble on the south side of Stirling Bridge, is the impressive 220 foot high Wallace Monument, erected by public subscription in 1869. On the Dumbarton Road is the splendid Smith Art Gallery and Museum. Founded with a legacy from Thomas Stuart Smith, a painter and collector of artifacts, in 1874, it supports a series of strikingly trendsetting exhibitions.

Two miles south of the town on the Glasgow Road is the Bannockburn Heritage Centre that features exhibitions and Charles d'Orville Pilkington Jackson's magnificent bronze statue of King Robert the Bruce seated on his war horse.

Established by the Scottish Government in 2002, the woodland glen known as the Trossachs was absorbed into the 720 square mile Loch Lomond and The Trossachs National Park. Sandwiched between the Firth of Forth and the Firth of Clyde, the scenery is woven together by a succession of rivers, canals and lochs to create a landscape of sometimes astonishing and unparalleled beauty.

Traveling west from Stirling are two roads fingering into the hinterland: the A811 past Gargunnock and Kippen to Buchlyvie and Drymen, and the A84 through Blair Drummond and Doune to Callander. Seven miles west on the A811, the small village of Gargunnock, on the southern edge of the Carse of Stirling, sits at the foot of the Gargunnock Hills, part of the Campsie Fells.

Gargunnock House (see: page 16) is the centrepiece of 2,000 acres of park and moorland. Situated on the old military road between the Gargunnock Hills and the Fintry hills is the village of Kippen. Such was the climate in 1859 that a vineyard opened here, and one of its vines grew to become the largest in the world, spreading across three greenhouses. A fun and enjoyable Street Fayre is held here annually in June.

To the west, the sleepy village of Buchlyvie lies to the north of Flanders Moss and south of the Campsie Fells. A significant claim to fame occurred in 1900 with the birth of the Baron o' Buchlyvie, a magnificent Clydesdale horse that sired generations of magnificent stallions. At Drymen, the Queen Elizabeth Forest Park reaches the village edge and is a popular overnight stop for walkers of the West Highland Way. At the western end is the Rob Roy Way, a long distance footpath that runs from Pitlochry in Perthshire. The Clachan Inn in Drymen Square claims the distinction of being the oldest pub in Scotland and dates from 1734.

Returning to Blair Drummond and five miles west of Stirling on the A84, the Blair Drummond Safari Park, centred on Blair Drummond House, is well worth a visit. Opened in 1970, it occupies 120 acres and features drive-through reserves, a boat safari and a safari bus that is free to visitors. Blair Drummond House was built in 1715 and an early occupant was the enlightenment judge Lord Kames, whose wife inherited the property in 1766. Sir John Kay, a wealthy tea merchant from Glasgow, purchased the estate in 1916 and passed it on to his nephew Sir John Muir, father of the present owner. The house is now a home for adults with learning disabilities, run by the Camphill Trust.

Before Doune, on the A84, the B826 forks left to Thornhill and Flanders Moss, the largest surviving area of wilderness bog in Scotland. A site of special scientific interest, it was designated a conservation area in 2005. From here, the A84 continues across to Callander, but turn left and the A81 leads to Port of Menteith, on the junction of the A81 with the B8034, running south to Arnprior and Buchlyvie.

Port of Menteith is the only settlement of any size on the Lake of Menteith. Over the summer months, a ferry makes regular trips to the island of Inchmahome, site of the historic Augustinian priory visited by Robert the Bruce, and where the four-year-old Mary, Queen of Scots was sent for safety during the period known as the Rough Wooing.

Not particularly deep, the lake water freezes over when it becomes exceptionally cold during the winter and, when the ice is thick enough (at least 7 inches or 18cm), a traditional outdoor curling match or ‘Bonspiel’ takes place. The last full scale Grand Match was held in 1979 but unfortunately the one planned for 2010 was abandoned for health and safety reasons. The celebrity chef Nick Nairn runs a cookery school at Loch End.

From Port of Menteith the A981 runs to meet the A821 travelling to Aberfoyle, which sits on the River Forth at the foot of Craigmore on the southern edge of the West Highland Fault. In 1885, a road was constructed over Craigmore's eastern shoulder to join the older road at the western entrance to the Trossachs.

Each year, Aberfoyle hosts a spring festival, the Tramping Through the Trossachs Festival, and an autumn festival that is now known as the Mushroom Festival. The town's most famous son is probably the Reverend Robert Kirk, born in 1644, who translated the Book of Psalms into Gaelic. A brilliant man, it is claimed that he was kidnapped by fairies and taken to live in the underworld below Doon Hill. Visitors to the summit of Doon Hill, which can be seen from the Manse which he once occupied, are invited to leave small tokens or presents for his captors.

Returning once again to the A84 past Blair Drummond, the small town of Doune is surrounded by the River Teith and Ardock Burn. The medieval stronghold of Doune Castle has become an epic location for films such as Monty Python and the Holy Grail (occupied by the taunting French) and TV shows such as Game of Thrones (to depict Winterfell) and Outlander (standing in for the fictional Castle Leoch).

Fought over through the generations, Doune Castle was occupied by the Duke of Albany; Queen Mary of Guelders; Queen Margaret of Denmark; and Margaret Tudor. Mary, Queen of Scots; King James VI; and Bonnie Prince Charlie also regularly visited the keep. Through his Stewart ancestors, it belonged the Earl of Moray, but is maintained by Historic Environment Scotland.

Nearby, on the banks of the River Teith, is the Deanston Distillery that began life as a cotton mill in 1785. Formally transformed into a distillery in 1967, it recently featured in the Ken Loach film The Angel's Share. A visitor centre and cafe was opened at the distillery by Burn Stewart Distillers (now Distell International Ltd) in 2012.

From Doune, the A84 continues north to Callander and Kilmahog, heading north through Laggan into west Perthshire. The town of Callander, also on the River Teith, has an attractive and welcoming centre. In 1645, a battle was fought at Callander between the Campbells of Argyll and the Men of Atholl, partly made up of McGregors and McNabs who were supporting the 1st Marquis of Montrose. The former St Kessog's Church has been adapted into The Clanranald Trust for Scotland, which supports Scottish culture and education. To the north are the Callander Crags, a visible section of the Highland Boundary Fault, with the heights of Ben Ledi to the west. At the junction of the Trossachs and Lochearnhead roads lies the hamlet of Kilmahog, a popular tourist destination renowned for its Trossachs Woollen Mill, Kilmahog Woollen Mill, and Scottish Real Ale Shop. Remains of a first century Roman rampart from the campaigns of Agricola can be seen east of the village.

From Kilmahog, close to Bocastle, turn left onto the A821 past Loch Venachar and Loch Achray to Loch Katrine. It was Scotland's legendary writer Sir Walter Scott who first drew widespread popular attention to the Trossachs in his epic poem The Lady of the Lake, the storyline of which is centred on Loch Katrine. In 1817, he followed this up with his stirring novel Rob Roy, based on the exploits of the maverick cattle ‘lifter’ Rob Roy MacGregor, who was born beside Loch Katrine and is buried at Balquhidder.

In 1859, a dam was built at the eastern end, with aqueducts to provide the main water supply to Glasgow. As a gesture, the water company gifted a holiday home to Queen Victoria. Sadly, she never made use of the Royal Cottage but her patronage proved an invaluable boost to Scotland's tourist industry. In 1900, a steamer service on board SS Sir Walter Scott was introduced to the loch and remains open to this day.

Stirling to the Trossachs

A day trip following the A84 and A821 from Stirling to the Trossachs National Park.

Distance: 23.5 miles A
pproximate time by car without stops or delays: 48 minutes

Stirling (A84) Dominated by its medieval fortress, the old town is packed with historic interest and is the administrative centre for the council area. Head north on Port Street on A811 towards Dumbarton Road. At the roundabout continue straight onto A811. Exit roundabout onto Dumbarton Road (A811) and take second exit onto Raploch Road (B8501), continuing straight onto A84.

Blair Drummond Safari & Adventure Park (A84) Opened to the public in 1970, the 120 acres contain Grant's zebra, Ankole- Watusi cattle, Guineafowl, Lechwe, Kudu and Southern white rhinoceros. The second drive through reserve is home solely to African lions, part of a Europe-wide breeding programme. There is a Barbary macaque ‘Monkey Jungle’ which opened in 2015, and an Asian reserve with Bactrian camels, and Axis and Eld's deer. Either drive through in your own car or take the Safari Bus to view free-roaming animals.

Doune (A84) The Romans had an encampment here on the site occupied by Doune Castle to the east. The discovery of medical instruments in an archaeological dig indicates that the Romans most probably had a hospital in the vicinity.

The town sits on the River Teith, which is crossed by the Bridge of Teith that dates from 1535 For a period, Doune was famous for the manufacture of pistols and tradition has it that the first pistol fired in the American Civil War was made here. South of the River is the Deanston Distillery that in 1965 was converted from a weaving shed.

Callander (A84) Also situated on the River Teith, immediately south of the Highland Boundary Fault, this is a pretty, historic town, designated as a meeting point between the Highlands and Lowlands of Scotland. There are splendid local walks to be enjoyed to the Bracklin Falls, and the town sits on the Trossachs Bird of Prey Trail.

The Auchenlaich Cairn, the longest Neolithic chambered cairn in the UK, is situated close to Kellie Bridge to the east of the town. Helen Duncan, who was imprisoned for witchcraft during the Second World War, was born here.

Kilmahog (A84) The hamlet sits at the junction of the Trossachs and Lochearnhead roads, and with its woollen mill and real ale facilities has become a successful retail centre. A local curiosity is Samson's Putting Stone on Bochastle Hill, which is said to have been left there after a competition between a family of giants.

The Roman general Agricola passed this way, and nearby was the site of St Chug's Chapel, dating from the 17th Century.

Milton of Callander (A821) A hamlet on the Moray estates, situated on the picturesque shores of Loch Venachar. Glorious scenery.

Brig o Turk (A821) A small rural community taking its name from the Gaelic ‘Wild Boar.’ The village has a wooden tearoom from the 1930s that featured in the 1959 film remake of John Buchan's novel The Thirty-nine Steps. The early Gothic-style Trossachs Parish Church overlooks Loch Achray. A group of Jacobites gathered here in 1708 to support the anticipated invasion of James Stuart, the ‘Old Pretender.’ In the Victorian era, the village was the setting for a celebrated love triangle on a tour of Scotland between the English art critic John Ruskin, his wife Effie Gray and the Pre-Raphaelite painter John Everett Millais.

Loch Achray (A821) One of the smallest lochs in Scotland, yet, being situated between Loch Katrine and Loch Venachar, renowned for is beauty. On a small island at the west end of the loch in the 15th Century lived James ‘Beg’ Stewart, ancestor of the Stewarts of Ardvorlich.


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