A short holiday I haven’t talked about yet, was a trip to Scotland with some friends in November 2015. I was inspired to post something about this due to a recent trip to Edinburgh. Merel and I visited Stirling, as I was desperate to see Stirling Castle, often coined the most impressive of the Scottish castles.
Stirling Castle is built on Castle Hill. Its location is incredibly strategic, as the hill it is on is very steep on three sides. There are many myths and legends about Stirling Castle’s ancient history, such as that King Arthur’s court sat here. However, the first actual record of it comes from the 11th century, when King Alexander I built a chapel on the hill. Alexander’s successor, David I, turned Stirling into a royal burgh. The castle was a popular royal home for centuries.
The castle also played a big part in the Wars of Scottish Independence in the 13th & 14th century (the cause of which is described in a previous post on Carlisle Castle). The castle was occupied by the English and the Scots intermittently for decades, until it was retaken by Robert Stewart in 1342, who would become the first Stewart king of the Scots. The early Stewart kings built parts of the castle that can still be admired today.
The rest of the castle that survives has mostly been built in the 15th and 16th centuries. In these centuries, Stirling was a royal residence to the Scottish kings. Mary, Queen of Scots, was crowned at Stirling Castle in 1543 and visited frequently thereafter (another flashback to a previous post). When the English and Scottish crown were united in 1603, the castle stopped being used as a royal residence. Instead, it was increasingly used by the military.
King James V built a Royal Palace inside the castle walls in the 1530s; the first Renaissance palace built in the British isles! The palace facade includes some very interesting stone statues of important figures such as the king himself, the devil, saints, Venus and other deities.
Visiting Stirling Castle is unlike any other visit to historical monuments: at Stirling many of the castle’s interiors have been decorated to mimic what they must have looked like during the Renaissance. This gives the visitor a unique view of the post, which can be very surprising! We’re so used to seeing ‘old junk’ at museums and worn exteriors of buildings, we forget what these objects might have looked like when brand-new. Specifically, the bright colour of the restored Great Hall is very unusual-looking to our eyes as we’re used to seeing old buildings with worn and stained exteriors.
The Great Hall’s interior is equally mesmerising. Its hammerbeam roof is a replication of what it was like up to 1800, when it was removed and the space was divided into two floors. This hall is the largest of its kind in the entirety of Scotland! You can imagine what an impressive sight it must have been for the King to have been sat in his throne at the very end of the room when receiving visitors.
The Chapel Royal also has been completely restored. This is the place Mary, Queen of Scots was crowned in 1543. However, the current chapel is one that was rebuilt after this coronation in order to be used for James’, Mary’s son, christening.
The King’s and Queen’s apartments inside the Royal Palace have also been restored to their former glory. Each apartment consists of a hall, a presence chamber and a bedroom, as well as some smaller rooms. Most larger rooms have big stone fireplaces, dating from the time in which the castle was used as a military centre. The King’s Presence Chamber’s ceiling has been beautifully recreated, as it used to be covered by the famous Stirling Heads: carved oak portraits now displayed inside the Castle behind glass.
One of the most impressive sights was the reconstruction of The Hunt of the Unicorn tapestries, hung in the Queen’s Inner Hall. These tapestries were commissioned for this room to give an idea of what type of decoration the room might have been decorated with in the 16th century. The originals can be found in The Cloisters in New York. The Hunt of the Unicorn was a much used theme in the Renaissance. It can be seen as a symbolic depiction of the Passion of Christ. However, the story also has some pagan connotations, as in pagan myths the unicorn was believed to be an animal that could only be tamed by a virgin.
That’s all about Stirling Castle: I can definitely recommend a visit if you’re ever in the area. Stirling is actually quite easy to reach by train from Edinburgh! To finish this post, I’ll show you some lovely photos we took on a day trip to Callander, right by the Trossachs.