They say there has always been a fortress on Castle Hill overlooking Stirling. That Kenneth MacAlpin (810 – 58), traditionally held as the first King of Scotland, took a fort here from the native Picts as he created his kingdom. There might be some truth in that, but then again, memory and story can be fickle things.
We know for sure that there was a castle here in 1110 when Alexander I (c.1080 – 1124) dedicated a chapel on the site and that it was here that he died in 1124. That means nine hundred years ago, Stirling Castle was a royal residence and place of power within the nation.
To understand Stirling Castle’s importance, we need to examine its relationship to the Scottish crown. As events have destabilised the crown they have often shaken Stirling Castle. By residing here, the royalty of the day endowed this place with some of their prestige. It also made it a target for English invaders, as the two countries did not join until 1707.
On top of that, it is strategically vital. These walls overlook the Forth Valley, a central artery of the country. It also looks northeast so that any highlanders flooding south must pass here. This makes Stirling Castle one of the fulcrums of Scottish history. From besiegement during the Wars of Independence to jostling Reformation politics, Castle Hill has ever been the place to be. It’s even featured on Clydesdale banknotes alongside other historical places.
Though Edinburgh Castle is surely the most visited castle in Scotland, Stirling is the more interesting day out. There’s simply so much packed into the history of one location. It also helps that it’s a mite cheaper than touring the walls in the capital.
Stirling Castle was one of several royal residences spread throughout the realm in 1295. That made it a crucial goal for both sides when the Scottish Wars of Independence started the next year. The castle changed hands many times between the Scottish and English in the coming conflicts.
Due to its strategic position, it also oversaw many key events from the First War of Independence (1296 – 1328). On 11th September 1297, the Battle of Stirling Bridge happened within a mile of the castle gates. Here William Wallace rose to fame by leading a smaller Scottish force to victory over the English. This was the first real victory over the invaders, which gave many Scots hope. It also features heavily in Braveheart! The Battle of Bannockburn (23rd-24th June 1314) was brought about by a Scottish besiegement of Stirling Castle. Edward II (1284 – 1327) was only here with his army because Stirling Castle was so important. The English King even had to flee, briefly, to the castle before heading south. This was the battle which effectively ended that first war for Scotland’s independence with Bruce’s victory. It is no coincidence that two such crucial events happened so close to Stirling.
Though a potent symbol as a royal residence, castle warfare was ebbing at this time – particularly in the mind of Robert the Bruce (1274 – 1329). Having seen the trouble of trying to remove invaders from castles, he ordered many castled slighted (deliberately damaged) across Scotland. This process was varied but effectively made it so a castle was no longer desirable to occupy. Stirling underwent one such fate, though parts of it were rebuilt in 1336 when the English once more invaded.
Robert Stewart (1316-90) retook it in the 1340s. He went on to be crowned king and found the royal house of that name – though the spelling changed to Stuart later. This was the point when Stirling Castle went from an important fixture in Scotland to the axel around which politics and power truly turned.
The outline and walls of Stirling Castle as we know them today came into being in the late 14th century. Under the early Stewart monarchs, the walls were rebuilt. These stood on the foundations of the previous fortifications from the Wars of Independence. Over the next hundred years, the fortress was rebuilt as a symbol of stability and power, dominating the landscape for miles around.
By the time of James IV (1473 – 1513), Stirling was once more a principal royal residence. This carried on with his successors, James the V and VI. More than anyone else, these kings shaped the principal buildings of Stirling Castle.
Within the main courtyard, you can see these three kings’ impact on the architecture of Stirling Castle as we know it today. We can also see the changes through three generations of rulers. It also offers insight into societal changes over their hundred-year span of influence.
James IV was the quintessential late Medieval ruler. The facade on the impressive gates would have been intimidating, but behind them, in 1503, he built the castle’s great hall. It would have been the largest secular building in Scotland at the time and painted in bright gold so that light reflected off of it for miles around. It was a place for holding banquets and visitors. James built residences opposite it to ensure that his guests had somewhere to stay comfortably.
The gatehouse of the castle, which opens onto the courtyard, is also in the late Medieval style. Unfortunately, by the time it was built in around 1506, it was already obsolete in siege terms. This is a trend throughout the castle, but also through Europe at this time.
By the time of James IV’s death at the Battle of Flodden (9th September 1513), times had changed within Scotland. With the Rennaisance arriving in the nation, gone was the style of a great hall. Instead, James’ son, James V (1512 – 42), constructed a more intimate and comfortable palace for his wife, Mary de Guise, in 1540. He designed it in the style of the European courts, with Greco-Roman gods carved into the exterior. Instead of one large hall, this palace was made up of a series of steadily more intimate rooms. The guest’s importance and familiarity with the monarch would see them received in steadily more important chambers. These were the outer chamber, the privy chamber or the monarch’s very own bed chamber. The king could snub or flatter various guests by layering these chambers and the etiquette around them.
Having a guest directly to your bedroom may sound a little inappropriate, but it was the standard of the time. It is important to remember it was a time when blood was everything. It was common practice for royal births to be witnessed by dozens of nobles and clergy to ensure that the infant was indeed of the royal line. This, coupled with it being one of the most lavish rooms in the castle, made it an honour and privilege to be admitted. It is also where some of the most secret plans would have been concocted.
Throughout the palace, the style would have been heavily influenced by Europe and the Catholic faith, as was common for the period. Scotland was still a Catholic nation, despite the winds of change to come.
If you visit Stirling Castle today, you’ll notice that the King’s room has been left largely bare while the Queen’s accompanying bed chamber is far more ornate. This is due to James V relatively dying young. He left his wife, Mary de Guise, to try to fend off Henry VIII from taking the infant Mary Queen of Scots to marry his son Edward. Many historians call it The Rough Wooing. There seems to have been little enough wooing involved considering the armed clashes which followed.
This is where the French Spur comes in. To see it, you must leave the main courtyard briefly and head to the walls. This protruding rampart was designed to allow enfilading musket and cannon fire onto the approach of the main castle gates. It was named French due to de Guise’s ancestry and connection to the French crown, with whom Scotland had once more entered into an alliance.
It was also during the mid-16th century that the Scottish Reformation took place. People across the country were turning from the Catholic Church towards the Presbyterian national kirk led by John Knox. It was one of the central points of tension during Mary Queen of Scots’ (1542 – 87) reign. This only worsened after she was forced to flee to France. Many in the country did not want a Catholic queen in power. Conflict followed all across the country, and Mary seldom knew peace. At the age of just 1 year old, Mary’s son, James VI (1566 – 1625), was crowned King of Scots in a church within eyeshot of Stirling Castle. He grew up as a boy king while his mother languished in various prisons on both sides of the Scottish border with England. By the time Elizabeth I executed her, Scotland was firmly Protestant, as was her son James.
By the time that James VI came to christen his own son, he was fully expecting to inherit the throne of England. With this in mind, he named his son Henry after Elizabeth’s father. In the span of a mere lifetime, the winds of power had changed drastically. So much so that the Queen of England would be succeeded by the son of the cousin she executed in Mary Queen of Scots. Complex dynastic and political lines spanned Europe and Scotland was no exception.
In 1594, James opted to build a chapel for the occasion, in the style now established across lowland Scotland and England – Presbyterian. Gone were the cherubs and carved sculptures of his grandfather’s palace, this was a much more austere place. The design was apparently built to the exact dimensions of King Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem. Many monarchs did similar such gestures in an effort to appeal to older ideals. it is small compared to the great hall of the late Medieval period and his grandfather’s palace. Here his son was christened and he was able to keep his focus on the divine rather than the earthly trappings of grandeur now out of fashion. It was as much an attempt to garner popularity from the faithful as an act of faith.
Stirling Castle fell out of use in Scottish, or by this time British with the union of the crowns, royal politics for a time. The Wars of the Three Kingdoms (1639 – 51), also known as the British Civil War, took place to depose James VI’s son, Charles I (1600 – 49), and cement the primacy of parliament. The war ended in 1651 with the Restoration of the monarchy and the coronation of Charles’ son, Charles II (1630 – 85). However, in 1685, after the death of his brother, James VII of Scotland and II of England (1633 – 1701) came to the throne. Like the struggles of a century earlier, much of the tension came from his Catholic faith while being king of a much more Protestant nation.
It was for this reason that in 1688 he was ousted by his niece and nephew as King of Scotland, England and Ireland. He fled the country, and each country’s parliament said he had therefore abdicated the throne.
This set the stage for a series of rebellions and risings to try to reinstall his line on the throne, known as the Jacobite Rebellions, after the Latin term for James, Jacobus. The difference between how Stirling Castle was treated during these two rebellions shows us how its star continued to wane.
In the 1715 Rising, the castle’s former governor and Scottish Secretary, John Erskine, Earl of Mar, was looking to take vengeance for being deprived of these titles the year previously. As such, both the Jacobite and Hanoverian forces rushed to take Stirling Castle with rival forces. They met elsewhere at Sheriffmuir but this race could well have shifted the battle in the Jacobian side’s favour. As it was Sheriffmuir was inconclusive, and the rising failed.
In the 1745 Rising, the victorious Jacobian forces from early in the war bypassed the castle entirely after northern victories. When they came back they found a castle ready for siege and well-defended. Arguably it was the best-defended fortification in the country. They could make the town surrender, but the castle rebuffed all attempts to take it for two months. They eventually headed north and defeat in the last land battle on British soil – Culloden.
Throughout the rest of the 18th and 19th centuries, Stirling Castle would finally lose its importance as a fortress. Gone were the days of the royal residence; instead, it was now used as a barracks for various regiments. It was still indeed a strongly fortified position, but the days of true armed conflict in Scotland had passed into memory. Now it stood as a recruitment station and a depot for armed men in the highland regiments who would go onto acclaim, particularly in the Napoleonic Wars (1803 – 15). Much as religion and custom had changed, so too had the alliances of Europe shifted. What Mary de Guise brought here as part of the Auld Alliance was a memory as Scots faced French cannons on the field.
For ten years, starting in 2001, the castle was researched and re-presented to be more historically accurate. The castle reopened to the public in 2011. It is currently managed by Historic Environment Scotland and is an excellent day out, rain or shine. This has been just a brief overview of some of the highlights of a visit to Stirling Castle. The castle itself is teeming with history, character and interesting nooks. To spend a day there is to spend a day immersed in Scottish history, and that feels like barely time enough to see it all.
It is a particularly good place to visit in September or April before tourist season is in full swing and when Scotland’s skies look especially gorgeous on all sides.
Stirling Castle is an iconic location and it has seen its fair share of theatrical appearances. From Outlander, which was a bit of a shoo in, to more fantastical hits like Game of Thrones and Monty Python and the Holy Grail. These walls have been immortalised not just in stone but on the screen, and we’re very glad about it.
While Stirling Castle and Edinburgh are comparable in layout and overlooking position, the two have some key differences. It also gets significantly less busy, as for all its history Stirling isn’t such a tourist hub as Edinburgh. There’s far earlier history here than in Edinburgh, as Edinburgh’s star truly rose to prominence only after the Union of the Crowns. Compare this to a thousand years of Scottish history at Stirling and you know the better location for a history aficionado. You can also nip across to the Wallace Monument to make a great day of delving into history. It is also a little bit cheaper for the budget conscientious traveller, so all those views, that history and quiet is a bargain.
Many kings and queens of Scotland were crowned at Stirling Castle, and some royals were even born here.
James III was born here in 1460, and James VI firstborn son Henry followed over a century later in 1594.
Perhaps more interestingly James V and his young daughter Mary Queen of Scots were crowned in the royal chapel at the height of Scottish Reformation discord.