Having been to many Scottish castles in the past, I was expecting Stirling Castle to live up to my expectations but unfortunately it did not! I strongly believe that in the past it was an impressive castle with both interior and exterior architecture and decorations reflecting the grandeur, importance and wealth of the building and its inhabitants. However, due to recent renovations the grounds and rooms open to the public felt and even looked commercial to the extent that the castle’s history got lost in translation. By this I mean that the essence and the ancient feel of the architecture often found in other castles was no longer present. Instead it was like visiting a man-made tourist attraction as everything was too neat, clean, pristine and polished with too many busy tourists flying about. In addition, the entrance fee (£15 for adults and £9 for children) and the food venues seemed overpriced for what was on offer.
Despite this, I did enjoy learning about the history of the castle and how it stands on a volcanic crag that had erupted around 350 million years ago. The solidified lava was slowly buried under sandstone sediments and ice which was eventually sculpted by the retreating ice sheets more than 10,000 years ago. I was not expecting a Scottish castle to have such ancient ties and because of this I was transfixed! It had never occurred to me that Scotland could be associated with volcanic activity.
The result of this rock formation was an impregnable stronghold on three sides. To the north and west the formation of the rock is vertical, making it a strategically important royal fortress. Additionally, it commands the countryside for miles along the Forth Valley, the wild highlands and up towards the Gaelic west meaning that no land was unobserved by the guards and officers protecting the castle grounds. Also, the Ochils and Touch Hills to the east and west of Stirling meant that anyone travelling along the northern or southern part of Scotland had to go right up to Stirling, making it a crossroad that controlled everyone. Furthermore, it had control of the River Forth at Stirling Bridge and Stirling’s small harbour which added to its natural defences and strategic location.
Stuff of Legends
During the 1400s, an English chronicler William of Worcester suggested that Stirling Castle was the home of King Arthur’s Knights of the Round Table. The Round Table is also known in Scotland as the King’s Knot and it supposedly sits in a field below the western side of the castle, an area of land that is believed to have once been a royal garden. In the centre of the Knot is a flat-topped central mound that is about 45 feet in diameter and 6 feet high. This myth was repeated for centuries by later writers.
The Wars of Independence
It is not surprising that Stirling’s importance played a key role in the fight against English rule in the late 1200s to early 1300s. The death of Alexander III in 1286 meant that the lengthy peace that Scotland had experienced with England had come to an end due to the royal line of succession braking down as a result of the death of Alexander’s granddaughter and heir Margaret, the Maid of Norway in 1290. This meant that there was no clear succession and consequently put the two countries against each other.
After this death, Edward I of England was invited to decide between rival claimants. He favoured John Balliol, Lord of Galloway, who was eventually made king the following year. However, this stability between the English and the Scottish was not fated to last long when King John’s nobles negotiated a treaty with France against England in 1295. This of course angered Edward I and unleashed decades of hostility and warfare between the two countries.
In a bid to defend his and his country’s honour, Edward I marched north in 1296 and stripped John Balliol of his crown. In doing so, Stirling Castle was also seized. The Scots’ determination to regain the castle led to their victory at the Battle of Stirling Bridge in 1297. However, this was short-lived and the Scots’ were defeated at the Battle of Falkirk. Despite this, their luck would change within the next decade as a result of Edward I’s death and Robert I (Robert the Bruce’s) outstanding leadership. It was Robert and his army that retrieved the castle in 1314.
Later Middle Ages
After the Wars of Independence, Stirling Castle remained at the heart of the nation’s affairs and continued being a royal residence. Once James I returned from captivity in England in 1424 he granted the castle to his queen, Joan Beaufort as part of her marriage settlement. James continued to use Stirling Castle but for more grave matters such as settling his vengeance against those he believed to have left him rotting in England.
His fury fell mainly on his uncle, Robert Stewart, The Duke of Albany who he felt allowed him to remain in imprisonment because he wanted to rule Scotland for himself. However, in 1420 Robert died and so James redirected his revenge on Robert’s son, Murdoch, who had succeeded his father in governing the kingdom. In May 1425, at Stirling Castle, the parliament agreed to James’ terms – Murdoch, his two sons and the then 80-year-old Earl of Lennox were beheaded.
From then onwards, Stirling Castle remained a prominent location for Scottish royals between the reigns of James I up to James VI and I. However, when James VI became James I of England, he realised that ruling both England and Scotland was done easily enough from England that he only made one visit to Stirling. His son Charles I and grandson Charles II made very few visits to Stirling that any repairs or maintenance needed was considered a waste of time and money. Consequently, the military aspect of the castle once again took precedence.
Despite the castle being a disappointment, the history itself was fascinating to learn but it is up to you whether to go and visit the castle or not!
Thanks for reading 🙂