It’s the color that strikes us at first. How could sixteenth century Scotland be so full of color? Even on this dull, rainy day (dreich as the Scots call it) the outside of the Great Hall of Stirling Castle is a luminous cream. One of the many guides explains that it was painted thus so that it could be seen for miles across the plain beneath the castle.
And as for the inside of the castle, especially the king and queen’s lodgings – wow! is the only word for it. Reds, yellows, gold, blues and the royal purple are everywhere. This is indeed a castle fit for a king.
In Your Bucket Because…
- You learn surprising things about life in 16th century Scotland.
- You appreciate the skills of the craftsmen working then.
- It’s better than Edinburgh Castle!
- Good for; history buffs, families, all tourists
Stirling Castle’s History
There has been a fortification of some kind on the site for more than 3000 years. The rock on which Stirling Castle stands controls the routes between the Highlands and Lowlands and further south into England, as well as the roads crossing from east to west. It’s an important crossroads and it was said that whoever holds Stirling Castle, rules Scotland.
Two of the most important battles in Scottish history were fought here. In 1297, William Wallace (Braveheart) defeated the English at the battle of Stirling Bridge and in 1314, Robert the Bruce led the Scots against the English at Bannockburn and routed them.
But it wasn’t until the sixteenth century that King James IV carried out building work to transform the castle into a palace fit for kings, work which was continued by his son, James V. He wanted to impress his second wife, the French princess Mary of Guise and he used her dowry to decorate the palace in the Renaissance style. It is this which has been recreated for today.
The King and Queen’s Palace
We visit first the King’s Lodgings in the palace and strain our necks to stare at the Stirling Heads on the ceiling. These colorful roundels are replicas, painstakingly carved and painted as the originals would have been. They are not merely for decoration. They serve to remind visitors to James’ court of his royal lineage and the Stewart line of succession, as well as his claim to the English throne. His mother, Margaret Tudor, was the sister of Henry VIII. But the roundels also include carvings of Julius Caesar, Hercules, and a court jester.
This room remains largely unfurnished as it would have been after the king’s death in 1542, six days after his daughter and heir, Mary Queen of Scots, was born.
By contrast, Mary of Guise’s Lodgings are sumptuously furnished and decorated. One of her ladies-in-waiting is there to tell us more about this powerful woman who acted as regent until her death in 1560 when Mary Queen of Scots, aged 18, took the throne.
We dash across the rain streaked courtyard to that glowing Great Hall of James IV and hesitantly enter. At one end, two thrones sit on a dais with a huge fireplace behind to warm the royal personage on days such as these. The thrones are still in use, the guide there tells us. Queen Elizabeth II has visited and sat on them. We can’t resist doing the same!
Outside, on a clear day, the view would stretch in all directions but the rain continues so we limit ourselves to peering from under our umbrellas at the sculptures of Venus, Saturn, the devil and James V on the exterior walls.
The Castle in Later Years
When Mary Queen of Scots son, James VI, became king of England as well as Scotland in 1603, he left for London and only once returned to Scotland. No longer the home of kings, the castle became a barracks after the Jacobite risings of the eighteenth century and Bonnie Prince Charlie’s thwarted attempts to wrest the throne for himself. He failed to take Stirling Castle and, as the saying goes, failed to rule Scotland.
But thanks to the work of Historic Scotland, Stirling Castle has returned to the glory days of James V. On a dreich day such as this, the color and vibrancy of the castle and its people cheers us. And we are just as awestruck as many a sixteenth century visitor.
The roads up to the castle are narrow and parking is difficult. In the summer, there is a Park and Ride bus option. Allow plenty of time for your visit as there is so much to see. Audio guides are available and the guides themselves are in abundance and very knowledgeable, as are the people in 16th century costume.