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Holding the key to Scotland
Join us this weekend as we travel back in time to 1651 and experience life under siege, reliving the last time Stirling Castle fell to an enemy.
It has famously been said over the centuries “that to hold Stirling was to hold the key to Scotland”. This weekend (24 and 25 September) visitors to Stirling Castle will have the chance to find out how true this is when we travel back in time to 1651 and experience life under siege, reliving the last time Stirling Castle fell to an enemy.
An English parliamentarian army led by Oliver Cromwell invaded after the Scottish coronation of Charles II. Cromwell sent a detachment to besiege Stirling Castle. Heavy guns in the town bombarded the castle. Major General George Monck, who led the English, reported that the Scots surrendered within a day of the attack.
The air screamed with cannon balls and musket balls. One gun fired into the castle from the spire of the Church of the Holy Rude on the far side of the cemetery. Indeed the scars of the battle are still visible today – on the castle’s forework, gatehouse and the remains of destroyed towers. The church spire is similarly pitted. The attack showed how obsolete the castle’s medieval defences had become in the face of modern artillery.
The Scottish garrison was allowed to march out with their weapons before the English marched in.
In a weird twist of fate, the records of Scotland (effectively the national archives) had been shifted to the castle in the face of the English invasion and were among the booty taken by Monck’s soldiers and shipped to London. Ironically, Monck helped Charles II regain the British throne in 1660. Soon afterwards, the king ordered that the archives be returned but one of the ships carrying the records home sank in a storm. Much of Scotland’s written heritage was lost with it.
Visitors will be submerged in all the drama including cannon and musket fire, weaponry demonstrations, drills, and parades. There will also be a chance to learn about the history of the period and hear the story of the siege.
There will be a 17 th century fashion parade on the dress of the period and how it evolved. Meet the defenders and watch the surgeon as he tries to keep people alive and children can make cockades in our craft activity.
Join us this weekend for Holding the Key to Scotland from 12pm-4pm and make sure to share your pictures! @stirlingcastle
Stirling Castle, the reason for the Battle of Bannockburn
Anyone who has a vague interest in Scottish History knows that Stirling has a castle. It is one of the most visible landmarks in the whole country, built on the top of a volcanic outcrop of rock overlooking the floodplain of the River Forth. Made more visible by the repainting of the Great Hall in a pale golden yellow, it is almost impossible to miss in fine weather, although the regular mists that fill the valley sometimes hide it.
The bridge at Stirling that crosses the Forth is an ancient crossing point. Downstream, the floodplain has been extensively drained, but used to be a complex maze of marshes and burns that was impossible to pass except in the driest of droughts. By the time the marshes gave way, the river had become wide enough to need a ferry to cross. At Stirling was the first point that an army could cross the river on foot.
Such a strategic location had to be defended, and at Stirling the rocky outcrop was perfectly placed for a stronghold to be built. The earliest record of a castle at Stirling is in 1110, when a chapel was dedicated at the castle by King Alexander I. In Alexander’s time, the Kingdom of Scotland was made up of a number of territories with varying degrees of dependence upon the royal heartlands of Fife, Angus and Perthshire. Lothian to the south, with the fortress at Edinburgh, was a border province that had until comparatively recently been held by the Earls of Northumbria. The Kingdom of Strathclyde to the south-west with the fortress at Dumbarton, had only been conquered during the 11 th century. Stirling was therefore placed not only at a river crossing, but at the border of the realm
It is inconceivable that Alexander was the first Scottish King to have a castle at Stirling, and the site may have been the site of a fortified settlement as far back as the Iron Age. However, centuries of successive redevelopment of the site have destroyed any evidence of these earlier phases. By Alexander’s time, we can imagine a fortress Scottish in style, with earthworks and a stone wall defending access to the summit, probably with a timber palisade around the rest of the perimeter, although this may also have been in stone. Within the defences it is likely that the buildings were of timber. There would almost certainly have been multiple ditches and banks to cross before the primary defence was reached – the stone wall, with a single entrance that may have been nothing more complex than a strongly barred gateway.
Under Alexander, the territories to the south were given to his younger brother David to govern, meaning that Stirling was still on the very edge of what the King saw as his primary concern. However, it was still a site of great strategic importance, and it was at Stirling that Alexander died in 1124. He was probably intending to meet David as he spent most of his time further north. It was David who was to succeed him, and it is likely that the fortress was strengthened under King David. Although he is often remembered as the builder of religious houses, abbeys and the like, he was also responsible for many castles, including his new capital at Roxburgh and even Carlisle in England.
David had grown to manhood at the court of King Henry I, and was very much aware of the technical advances that had been made in castle design by the Anglo-Norman kings. It is likely that he would have built defensive towers upon the main wall if none had existed previously, and improved the gated entrance by building a twin-towered gatehouse. Certainly as the castle became an important royal centre, and with the development of the town as a royal burgh, domestic buildings in stone would have multiplied within the courtyard. It is possible that a perimeter wall of stone was also built under David, and that outer bailey areas were founded.
David’s 29 year reign (1124-1153) was interrupted by at least three rebellions, two of which were started in the northern province of Moray and one in Cumbria, which he held as a fief of Henry I. He was also involved in the civil war in England between the supporters of King Stephen and the Empress Matilda, but all fighting was carried out in England. As such, the castle of Stirling was not involved in warfare during his reign.
In the reign of his grandson Malcolm IV, rebellions again took place in the north, and were accompanied by war with Somerled of the Isles, who was unhappy with the increase in influence of the Stewards in the Barony of Renfrew not far to the south-west. However Stirling again remained uninvolved in the fighting itself, which Somerled was careful to wage against the Stewards, not King Malcolm, young and inexperienced though he was. A further rebellion of his earls took place near Perth, but was resolved without bloodshed.
King Henry II of England was to radically change the relationship between the two Kingdoms, and the importance of Stirling. He did not consider it politic to have the sovereign king of a neighbouring country controlling the two border provinces of Cumbria and Northumberland (David had held both), and was in a position to remove Cumbria from Scottish control straight away. Northumberland, which Malcolm had inherited from his mother, was exchanged for extensive lands further south. At a stroke, Henry had moved the border of Scottish influence up to a hundred miles north. Dazzling and dominating Malcolm in the early years of his reign, Henry nonetheless maintained a peace with Scotland. Stirling had become the key fortress in defending the Scottish heartlands from English aggression, although Malcolm was not to live long enough to find this out.
Serving in Henry’s army, Malcolm became ill at Doncaster in 1163, and was unable to recover, dying in 1165 to be succeeded by his rash younger brother William. William saw the removal of what he had grown up believing to be his inheritance in Northumberland removed from his grasp, and was determined for much of his reign to claim them back, by aggression if needs be. Unfortunately William was captured by the English invading Northumbria in July 1173, rebelling in support of Henry’s eldest son. Held prisoner in Falaise, he was forced to cede control of the royal castles of Berwick, Jedburgh, Roxburgh, Edinburgh and Stirling to Henry.
In August 1175, William swore fealty to Henry for the Kingdom of Scotland, although Scotland was still considered to be a separate realm. It is far from clear whether English troops and commanders actually garrisoned Stirling and the other castles, but it may be that Scottish commanders were reinstated after this. In 1189, King Richard cancelled the Treaty of Falaise, which meant that William had control of his castles again, and in return for a substantial sum of money, Richard quitclaimed his rights to William’s fealty for Scotland. Stirling had changed hands twice – each time at the stroke of a pen.
William remained King until 1214, during which time he endured several rebellions against his rule in the north, as well as continuing to attempt to reclaim the lands in Northumberland. Relationships with England remained stable for the whole of the reign of Richard I, and for many years into the reign of King John, both of whom wanted stability in the north to concentrate on matters elsewhere, but in 1209 William caused a problem when he burned an English castle being built across the river Tweed opposite his own castle of Berwick. In readiness for retaliation he put his castles in a state of readiness, including Stirling.
This was seen by John as an act of war, and when he responded in strength, William sought and achieved peace, resulting in the Treaty of Norham. Rebellions in the north in 1210 and 1211 meant William sought financial aid from King John, who was glad to provide it. Campaigns against his rebels were carried out by William’s deputies, and William may have been failing in health as many of his duties were being carried out by the Queen and his heir Alexander. In 1214, having recently returned from the north, William died at Stirling. John was unable to take advantage of the situation by dominating the young King, as he was suffering rebellion by his own barons, and the young Alexander in 1215 actually invaded England.
Following the death of King John in 1216, and the accession of his son the child Henry III, Scotland remained at peace with England for the rest of the reign of Alexander II (1214-1249) and his son Alexander III (1249-1286). After over 150 years of conflict, the final northern rebellion against royal rule was ruthlessly put down by the deputies of Alexander II, and the last member of the family behind them, the MacWilliams, was put to death in Forfar. To Alexander’s discredit, this was a baby girl, whose head was publicly smashed against the market cross. Further smaller rebellions took place in the south-west and far north, but these were not of the same scale, and none involved Stirling.
It is certain that the royal castle of Stirling was extended and developed throughout the reigns of Alexander II and Alexander III, but we do not, unfortunately, have much idea what form these alterations would have taken defensively. Internally, the domestic buildings would have been extended, and become more magnificent – buildings worthy of a royal medieval court. With the early death of Alexander III, the heir to the throne was his daughter, who was Queen of Norway. A deal was struck with King Håkon, and their infant daughter Margaret was despatched to Scotland to be crowned. Unfortunately, she died shortly after landing in Scotland, leaving no clear successor to the Crown.
The nobles of Scotland turned to their powerful neighbour to the south. King Edward I of England was renowned throughout Europe as a crusader and lawmaker, and although he had been involved in wars in France and Wales, these did not concern the Scottish lords, who had served in his armies as they held lands in England, as well as for the Crown during the English civil wars of 1263-65. When Edward demanded the handover of royal castles including Stirling, they considered this fair, since he could ensure the security of the realm. Factions claiming the throne could so easily descend into civil war, and it was wise to prevent these fortresses from falling into the hands of such a faction. On 13 th June 1291, Edward sent a letter from Norham instructing that the Sheriff of Stirling, Patrick Graham, handed over the “chastel de Stryvelyn” to the English knight Norman Darcy.
When he declared that John Balliol was the correct successor, Edward handed the castles over to him, and in November 1292 Darcy received his wages from Graham, and left Stirling Castle, presumably at around the same time as Balliol’s coronation at the end of that month. However, he was considered to be a lesser sort of King, since he had been chosen by a court chaired by the King of England, and against the wishes of another, strong faction in the realm, that of Robert Bruce of Annandale. Consequently, in December, King John appeared at Edward’s court in Newcastle, and became Edward’s liegeman for the realm of Scotland. Whilst this secured Edward’s support for King John against the other factions, it also meant that Edward was able to interfere in the running of Scotland.
Summoned to appear in an English court to explain his conduct in a lawsuit concerning the Earldom of Fife, King John refused to attend, with the support of the loyal faction. Edward brought an army north to call John to task, with the support of the opposing, Bruce faction. The eventual outcome was the Battle of Dunbar, which was an emphatic defeat for the Scots. Among the dead on the battlefield was Patrick Graham, sheriff of Stirling and keeper of the castle. Ten weeks later, King John was forced to abdicate, and sent to the Tower of London as Edward’s prisoner. The English armies found Stirling castle abandoned, and a garrison was installed, enabling English armies to cross the Forth at will. This was the first time that Stirling Castle appears to have been involved in war, and it was captured without a drop of blood being spilled in its defence.
Edward had complete control of Scotland in 1296, and it became clear to some Scottish magnates that their interests were being threatened, which lead to scattered rebellions, the chief of which were in Moray and Clydesdale. The northern revolt was the greater, as it was led by Andrew de Moravia, one of the most powerful lords in the north. The southern revolt was less widespread, led by William Douglas, a lesser lord. He tried to get the support of the Steward, who in turn attempted to recruit Robert Bruce, the Earl of Carrick, whose family were the chief rivals to Balliol’s claim to the throne, to the cause.
The southern revolt fizzled out, with Bruce and the Steward facing greater English forces, and negotiating a settlement which involved the arrest of Douglas. In the north, the revolt maintained momentum, with Edward sending Scottish lords to put it down, who signally failed to do so. The English in the south, however, were supposed to be under the command of the Earl of Surrey, William de Warrene, who was reluctant to take up his position as governor of Scotland, which allowed the remnants of the southern rebels under William Wallace to join forces with the northern forces.
The rebels under Wallace and de Moravia took up a position around the base of the Abbey Craig, near the site of the Wallace Monument on 11 th September 1297. This was the opposite side of the Forth to Stirling Castle, and after failed negotiations, Surrey sent his men across the bridge to engage the rebels. Once the vanguard were across, the Scots attacked and cut it to pieces. The main army was unable to cross the bridge quickly enough to help, and Surrey fled, pursued by the Steward and other Scots who also promptly changed sides.
The remaining English garrison, under the command of Sir William fitzWarin and Sir Marmaduke Tweng, prepared for siege. However, they did not have the necessary supplies, and were forced to surrender. FitzWarin and Tweng were sent to Dumbarton Castle, where they were held prisoner, and Stirling Castle was held by Scottish forces again.
Following the death of Andrew de Moravia in November 1297, William Wallace was the clear military leader of the rebellion, and was knighted and appointed Guardian of the Realm. In July 1298, he led an army into battle at Falkirk, hoping to repeat his victory of the previous year. The situation was far different. At Falkirk the army he faced was the full military might of England, not divided by a river and a bottleneck bridge, and led by the King in person. Edward was unlikely to panic and leave the field, and was an extremely experienced battle commander. The Scottish cavalry, vastly outnumbered, fled the field, leaving the infantry to face a devastating rain of arrows. Once he considered enough of the infantry had been killed, Edward sent in his own cavalry, routing the remaining Scots.
The Scottish rebellion had collapsed, and the unknown commander of Stirling Castle, a mere 17 miles away, abandoned the castle, allowing the English to occupy it for the second time with no effort. It is possible that the Scottish forces did attempt to slight the castle, since Edward I is known to have spent money on Stirling, although these may have been strengthening works. Although he wanted to follow up the battle with a campaign in 1299, domestic issues prevented this, and the Scots were allowed to recover.
Stirling was one of the main targets, and was placed under siege, with about 90 men blockaded inside. Desperate to relieve the castle, and against the wishes of his magnates, Edward decided to mount a winter campaign, summoning men to Berwick for mid December. Edward was unable to pay the few who turned up, most of whom deserted. The Scots offered battle, but Edward had insufficient men, and had to retreat, leaving Stirling to fall to the Scots again.
Stirling fell while rebellion flared in the south-west, led by Robert Bruce, and it was here that Edward mounted his 1300 campaign. Lack of funds and supplies, accompanied by demands by his Scottish supporters to grant them estates held by Bruce, led to the campaign stuttering to a halt, and Edward agreed to a truce. 1301 saw two armies invade, but the Scots avoided confrontation. After capturing Bothwell Castle, Edward issued payment for the transfer of siege equipment to Stirling, showing that he still wanted to take it back, but it was too late in the season, he was running out of money again, and troops were starting to desert. Although Edward clearly had not lost his appetite to defeat the Scots, but his financial situation was difficult, he was being pressurised by the Pope to cease fighting, and in January 1302, he agreed to a truce for the whole of that year. He remained in control of southern Scotland, but was planning a major campaign for 1303.
Avoiding Stirling altogether, Edward built a floating bridge across the Forth, and marched his army into Fife. Rapidly marching around the east coast and through Moray, he successfully subdued most of the country, and at the end of that year only Stirling Castle was held by the Scots. In April 1304, Edward arrived with his army and siege engines, having secured a judgement from his own parliament that the defenders of the castle were to be considered outlaws.
Sir William Oliphant was the defender, and in the negotiations at the start of the siege, he asked to consult his superior, John de Soulis, as to whether or not he should surrender. As de Soulis was in France at the time, this was not particularly reasonable, and his request was refused. Oliphant then attempted to justify his defiance by saying that he had never personally sworn allegiance to Edward, but Edward wasn’t interested, and the siege began. One attempt to relieve the castle by the Scots was defeated by the earl of Hereford and his men.
Under bombardment from the 17 siege engines, many of the Scottish defenders took refuge inside caves beneath the castle, where their provisions were stored. Edward, in an attempt to keep the morale of his troops up, often approached the castle walls closely on his horse, and twice nearly came to harm, once when a crossbow bolt passed through his clothes into his saddle, and on another occasion being thrown by his horse when a stone landed near him.
A battering ram proved ineffective, but eventually Oliphant agreed to surrender the castle on 20 th July. Edward wanted to try out his nearly finished new siege engine, the “Warwolf,” however, and he couldn’t use it if he had agreed the surrender, so he refused to allow the surrender until he had tested it, refusing to allow anyone to leave. Once it had been tried out to the King’s satisfaction, resulting in the destruction of the gatehouse, the garrison were allowed to surrender, and the conquest of Scotland had been completed.
The situation was not to last. Edward was elderly, and had become increasingly embittered towards the Scots whom he saw as traitors, and apart from the show trial and public execution of William Wallace in 1305, many other nobles were extremely nervous. Edward decided, as he had done in Wales to review native law, and remove the laws that he didn’t like and replace them with English ones. John of Brittany, the King’s nephew, was to become royal lieutenant, and the status of Kingdom was to disappear entirely. Plans were being made for an alternative.
In January 1306, Robert Bruce murdered John Comyn, leader of the opposing faction in Dumfries. Realising that he would incur Edwards anger, Bruce then led a rebellion against him, and had taken a small number of castles by March. Support was scattered, and strongest around Glasgow, but there was no serious military threat, it appeared. By the end of March, however, Bruce had been crowned as King Robert I. Edward travelled north, seriously ill himself that summer, and after an indeterminate season of campaigning, set up his winter headquarters at Lanercost Priory.
In the following season, Robert Bruce was unable to gain popular support, but successfully managed to defeat the English on 10 th May in a minor battle at Loudon Hill, the first English defeat since Stirling Bridge. This led to an improvement in Scottish morale, and a comparable drop in that of the English. This was not helped when Edward died on 7 th July, and the new King Edward II headed south to be crowned, leaving Bruce to deal with his own domestic opponents, the Comyns. Leaving the English in Stirling and the other castles, he marched north and began the process of uniting as much of the country as he could behind him – while he had the chance.
It was to be three years before Edward II returned to Scotland, time which Bruce used to good effect. The garrisons of the southern castles remained English, as Bruce did not have the resources to besiege them, and it would have been easy for relief to come from England. By comparison those in the north were besieged and taken, and destroyed, so that they could not be held against Bruce. In fact, Bruce made no effort to secure much of the south, not bothering to summon its lords to his parliaments. By 1310, Bruce was openly ignoring the truce with England, harrying the lands of those loyal to the English King, and it was this action that caused Edward to invade, a feeble attempt that ended in retreat back to Berwick when many of his barons refused to serve alongside the royal favourite Piers Gaveston.
In 1133, Dumfries, Perth and finally Linlithgow fell to Bruce, leaving only Stirling, Roxburgh, Edinburgh and Berwick in English hands. The fall of Linlithgow in September meant that Bruce was able to issue an ultimatum to the people loyal to England – submit to him within a year, or be disinherited, forever. They appealed to Edward II, who was finally in a position to respond, and announced plans to invade Scotland in midsummer 1314. On 28 th February Roxburgh fell to James Douglas, and two weeks after Edinburgh fell to Thomas Randolph. King Robert ordered the destruction of both.
By March, the brother of the King, Edward Bruce, was laying siege to Stirling. Realising that the midsummer invasion would interrupt whatever was going on at Stirling, Edward Bruce made a truce with the English commander Sir Philip Mowbray. Mowbray offered to surrender the castle if it was not relieved by 24 th June. Edward Bruce agreed, and withdrew.
Whether this was the plan of King Robert is not known. He had successfully taken all the castles held against him with two exceptions, Stirling and Berwick. With the destruction of fortresses like Roxburgh and Edinburgh, he was denying the English any safe places to retreat to, and therefore forcing the war to be fought on terms favourable to the Scots. It seems unlikely that he would have intended a three month reprieve for Stirling, which may have fallen in the interim.
Stirling Castle therefore became the primary target for the army that Edward II led into Scotland in June 1314. It was the furthest bastion of English strength as well as guarding the main route into Scotland north of the Forth. It also meant that King Robert knew where and when the English army would be, and gave him three months to plan for it. If the agreement with Mowbray had not been his plan, he at least had the opportunity to make the most of his advantage.
On 23 rd June, the English moved north from Falkirk through the Torwood, towards Stirling. Bruce had assembled a smaller army of experienced men, and over the 23 rd and 24 th fought a series of engagements with the advancing English forces. He had split his forces in two, and with his part of the Scottish army was largely hidden in the woods, having dug a series of ditches and pits, lined with wooden stakes, across the English line of march.
The English vanguard under the earl of Gloucester were drawn away from this by a feigned retreat, and defeated by Bruce and his men. At the same time, Lord Clifford and Henry de Beaumont attempted to outflank Bruce and cut off his retreat by travelling around the edge of the woods, but were seen by the second part of the Scottish army under Thomas Randolph, who engaged his men and defeated them. The defeated from both English groups fled to either the castle or the rest of the English army, which had left the road (avoiding Bruces ditches) and camped between the Forth and the Bannock Burn on a marshy flat area.
The following morning, the English army had crossed the Bannock Burn and were heading towards the Scottish position. Bruce led all his men out of the woods, and assembled them in three great groups defended by pikes on the dry ground – near the ditches and pits which the English had unwittingly avoided the previous day. An exchange of arrows, where the English greatly outnumbered the Scots, was perhaps followed by a Scottish cavalry charge which routed the English archers, and then certainly followed by the charge of the main English cavalry forces. The combination of the prepared ground with the pikes meant that the cavalry charge failed, and was then in fact defeated by the advancing Scots.
The rearguard could not engage the Scots due to the narrowness of the field, and were driven into, and back over, the Bannock Burn by their own retreating forces. A tradition says that a force of local soldiers, poorly trained and equipped, then appeared at the edge of the woods, and thinking them to be a substantial reinforcement, Edward II panicked, and fled the field, heading for the safety of Stirling Castle, where Mowbray would have been watching the whole affair.
Not wanting to be trapped inside and handed over in accordance with the agreement between Mowbray and Edward Bruce, and possibly advised by Mowbray that was what would happen, King Edward turned around and fled south again. Knowing the King had fled destroyed the remaining English morale and the retreat over the Bannock Burn became a rout, with many men trapped there. When the dust had settled, Mowbray surrendered the castle to King Robert, who promptly ordered its destruction to prevent reoccupation by the English. Clearly not impressed by the conduct of Edward II, Mowbray then changed his allegiance, and became a supporter of the Bruces. He was eventually to be killed fighting alongside Edward Bruce in Ireland in 1318.
Nothing remains of the old castle of Stirling. The oldest parts that survive date to the late 14 th century, and then only as foundations. For this reason any reconstruction of the castle that overlooked the Battle of Bannockburn is completely conjectural, but it was almost certainly a far starker fortress than the buildings on site today, with the major focus being on a large curtain wall along the line of the later curtain wall and gatehouse, with large towers at each end, and a central gatehouse, probably defended by two large flanking towers. It is quite possible that the northern end of the Castle Hill was not defended in stone, if at all, with only the central highest area forming an irregular courtyard castle.
Without Stirling Castle, there would have been no Battle of Bannockburn. As we have seen, the siege was not the reason for the invasion of King Edward II, as is sometimes said. King Edward had already determined that he would invade Scotland before Edward Bruce made his deal with Philip Mowbray in response to please from his supporters in Lothian, harassed by King Robert’s men. However, the military exploits of Edward II were far removed from those of his father. Poorly planned and led, and poorly executed, the few campaigns of Edward II were as a rule unsuccessful. The deadline set by Mowbray and Edward Bruce gave King Edward a clear place to head for, and a firm date to be there by.
It is likely that without these firm objectives, the 1314 campaign of Edward II in Scotland would have been a repeat of 1310, without direction or purpose, little more than a massive raid into Scottish territory. It is unlikely that King Robert would have massed his forces to fight the English elsewhere, not knowing where they would be. King Robert was to consolidate his hold on Scotland for the rest of his reign, capturing Berwick, the final castle to hold out against him in 1318, and achieving first papal recognition of his crown in 1324, and then a peace with the minority regime of Edward III in 1327. By comparison, Edward II steadily lost the control of his country and the loyalty of his barons, and was deposed in 1327, to be murdered shortly afterwards.
Even without his great victory of Bannockburn, it is likely that King Robert would have ejected Edward II from Scotland. But undoubtedly Stirling Castle was the reason Bannockburn was fought, and therefore the reason that the name of Robert the Bruce echoes down the centuries. Stirling Castle was rebuilt, and besieged many times afterwards, changing hands first between the English and Scots, and also between different factions of Scottish nobles during it subsequent history. But first and foremost, it must be remembered as the castle that was the cause of the most famous battle in Scottish history.
Stirling Castle, Scotland
OUR trip to Stirling Castle got off to a fantastic start by way of a vegan sausage roll from Greggs.
The sausage roll boost was welcome, as the castle straddles a massive volcanic rock (of which we were currently at the bottom). This sort of elevation is typical for any castle that’s in it for the big time, making them easier to defend and keeping historians in great shape.
All visitors must prove their worth by scaling the rocky cliff before being permitted entry to Stirling Castle. Ropes provided, don’t worry.
Thank you Tylie Duff for letting me use your stunning photo.
Check out the page! https://pixels.com/featured/2-stirling-castle-at-sunset-tylie-duff.html
I felt a little bit cheeky striding up the street to the castle gates, as I’m English, and the castle has had a historically unpleasant relationship with powers over the border. I imagined centuries of battle-hardened, Mel Gibson lookalikes turning in their graves as we climbed to the summit. Felt extra cheeky.
In fact, the castle’s early history reads like a sort of horrific tennis match, to-ing and fro-ing between the Scottish and English, with trebuchets instead of rackets. In 1304, during the Scottish Wars of Independence, just 30 Scottish defenders held out against an English army of 1500 for several months. Inhabitants of the castle survived this siege by eating salted meat and fish (which kept it preserved, but probably tasted like an old shoe), drinking water from a castle well, and watching re-runs of Love Island.
The English finally said enough was enough, and decided to break the Scottish spirit how any classroom bully would – by ceaselessly launching rocks and fireballs at them with their colossal trebuchet. This trebuchet was actually the most colossal trebuchet in the entire world and, taking inspiration from Age of Empires II: The Forgotten, the English named it ‘Warwolf’. The Scots couldn’t take the English seriously after this, and swiftly surrendered.
…impenetrable-rock-volcano aside, the castle has some other excellent defensive systems, if defensive systems are your thing: a thick outer wall the Forework gatehouse complete with towers an artillery battery and a £17.50 entrance fee (to be fair, this is definitely worth it – plus it’s cheaper buying tickets online).
The Forework gatehouse. Note the battle scars on the right-hand tower…
Image by Walkerssk from Pixabay (it was not a blue sky kind of day when we went) – thank you!
Thankfully, no one fired a single cannon at us as Adam and I approached the ticket booth. It would appear that, now at least, one does simply walk into Stirling Castle. This is great news for those of us who don’t own a battering ram.
Most of these defences weren’t built until later in the castle’s history, and didn’t get tested properly until the Civil War in the mid-17 th century, followed by the Jacobite uprising. The oldest surviving part of the castle is thought to be the North Gate, which actually wasn’t built until 1381 – 77 years after the ‘Warwolf’ incident and almost 300 years after the first written record of a castle here.
Moreover, the castle as we see it now is basically unrecognisable from its former self as developed by James IV at the turn of the 16 th century. This is because (curveball) most of it was painted yellow. Like a big French fancy. Or a fantastic banana. It also had six towers rather than the two we see now, which were even taller than today’s. The impressive Great Hall, completed around 1503, has had its yellow-ness restored as a reminder of the perils of Renaissance décor.
The North Gate (far left, with the archway) is the oldest surviving part of the castle, dating back to 1381. Just to its right, we get a sneak peak of the Great Hall, painted in Farrow and Ball’s ‘Custard Powder’ (actually rendered in ‘Royal Gold’ harling – a limewash).
After buying tickets, I promptly got lost locating the toilets and we missed the guided tour. Luckily, tours (which are included in the ticket price!) are frequent at Stirling Castle, and we joined the next within ten minutes. Our guide was super friendly and knowledgeable, and told us all off for watching Braveheart and Outlander.
Much of the tour was outside, and everyone was relieved to be in a country with pleasant December weather where it doesn’t rain a lot. From our vantage point, we could see where the famous Battle of Stirling Bridge took place in 1297. Here, Scottish troops, in their efforts to drive the English back out of Scotland, trapped their assailants against the bridge and massacred them.
They were led by national hero, William Wallace, and Andrew Murray – not to be confused with Andy Murray (of tennis player fame) as far as sources suggest. Interestingly, much of the romance surrounding Wallace is thanks to a 15 th -century minstrel, nicknamed “Blind Harry”, which is one possible explanation why Wallace was allowed to get away with his mullet for so long.
This is what William Wallace looked like if you were lying on the floor. Maybe.
The Wallace Statue, Bemersyde. Image by Euan Taylor from Pixabay – thanks, Euan!
The story of Stirling Castle is not an entire blood bath though. Our tour guide also led us through the Great (yellow) Hall, which would have been fabulously decked out back in the day for feasts and dances. It has no fewer than five giant fireplaces (this must have been a nightmare for the Floo Network), and a wonderfully restored hammer beam roof – which, I can promise, you won’t know has been missing from your life until you see it.
When James VI’s son, Prince Henry, was born, they had a simple, toned down celebration in the Hall to mark the occasion. Only joking – they built a 40ft-high ship there, with firing canons, and served fish out of it. Give the people what the people want. With the Union of the Crowns in 1603, James VI neglected his castle in Stirling in favour of his lavish London life… The once Great Hall fell into disappointingly practical use, and eventually stood as a military barracks until 1964.
After the tour, Adam and I accidentally revealed our true nature as long-time squares and stayed to harass our guide with extra questions, which he fielded magnificently. We also managed to get a mini-History lesson on football, persuaded a lute player to give us a private performance, and dressed Adam up as a court jester. *
Towards the end of our trip we stumbled upon the magazines. These are actually buildings designed to hold explosive gunpowder – although it would certainly have been fun if historians had uncovered a secret stash of Cosmopolitans under James VI’s privy chamber floorboards. Peeking into a building, we were attacked by one of those model museum figures that always prey on you, despite being (supposedly) inanimate. Adam would like it to be generally known that he definitely did not jump out of his skin like a poor wee lamb.
Unfortunately, I am afflicted with something known as historygraduateitis and insist on reading everything there is to read in museums, in the hope that I might not forget it. This is why we were still traipsing about the castle at closing time. As night fell, we stood on the castle walls surrounded by inky blue hills and misty shadows of trees cast against the buildings. It would have felt very poetic had I not been terrified of models leaping out from behind bushes, possibly wielding claymores.
…a murderous museum model’s playground?
All in all, I have barely scratched the surface of Stirling Castle’s colourful history (I should spend less time discussing Gregg’s sausage rolls). There was the time Bonnie Prince Charlie laid siege to the castle, the time Mary Queen of Scots’ bed went up in flames, and the time a would-be physician hand-made a chicken suit and jumped from the walls to prove that he could fly (miraculously, he survived – so grab your feathers and get sewing, chaps).
There is also a large underground kitchen (always my favourite part of heritage sites), the royal palace chambers, the Queen Anne gardens, a tapestry exhibition, and a whole load of other spaces that tell a rich and interesting story of the castle – and Scotland’s incredible past more broadly.
*Edit from Adam (who has only consented to be in this blog if I make him sound cool): I accidentally revealed my true nature as a long-time square and pointed out a lovely example of medieval buttressing, to which Adam said, “Yeah whatever babe” and did a backflip.
My top tips for getting the most out of trips like this one are:
1) Ask the museum staff as many questions as you can think of, because they’re always real enthusiasts with a bunch of information and quirky stories that you won’t find anywhere else!
2) Take a moment while you’re visiting to stand very quietly and imagine that you’re someone who worked in the castle centuries ago, because a) it gives you a wonderful perspective and reminder that these were real, functioning places and b) people might think that you’re a scary model and it’ll be banterful to see their faces when your eyes suddenly twitch.
Recommended listening: ‘Flower of Scotland’ (especially when sung by large crowds at sporting events).
Like a good little History grad, I’ve included the links here to pages I checked out to get (most of) my facts straight (especially the bit about Love Island). Take a look if you’re interested in learning some more!
Stirling Castle Gatehouse - History
Stirling castle crowns Castle Hill, an intrusive igneous crag. Like Edinburgh it is surrounded on three sides by steep cliffs, giving it a strong defensive position. Its strategic location, guarding what was, until the 1890s, the farthest downstream crossing of the River Forth, has made it an important fortification from the earliest times. Several Scottish kings and queens have been crowned at Stirling, including Mary Queen of Scots in 1542.
Stirling castle is built on a formation of quartz-dolerite rock which is around 350 million years old. This was subsequently modified by glaciation to form a "crag and tail" just like Edinburgh castle 32 miles away. Despite various claims there is no archaeological evidence for occupation of Castle Hill before the medieval period. Stirling was often know as Snowdoun as is shown by the works of William Worcester in the mid fifteenth century.
Stirling first enters history, rather than fantasy, around 1110 when King Alexander I dedicated a chapel at the castle. It appears to have been an established royal centre by this time, as Alexander died here in 1124. During the reign of David I (1124-53), Stirling became a royal burgh and the castle an important administration centre. King William I (1165-1214) formed a deer park to the SW of the castle, but after his capture at Alnwick in 1174 he was forced to surrender several castles, including Stirling and Edinburgh to King Henry II (1154-89), under the treaty of Falaise. There seem to be no records for the garrisoning of the castle - although Edinburgh ( castellum Puellarum ) was garrisoned at a cost of £26 13s 4d in 1175 - and all the castles were formally sold back to William by Richard I of England in 1189. Stirling continued to be a favoured royal residence, with William himself dying there in 1214. Alexander III (1249-86) laid out the New Park for deer hunting in the 1260s.
In 1291 King Edward I (1272-1307) demanded and received Stirling, together with the other royal castles of Scotland, be put under his control during his arbitration over who should be king of Scotland under him. Edward as judge and his barons, English, Welsh, Scottish and French, as jury, gave judgement in favour of John Balliol. However, when John refused to help Edward collect troops for warfare in France or honour the agreements he had entered into concerning the legal governing of the kingdom, it caused Edward to invade Scotland and depose its king as a rebellious subject. Edward found Stirling castle abandoned and occupied it. After the victory of Andrew Moray (d.1297) and William Wallace (d.1305) at the battle of Stirling Bridge in September 1297, the royalist commanders, William Fitz Warin (d.1299), a grandson of Fulk Fitz Warin (d.1198) of Whittington, who had been made constable of Urquhart castle, and Marmaduke Thweng (d.1323), retreated into the castle where they were starved into surrender by the rebels and sent as prisoners to Dumbarton. The castle was reclaimed by Edward after his 22 July 1298 victory at Falkirk, but was besieged again in 1299 and forced to surrender.
It was only in April 1304 that Edward decided to take Stirling castle again, this time he was accompanied by at least 17 siege engines including giant ballista and mangonels with names such as Segrave, Forster and Robinet. The king also hazzarded himself during the action, once having his garments and saddle pierced by a quarrel and once by being thrown from his horse when the defenders scored a near miss with a catapult. Finally the defenders, under William Oliphant (d.1329), surrendered on 20 July, but were ordered back into the castle by Edward, as he had not yet deployed his latest engine, 'Warwolf' - supposedly a large trebuchet. When the garrison surrendered unconditionally, Edward granted the men their lives, except for the man who had betrayed the castle to Wallace four years previously as he was a traitor.
Edward died within a year of Robert Bruce's 1306 revolt and Edward's son had neither the inclination nor the ability to continue to govern Scotland. By 1313, only Stirling, Roxburgh, Edinburgh and Berwick castles remained to him in Scotland. Edward Bruce, the king's brother, laid siege to Stirling, which was held by Philip Mowbray (d.1318). Hard pressed, Mowbray agreed to surrender the castle if it were not relieved by 24 June 1314. The consequence was the battle of Bannockburn fought by Edward II's relieving army on 23-24 June within sight of the castle walls. Although Mowbray could have claimed that Edward coming within sight of the castle constituted its being relieved, he surrendered the castle and his person to King Robert. In turn Robert ordered the castle to be slighted to prevent its reoccupation by Edwardian forces at a later date.
The castle site fell to the forces of Edward Balliol, the son of King John, after his great victory over the Scottish regents at the battle of Dupplin Moor in 1332. In 1336 Thomas Rokeby was captain and indulging in extensive works, probably repairing the damage done in 1314. Andrew Murray of Bothwell attempted a siege in 1337, when guns may have been used for the first time by the Scots. However, it was Robert Stewart (d.1390), the future King Robert II, who retook Stirling in the siege of 1341&ndash1342. In the aftermath Maurice Murray was appointed as keeper. In 1360 Robert Forsyth was appointed governor of Stirling castle, an office he passed on to his son, John, and grandson, William, who was governor in 1399.
It is said that Earl Robert Stewart of Menteith, the regent of Scotland as brother of Robert III (d.1406), undertook works on the N&S gates as the earliest surviving masonry on the site. In 1424, Stirling castle was part of the jointure (marriage settlement) given to James I's wife, Joan Beaufort. This established a tradition which later monarchs continued. After James' murder in 1437, Joan took shelter within the castle with her son, the young James II. Fifteen years later, in 1452, it was at Stirling castle that James stabbed and killed William, the 8th earl of Douglas, when the latter refused to end a potentially treasonous alliance with Earl John of Ross and Earl Alexander Lindsay of Crawford. King James III was born here and later undertook works to the gardens and the chapel royal. Like Edinburgh, the manufacture of artillery in the castle is recorded in 1475. King James' wife, Margaret of Denmark, died within the fortress in 1486. Two years later James himself died at the battle of Sauchieburn, fought over almost the same ground as the battle of Bannockburn, just to the south of the castle.
Most of the standing masonry of the current castle is said to have been constructed between 1490 and 1600. The architecture of these new buildings shows an eclectic mix of English, French and German influences. James IV (1488&ndash1513) kept a full Renaissance court at Stirling as he sought to establish a palace of European standing. Although he also undertook building works at the royal residences of Edinburgh, Falkland and Linlithgow, his grandest works were at Stirling and included the King's Old Building, the Great Hall, and the Forework. He also renovated the chapel royal, one of the two churches within the castle at this time. In 1501 he even received approval from the pope for the establishment of a college of priests. The Forework, of which little now remains, was derived from French military architecture, although some details were added more for style than for defence. If a satirical account in two poems by the poet William Dunbar is based on fact, the castle walls may have been the site of an attempt at human-powered flight about 1509, by the Italian alchemist and abbot of Tongland, John Damian. King James also kept an alchemist called Caldwell maintaining a furnace for quinta essencia, the mythical fifth element, at the castle.
The building works begun by James had not been completed at the time of his death at the battle of Flodden in 1513. His successor, James V (1513&ndash1542), was crowned in the chapel royal and grew up in the castle under the guardianship of Lord Erskine. In 1515, the Regent Albany brought 7,000 men to Stirling to wrest control of the young king from his mother, Margaret Tudor. Despite this, the king continued expanding his father's building programme, creating the centrepiece of the castle, the Royal Palace, built under the direction of Sir James Hamilton of Finnart and masons brought in from France. James V also died young, leaving the unfinished work to be completed by his widow, Mary of Guise. His infant daughter, Mary Queen of Scots, was brought to Stirling castle for safety, and crowned in the chapel royal on 9 September 1543. She too was brought up here until she was sent to Inchmahome priory and then to France in 1548. When Anglo-French hostilities spread into Scotland, artillery fortifications were added to the S approach of the castle. These form the basis of the present outer defences.
Queen Mary returned to Scotland in 1561 and then visited Stirling castle frequently. She nursed Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley, through an illness here in 1565, before the two were married. Their son, James VI, was baptised here in 1566. After Darnley's murder, Mary was travelling from Stirling when she was abducted by the earl of Bothwell, beginning the chain of events that led to her forced abdication and flight to England.
After the queen's flight the young King James VI was crowned in the nearby church of the Holy Rude, and grew up within the castle walls under the tutelage of the humanist scholar George Buchanan. Frequently used as a pawn in the struggles between his regents and the supporters of Mary, the young king was closely guarded. Stirling became the base for James' supporters, while those nobles who wished to see Queen Mary restored gathered at Edinburgh, under William Kirkcaldy of Grange. Grange led a raid on Stirling in 1571, attempting to round up the Queen's enemies, but failed to gain control of the castle or the king.
The keeper of the castle, Alexander Erskine of Gogar, was ejected by supporters of Regent Morton in April 1578, after his son was fatally wounded during a struggle at the gate. The rebellious earls of Mar and Angus seized the castle in 1584, but surrendered and fled to England when the king arrived with an army. They returned the following year, forcing the king to surrender, although they proclaimed their loyalty to him. King James' first child, Henry, was born in the castle in 1594, and the present Chapel Royal was constructed for his baptism on 30 August. The chapel completed the quadrangle of the Inner Close. Like his predecessors Henry spent his childhood here under the 2nd earl of Mar, until the Union of the Crowns of 1603, when his father succeeded as king of England and the royal family left for London.
After the king's departure, Stirling's role as a residence declined and it became principally a military centre. It was used as a prison for persons of rank during the 17th C, but did not feature in the civil and religious wars of the 1630s and 1640s. Following the execution of Charles I, the Scots crowned his son as Charles II, and he became the last reigning monarch to stay here, living at the castle in 1650. The Royalist forces were defeated at Dunbar by those of Oliver Cromwell, before the king marched S to defeat at Worcester. General Monck laid siege to the castle on 6 August 1651, erecting gun platforms in the adjacent churchyard. After the garrison mutinied, Colonel William Conyngham was obliged to surrender on 14 August. Damage done during the siege can still be seen on the church and the great hall.
Although garrisoned by the government during the first Jacobite rising, the castle saw no fighting. In the second Jacobite rising of 1745, the rebel army marched past Stirling on the way to Edinburgh and the S. Following the Jacobites' retreat from England, they returned to Stirling in January 1746, where the town soon surrendered. The castle governor refused to capitulate and artillery works were set up on Gowan Hill. These were quickly destroyed by the castle's guns and the Jacobites withdrew north on 1 February, effectively ending the castle's military career.
The outer defences comprise artillery fortifications and were built in their present form in the eighteenth century, although some parts, including the French spur at the E end, date back to the regency of Mary of Guise in the 1550s. The spur was originally an ear-shaped bastion known as an orillon and contained gun emplacements which protected the main spur. This projection was fronted by an earth ramp called a talus, which was entered via a drawbridge over a ditch. Excavations in the 1970s showed that much of the original stonework remains within the eighteenthcentury defences.
Following the attempted Jacobite invasion of 1708, improvements to the castle's defences were ordered and completed by 1714. The main result was that the front wall was extended outwards to form Guardhouse square. This had the effect of creating two defensive walls, both of which were fronted by ditches defended by covered firing galleries known as caponiers. One of the caponiers survives and is accessible from Guardhouse square by a narrow staircase. To the rear of the walls, chambers called casemates were built to strengthen the wall, and to provide gun emplacements. The French spur was modified slightly to allow more cannons to be mounted.
The gatehouse, providing entry from the outer defences to the castle proper, was only finished around 1506. It originally formed part of a forework, extending as a curtain wall across the whole width of Castle Hill. At the centre is the gatehouse itself, which now stands to less than half its original height. The round towers at the outer corners rose to conical roofs, with battlements carried around the tops of the towers. These were flanked by more round towers, of which only traces now remain. There were further round towers at the rear of the gatehouse, making it a square tower with 4 corner turrets and the gate passageway in between. The overall design, as drawn by John Slezer in 1693, shows French influence, and has parallels with the forework erected at Linlithgow palace. Like this, the forework was probably intended more for show than for serious defence, as it would have offered little protection against contemporary artillery - either that or the original defences are merely refaced and much older than is currently reckoned. The entrance to the ward was via a central passage, flanked by two separate pedestrian passages. This triple arrangement was unusual in its time. Classical triumphal arches have been suggested as an influence. The gatehouse was dismantled gradually, and then consolidated in its present form in 1810.
The gatehouse is coated in a fine ashlar, which is totally different to the rubble built curtain walls that begin 20' either side of it. Just beyond these junctions there were semi-circular projecting towers similar to the ones on the gatehouse. However these are faced in well-laid rubble. Adjoining the SW tower is the plinth of the older curtain which runs off to the rectangular Prince's tower. This is overlain by ashlar of a similar quality to that which coats the gatehouse. At each end of the curtain wall is a rectangular tower. The west tower, known as the Prince's Tower, survives to its full height, and is now attached to the later palace. At the east end, the Elphinstone Tower contained a kitchen and possibly an officer's lodging. It was cut down to form a gun battery, probably in the early eighteenthcentury, when the outer defences were rebuilt. This marks the extent of the surviving medieval castle.
Within the forework is a courtyard known as the outer close, containing eighteenthcentury structures. The earlynorth gate, giving access to the nether or lower bailey, contained the original castle kitchens, which were probably linked to the great hall. The kitchen which is now visible was constructed later. In 1689 these rooms were infilled to provide gun emplacements. To the west of the outer close, the main parts of the castle are arranged around the quadrangular inner close: the royal palace to the south, the king's old building on the west, the chapel royal to thenorth, and the great hall to the east.
The oldest part of the inner close is thought to be the king's old building, on the west side. This was complete by 1497. It was begun as a new residential range by James IV and originally comprised an L shaped building. The principal rooms were on the first floor, over cellars and included two chambers with wide open views to the west. The projecting stair tower has an octagonal upper section, which was copied for a second, later stair tower on the same building. In 1855, thenorth end of the building burned down, and was rebuilt in a &lsquobaronial style'. At the SW end of the range is a linking building, once used as kitchens, which is on a different alignment to both the king's old building and the adjacent royal palace. It has been suggested that this is an earlier fifteenthcentury structure. Excavations within this building revealed burials, suggesting that this may have been the site of a church or chapel. The skeletons found, all buried with dignity, seem to have mostly met gruesome ends and were thought to have been members of the garrison mainly beaten to death in isolated groups. One was a woman who had been knifed. Many were shown to have been from the early fourteenthcentury.
On the east side of the inner close is the great or parliament hall. This was built by James IV following on from the completion of the king's old building in 1497 and was being plastered by 1503. It represents the first example of Renaissance influenced royal architecture in Scotland and was worked on by a number of English craftsmen, being comparable to Edward IV's hall at Eltham palace, built in the late 1470s. It includes Renaissance details within a conventional medieval plan. Inside are five fireplaces and large side windows lighting the dais end. It is 138' by 47' across, making it the largest such hall in Scotland.
To the west of the fourteenthcentury gatehouse, forming the south side of the inner close, is the royal palace. It was begun in the 1530s and was largely complete by the time of James V's death in December 1542. The architecture of this is French inspired, but the decoration is more German. The statues include a line of soldiers on the south parapet and a series of full size figures around the principal floor. These include a portrait of James V, the devil, St Michael and representations of Venus and several planetary deities. Internally, the palace comprises two apartments, one for the king and one for the queen.
The collegiate chapel established by James IV in 1501 lay between the king's old Building and the great hall, but was further south than the present building. This was the chapel in which Queen Mary was crowned in 1543. After this a new building was erected within a year,north of the old site to improve access to the hall. This too was later modified for military use, housing a dining room. The wall paintings were rediscovered in the 1930s, and restoration began after the Second World War.
Beyond thenorth gate, the nether bailey occupies thenorth end of Castle Hill. Surrounded by defensive walls, the area contains a nineteenthcentury guard house and gunpowder stores as well as the modern tapestry studio. There was formerly access to the nether bailey from Ballengeich to the west, until the postern was blocked in response to the threat of Jacobite rebellion.
Due to its similar appearance to Colditz castle in Saxony, the castle was used to film the exterior shots for the 1970s TV series Colditz.
Museum, Castle or defences
1 April - 30 September
7 days a week. 9.30am to 6.00pm
1 October - 31 March
7 days a week. 9.30am to 5.00pm
Last ticket sold 45 mins before closing. Please note the Regimental Museum hours vary from the castle opening hours.
ADMISSION PRICES (valid until 31 March 2015)
Adult: £14.00 (aged 16-59)
Child £7.50 (aged 5-15. Children must be accompanied by an adult or concession visitor).
Concession: £11.00 (aged 60 and over, unemployed)
Child under 5 - FREE
ADMISSION PRICES (April 2015 - March 2016)
Adult: £14.50 (aged 16-59)
Child £8.70 (aged 5-15. Children must be accompanied by an adult or concession visitor).
Concession: £11.60 (aged 60 and over, unemployed)
Child under 5 - FREE
A HISTORY OF STIRLING
Stirling became an important settlement because it is the lowest crossing place over the River Forth. Furthermore, it has a rocky outcrop, which was a natural place to build a fort. (The name Stirling is derived from Striveling, meaning place of strife). By the 11th century, a royal castle was built on the crag. On its slopes was a village of wooden huts.
Sometime in the 1120’s the king made Stirling into a town by granting the townspeople a charter. (A charter was a document, which gave them certain rights). Stirling became a royal burgh with a weekly market and its own local government. The merchants of Stirling elected a provost to run the town. Soon Stirling became a busy and important town. As well as a market it had an annual fair.
In the Middle Ages fairs were like markets but they were held only once a year. Buyers and sellers would come from all over central Scotland to attend a Stirling fair. After 1447 Stirling had 2 fairs. The main industry in Medieval Stirling was weaving wool. Stirling was also a small inland port. (The small ships of that era could sail up the Forth).
However, by modern standards, Stirling was tiny, with a population of only several hundred. Stirling was probably fortified by a ditch and earth rampart with a wooden palisade on top.
About 1145 Cambuskenneth Abbey, an Augustinian abbey, was founded on the other side of the River Forth from Stirling by King David I. Then in the 13th-century friars arrived in Stirling. Friars were like monks but instead of withdrawing from the world, they went out to preach. There were 2 orders of friars in Stirling. The Dominicans were called Blackfriars because of their black costumes. There were also Franciscan friars known as grey friars in Stirling. Like many medieval towns Stirling also had a leper hostel outside the walls.
Stirling castle was originally built in wood but in the late 13th century it was rebuilt in stone. In 1174 it was handed over to the English in return for the release of William I who had been captured in battle. The English handed Stirling Castle back in 1189.
At the end of the 13th century, a long war began between the Scots and the English. During the war, Stirling castle changed hands several times. The English invaded in 1296 and captured Stirling Castle. However, they were severely defeated at the battle of Stirling bridge the same year. The Scots recaptured Stirling castle in 1297. Then in 1298, the Scots were defeated at the Battle of Falkirk. William Wallace retreated north. Stirling castle fell into English hands. Stirling castle changed hands once again in 1299 when the Scots recaptured it. Stirling castle fell to the English in 1304 but the Scots recaptured it in 1314 after the battle of Bannockburn.
At first, Stirling had a wooden bridge but in 1415 it was replaced by a stone one now known as The Auld Brig. Furthermore, the Church of The Holy Rude was built in the late 15th century.
STIRLING IN THE 16th CENTURY AND 17th CENTURY
In 1507 a man named John Damien tried to fly from the walls of Stirling Castle. Luckily for him, he landed in a dung pile and escaped with only a broken leg.
In the 16th and 17th centuries, Stirling continued to grow in size and prosperity. By the middle of the century, it probably had a population of around 1,500. Although it would seem tiny to us by the standards of the time Stirling was a respectably sized market town. However, in the 17th century, Stirling declined in importance. That was partly because the king moved to England and Stirling castle gradually ceased to be a royal residence and became a barracks.
In 1530 Robert Spittal, a tailor, founded a hospice for poor people in Stirling. In 1547 after the Scots were routed at the battle of Pinkie a stone wall was erected around the town. When the Reformation swept Scotland the friaries were closed and in 1567 their property was given to the town council.
Mars Wark (work) was built in 1572 by the Early of Mar. Cowane’s Hospital (almshouses) was built with money left by John Cowane, a merchant who died in 1633. (They were completed in 1649). The Argyll Lodging was built about 1630 by William Alexander Ist Earl of Stirling. Archibald Campbell Ist Marquis of Argyll purchased it in 1655 and gave it its name.
Like all towns in those days, Stirling was dirty and unsanitary. There were outbreaks of plague in 1606 and 1645. The 1606 outbreak killed over 600 people, which at the time, was a large part of the town’s population. The 1645 visitation also left Stirling depopulated. But each time the town recovered.
STIRLING IN THE 18th CENTURY
For most of the 18th century, Stirling was a fairly small market town with a population of around 4,000. It was still a minor inland port. Stirling Tolbooth was built in 1704 by Sir William Bruce.
Fortunately, Stirling escaped any damage in the Jacobite risings of 1715 and 1745.
At the end of the 18th century, the industrial revolution began to transform Scotland. However, it largely bypassed Stirling, which remained a quiet market town. However, the traditional wool weaving industry continued. There was also a carpet weaving industry. Some cotton was also woven in Stirling. The first bank in Stirling opened in 1777.
At the end of the 18th century, Stirling began to grow geographically. For centuries Stirling had been limited to the slope of the hill below the castle. In the late 18th century growth spread to the Port Street and Dumbarton Road area. Raploch also began to grow at the end of the 18th century. In 1799 10 new houses were built there. Soon more followed. Also in the late 18th century, Stirling gained a piped water supply (for those who could afford to be connected).
STIRLING IN THE 19th CENTURY
In 1801, at the time of the first census, Stirling had a population of 5,271. By the standards of the time, it was a fair-sized market town. By 1821 the population of Stirling had grown to 7,333. In the early 19th century new streets were built north of the old town, Cowane Street, Irvine Place, and Queen Street. In 1826 Stirling gained gas street lighting and in 1833 a new bridge was built.
However, like all towns in the early 19th century, Stirling was dirty and unsanitary and there was a disastrous epidemic of cholera in 1832. Partly as result sewers were dug under the streets of Stirling in the 1850s. The old town jail was built in 1847 and in 1857 Stirling gained its first modern police force.
The Wallace Monument was built in 1869 and an infirmary was built in Stirling in 1874. Also in 1874 horse-drawn trams began running through the streets of Stirling. The Smith Art Gallery and Museum also opened in 1874. The Old Arcade was built in 1882. Furthermore, the Mercat Cross was restored in 1891. In the 19th century, Stirling remained a market town and it did not become an industrial center.
However, in 1848 the railway reached Stirling and the town began to grow more rapidly. This was partly because well-to-do people moved to the town and commuted to work in Glasgow. For the middle-class new houses were built west of the old town at Abercromby Place, Clarendon Place, Victoria Place, Victoria Square, and Queens Road. New streets were also built north of the old town such as Wallace Street, Bruce Street, Douglas Street, and Union Street.
Because of its strategic position as the ‘gateway to the Highlands’ Stirling began to develop as a tourist centre. In 1871 Stirling had a population of 11,788. By 1881 that had risen to 14,000.
STIRLING IN THE 20th CENTURY
The first electricity was generated in Stirling in 1900 and by 1901 the population of Stirling was over 18,000. The first public library opened in 1902. The first cinema in Stirling opened in 1912 and the last horse-drawn trams ran in 1920 when they were replaced by buses. In 1922 a war memorial was erected in Stirling.
In the 1920s and 1930s, the council began slum clearance in Stirling and built council houses to replace the slums at Raploch and the Riverside. Many more council houses were built in the 1950s and 1960s. Furthermore, in the 1950s many old buildings were demolished in the oldest part of the town.
Stirling University was founded in 1967. A swimming pool was built in 1974. The Thistle Centre opened in 1977. During the 20th century, Stirling was still a market town rather than an industrial centre but there were some industries such as financial services, food processing, and electronics. Castle Business Park opened in 1995.
STIRLING IN THE 21st CENTURY
Stirling was made a city in 2002. Today the population of Stirling is 45,000.
Promises that Could Never be Delivered
This bizarre story begins when “a penniless” Italian-born cleric by the name of John Damian de Falcuis, found his way to the city of Stirling in Scotland at the end of the 15th century. John was bereft of cash but loaded with charm, evident in that he was recorded as “attending the royal court of James IV of Scotland" at the beginning of the sixteenth century.
John promised the king inexhaustible supplies of gold and that he could produce enhanced medicines with secret Italian alchemical processes. A January 1501 record at the Scottish exchequer informs “John became protégé of King James IV " and received a “great deal of money and other items from the king, to make the quintessence" the elusive 5th element.” And with this money “Master John the French Leech (physician) directed the building of alchemical furnaces at Stirling Castle and Holyroodhouse.”
Late 19th-century photograph of the Palace of Holyroodhouse from Calton Hill in Edinburgh, home of one of John Damian’s alchemical labs. ( Public Domain )
The beginning of the 16th century in Scotland saw a surge of interest in science, and John’s promise of delivering the elusive “5th element” must have been highly valued. Rumors preceded John that Italian alchemists had made significant advances in alchemy and somewhere between 1501 and 1508 his mesmerism caused him to inherit the powerful position of Abbot of Tongland. What exactly was this “5th element” that John, and thousands of alchemists before him, attempted to create?
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2. Stirling Castle was abandoned for many years
The castle is one of the few that has not had a constant occupancy through out the years. During the Wars of Independence in 1296, when Edward invaded Scotland, he found the great castle empty and abandoned. This allowed the English king to set up a Scottish stronghold with relative ease.
3. The castle esplanade has featured in several music videos
The parade ground outside the castle has been used as an open-air concert venue through out the years. This includes R.E.M., Bob Dylan and Runrig, some of who filmed their live in concert DVDs here. Stirling’s Hogmanay celebrations are also held here every year, and live broadcasted on TV.
4. The Battle of Bannockburn had a scaring effect on the castle
In the aftermath of the famous bloody battle, King Robert the Bruce regained control of the castle. The impressive fortress had switched hands so many times during the Wars of Independence, that Robert ordered all of the defences to be destroyed so it could never be used against his efforts again.
5. A bloody murder took place here
While we know many killings took place here, none seem as violent and intentional as that of William, 8th Earl of Douglas. In February 1452, James II had the Earl assassinated with the help of his courtiers. He was stabbed 26 times, and then his body was flung from a castle window down into the gardens.
6. The first attempt at flight in Scotland happened here
In 1507, the very first record of an attempted flight took place on the castle walls.
An Italian alchemist by the name of John Damian was in attendance at the court of James IV. He believed that with the aid of feathered wings, he would be able to take flight, and jumped from the battlements. Of course, this failed spectacularly and instead, John landed in a dunghill and broke his thigh bone.
7. The oldest football in the world was discovered here
Mary, Queen of Scots loved sports and in particular, football. She even recorded playing a game in one of her diaries. Behind the panelling in the Queen’s chamber, the oldest surviving football in the world was discovered. No one knows how it got there, but speculation includes the queen hid it in a safe place to protect it from witch craft. The ball was made from an inflated pig’s bladder, wrapped with cow’s hide and is around half the size of footballs today.