Stirling

Stirling Castle: Royal Palace from Queen Anne Garden

An excursion to Stirling was one of the few days out we had at the beginning of the year before the torrential rains of February / March and the following months of lockdown. As Stirling Castle reopened on 1st August (pre-booked tickets only) this seems an appropriate time to publish my post about it which has been lingering in drafts for some months. It was a fabulous day, so be prepared for a lot of photographs!

Starting at the castle, we first of all wandered around the outside. The grey building is the Royal Palace and the golden one is the Great Hall. Views from the walls round the Palace are magnificent.

The first building we went into was the Royal Palace, one of the best-preserved Renaissance buildings in the UK, which has been refurbished to look as it might have done in the 1540s. This includes ceilings with brightly-painted replicas of the Stirling Heads (the originals can be seen in a museum onsite which we didn’t visit this time) and unicorns everywhere. The Hunt of the Unicorn tapestries are also replicas, based on a series created in the Low Countries in the early 1500s which are now in the Metropolitan Museum of New York’s Cloisters. They took 13 years to weave and cost £2 million.

It’s not so long since you could watch part of the tapestry being woven in one of the castle’s outlying buildings (they were completed in 2014). Now the same building hosts an exhibition about the weaving process. I learned a lot from the panel of samples shown below, especially the knee samples. The single knee was woven at eight warps per centimetre which matches the 15th century originals. The other two knees are woven at four warps per centimetre, which is the warp count chosen for the replicas. This saved 13 years of production time – how much respect is due to the original weavers? What an achievement.

Next, we visited the Chapel Royal, built in 1593-4 on the orders of James VI who wanted somewhere suitable for the baptism of his son and heir, Prince Henry. In 1603 the Union of the Crowns saw James head south to rule from England, and in 1625 he was succeeded by his surviving younger son Charles I. The frieze was painted by Valentine Jenkin in 1628 in the expectation of a coronation visit to Scotland by the new king. He didn’t come.

The Great Hall is the largest banqueting hall ever built in Scotland and was used for feasts, dances and pageants. Completed for James IV in 1503, it has four pairs of tall windows at the dais end, where the king and queen sat, and an impressive Scottish oak triple height ceiling.

Of course, you would not expect us to miss out on a visit, or two, to the Café! Having already had lunch there, we popped back for a cup of tea before venturing out again.

Suitably fortified , we explored the Old Town Graveyard which lies between the castle and Holy Rude Church. The ladies in the glass case are “Margaret, virgin martyr of the ocean wave, with her like-minded sister Agnes”. These were part of the educational and “improving” atmosphere of Victorian Stirling. Eighteen year old Margaret Wilson was a heroine of the Presbyterian Reformation who was executed by drowning in the Solway Firth for refusing to renounce her Protestant faith.

Shown below are Argyll’s Lodging (pink) and Cowane’s Trust (yellow). The former is a 17th century townhouse which can be visited with a castle entry ticket. Cowane’s Hospital, now run by a charitable trust, is also a 17th-century building. The merchant John Cowane (1570–1633), whose statue adorns the front, left 40,000 merks in his will for the establishment of an almshouse.

On nearby Broad Street is the Mercat Cross (another unicorn) and Norie’s House. James Norie was a lawyer and town clerk who built his fashionable new house in 1671.  His bewigged head looks down from the top of the roof.

Walking further down into town we came across representations of various historic figures. A howling wolf, here carved from a tree stump, appears on Stirling’s coat of arms. Legend has it that in the 9th century a wolf saved the town by howling in response to a Viking raid. Henry Campbell-Bannerman (1836-1908) was the Member of Parliament for Stirling Burghs for almost 40 years, including a term as Prime Minister from 1905 to 1908. Rob Roy, Robert Burns and William Wallace probably need less of an introduction to anyone interested in Scottish history and literature.

Our final stop before heading back up to the castle was outside Central Library which opened in 1904 and, like so many others, was funded by Andrew Carnegie.

As we walked back to the car, the sky began to change colour. We rushed up to a vantage point in the Old Town Cemetery from which we watched a spectacular sunset unfold. A perfect end to a perfect day.

Stirling: where we stayed and where we ate

We’ve just spent two nights at the Stirling Highland Hotel. This was built in the 1850s as the city’s High School and didn’t become a hotel until the 1990s so, although the building is historic, the rooms and facilities are modern and comfortable. The location is excellent – at the bottom of the hill leading up to the Castle – and it has reasonable parking, which is not common in Stirling. The school connection is maintained in the names of the restaurant (Scholar’s) and bar (the Headmaster’s Study). We only used the former for breakfast – it’s a buffet, but I discovered on the second day that veggie sausages were available on request, which pleased me greatly. We had lunch in the bar the day we arrived – we were the only people there, and because the surroundings were so cosy we felt very much at home. However, it was quite pricy for what we had – ok, you’ve spotted the wine I’m sure, but even so £33 seemed a lot for that, a sandwich, a baked potato and two coffees. Overall, though, we were happy with our choice of hotel and would probably go back if we stayed in Stirling again.

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I was really keen to have a curry on our first night, especially after checking Trip Advisor and finding that an Indian restaurant was number one in Stirling.

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Green Gates was untypical both in decor (a converted Georgian townhouse) and menu, which was quite short. However, everything was freshly cooked to order and, because dishes came in two sizes, you could order several small ones and sample a good variety. It was all delicious, but the stand out for us was Punjabi Channa Mushroom Masala which was exquisitely spiced. Service was slow to start with – our starters took a while to arrive – but was always friendly and picked up speed later. Value was excellent – two starters, three small mains, one dessert and four beers for about £45. I would definitely come back here.

The second night, we decided to eat Italian. Mamma Mia was directly opposite the hotel and, as it was pouring with rain, we decided to look no further. It was a friendly place, the interior looked very like a genuine neighbourhood restaurant in Italy, and the food (the Christmas menu at £27.95 for three courses) was excellent. After a bottle of wine and complimentary limoncellos with the bill, we didn’t have to worry about having too far to stagger home to bed either.

Stirling is a great place for a short break. There’s a lot to do, especially if you’re interested in history, which we knew already. However, because it’s somewhere we would normally go on a day trip we didn’t know much about the restaurants available, but there seems to be a good range and plenty more places I would like to try on future visits.

Visiting Braveheart: the Wallace Monument

While staying in Stirling, we took a walk out to the Wallace Monument following the route from inStirling.com. NB If anyone else decides to do this, note that it’s mainly paved, but the paths up to Abbey Craig are very muddy and slippery; also the instructions about crossing the railway are out of date – ignore the reference to an overgrown path which no longer exists, and just keep going on the road.

Before you get to the monument, you can view what remains of Cambuskenneth Abbey (from behind a fence at the moment, because it’s only open in summer.) Parliament was held here after the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314 and James III is buried here so it’s of considerable historic significance.

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Soon after leaving the Abbey, Abbey Craig, crowned by the monument, comes into view.

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The monument was built by public subscription and opened in 1869 – after costing twice the original estimate. Nothing changes there, does it? It’s 220 feet tall and, with a narrow spiral staircase of 246 steps, it’s not for the unfit or the claustrophobic. Fortunately, there are three viewing galleries on the way up where you can stop to catch your breath. The first floor tells William Wallace’s life story, the second concentrates on other Scottish heroes and the third documents the building of the monument. The fourth level is the Crown where you get spectacular views over the meandering River Forth to Stirling from one side, and of the Ochil Hills from the other. Here is pictorial proof that we both made it to the top.

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We walked back by a more direct route along a main road, crossing the Forth back into town at the site of the Battle of Stirling Bridge.

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The whole excursion, including a stop in the Legends Coffee House at the Visitor Centre, which does snacks such as toasties and panini, took about five hours. Fresh air, exercise and a bit of culture – and we only got rained on twice. What more could we ask?

Stirling Castle at dusk

The last time we visited Stirling Castle (Historic Scotland) was a sunny, autumn day in 2011 and the pictures in the blogpost I wrote then reflected that. After arriving in Stirling for a short break between Christmas and New Year, we nipped up for a quick visit in the late afternoon and found the castle looking equally stunning, but with a totally different atmosphere as dusk changed to darkness. We visited:

The Palace

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The Great Hall

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The Chapel Royal

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The Great Kitchens

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By the time we left, when the castle closed at 5pm, it was completely dark. This is the other side of the Great Hall taken from the Grand Battery.

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Finally, on our way back down the hill we spotted these lovely Christmas lights designed by children.

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Stirling is less than an hour away from where we live, so it’s wonderful to be able to see it at different times of year. Normally, we’d be back on the motorway to Glasgow by 5pm, so it was an added bonus to see it at this beautiful time of day.

Stirling Castle

Robert the Bruce stands guard over Stirling Castle:

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We’ve visited Stirling Castle many times in the past, but not since the newly refurbished Royal Palace opened this summer. The beauty of being a Historic Scotland member is that you can go in free and just visit the parts you want, rather than feeling you have to go over the whole thing every time to get your £13 worth, so a few Sundays ago we set off to see the Palace.

The highlight is the ceiling with the brightly painted Stirling Heads, shown below. These are replicas, but you can see the remaining originals in the Stirling Heads Gallery:

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Other highlights of the castle are the ochre-harled Great Hall which can be seen for miles around:

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And the gargoyles:

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An unexpected bonus was that you can now have a free tour of Argyll’s Lodging, the 17th century townhouse just down from the Castle, which we had also not visited before:

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Finally, where to eat? The Castle has a nice café, but we usually opt for the Portcullis Hotel, just down the hill, which was built in 1787 as a boys’ school. Their lunches are substantial and good value. My stuffed peppers with salad also included a disc of breaded mozzarella and chips, neither of which had been mentioned on the menu.

Stirling is recommended as a lovely day out.