History of Stirling Castle

The History of Stirling Castle

Live the history of Scotland through the eyes of one of its most important Castles

I visited the Stirling Castle in Scotland a few years ago. I didn’t know much about the Scottish history back then but I definitely enjoyed roaming around the castle. It has a historic aura to it. And considering the plethora of storms it has weathered, its stories are ever more intriguing.

Some people though skip out on this castle. I don’t think that’s a good idea, especially for a history lover like you.

Is Stirling Castle worth visiting?

The history of Stirling Castle is closely related to the history of Scotland. The remains of this long and rich history can be felt within the castle’s walls.

The castle has a lot of entertaining stories to narrate. These myriad stories range from the window, out of which James II and his courtiers threw a man’s murdered corpse, to an alchemist who tried to fly using chicken wings to France. A legend also says narrates a tale of a freak fire that almost burnt Queen Mary of Scots to death.

Besides these legends, there are a few more gory stories, like the battles of the Scottish Wars of Independence which took place in the castle’s backyard. These tales are still alive and glorified in every Scots’ heart.

To experience these stories and explore a formal royal palace belonging to the Scottish monarchs, Stirling castle must be visited when in Scotland.

If you are ready to include Stirling in your travel plans, then you must be wondering,

Where is Stirling Castle?

Stirling Castle sits in one of the best strategic locations for travellers and warriors of the yesteryears. It is also conveniently located for the tourists that flock to this castle every year. The castle is just an hour’s drive away from the capital of Scotland, Edinburgh.

History of Stirling Castle
A Map of Scotland
Picture Credits (Modified with Attributes) via Wikipedia: Minestrone

Stirling Castle is located on the southern bank of the River Forth. It is considered to be the gateway into the scenic and once rough Scottish Highlands. Stirling castle used to be a place for a brief halt for a traveller, journeying either towards the north or towards the south. It was also a vital location to safeguard Scotland’s many underaged monarchs. The castle’s location to the north of the city of Edinburgh also made it a safer hideaway.

That is not the only reason, Stirling is famous….

What is the importance of Stirling Castle?

Stirling Castle has played a crucial role in the history of Scotland. It was one of the chief castles to feature in the dramatic Wars of Independence fought against the English in the late 13th and early 14th century.

The English as well as the Scottish vied to get possession of Stirling. They raised some of the biggest war machines, sieges and historic battles to do so.

Thus for a history lover and for a Scot in particular, Stirling is a very tactical fortress. It saw the great battles of Stirling Bridge fought by William Wallace and the Battle of Bannockburn won by Robert Bruce.

And between these two battles won by the Scots, the English King Edward I had his own siege. This siege was more of a spectacle than a war.

Edward I laid a siege for 3 months. He then ordered his son to collect iron from every church roof and bring it to him. The King then built the largest Trebuchet (a catapult) which he called War Wolf and loaded his projectiles with Greek Fire. Greek Fire never burns out. The Scots within the castle surrendered. Edward would have none of it. He refused to except their surrender and used his trebuchet to destroy the fortress while royal ladies watched from a special viewing deck.

A Trebuchet is a catapult used as a siege breaking instrument

If you’ve watched the Outlaw King, the movie begins from here. And then as we know, the Bruce rises to save the day with the Battle of Bannockburn, fought near Stirling ten years later. It was indeed a gory, bloody fight with high English casualties.

After these wars, the castle evolved and today has a treasure trove of historic buildings to see.

What is there to do in Stirling Castle?

The Stirling Castle has a lot to offer within its mighty walls along with its tall statue of Robert the Bruce. Buildings like the Great Hall, the Royal Chapel, the Royal Palace as well as the Queen Anne Gardens each have historic significance.

The King’s Knot, in the castle gardens, is suspected of being the place where the hero of legends, King Arthur held his infamous round table with his knights.

The Great Hall at Stirling Castle

The building that first catches your eyes is the peach cream one, officially called the Great Hall. This Great Hall is one of the biggest in Scotland and the work of James IV. The Hall is painted using a Royal Gold Harling colour just like it was in the 1500s.

The Chapel Royal at Stirling Castle

James IV built the Chapel Royal in 7 weeks around 1593-1594 to baptise his son, Prince Henry. This building is the youngest one amongst all the structures in the castle. Royalty seldom used it when they moved south to England in 1604.

In 1628 though, Valentine Jenkin painted a lovely frieze in anticipation of a visit by the new King Charles I.

History of Stirling Castle
The altar Royal Chapel built within 7 weeks

The Royal Palace at Stirling Castle

The Royal Palace is one of the most lavishly decorated buildings at the castle. It is though, not a rival to the opulent Versailles. Scottish castles weren’t exotic palaces like in France. So James V’s French wife helped decorate this one. She lived here with her daughter, Mary Queen of Scots.

This Royal Palace has painted replicas of the Stewart Heads. The Palace consists of the royal chambers where the close members of the court could meet the Monarch and his wife. There are also two separate Royal bedrooms for the King and the Queen.

The guides in this room are dressed as royals. They are very happy to answer your questions, in a typical royal manner!

And of course, you must wander around the castle, peak into its many exhibits and take in the stunning views. You’ll surely enjoy your day.

The History of Stirling Castle
Inside the Royal Palace and the tapestry in the background

What is inside Stirling Castle?

The Royal Apartments, the Royal chapel and other buildings have some interesting items that are just waiting to be admired and applauded. The few items that you must explore are the seven Tapestries and the Stewart Heads.

The seven tapestries are a series titled ‘The Mystic Hunt of the Unicorn’. These series decorate the Queen’s Inner Hall in the Royal Palace. ‘The Mystic Hunt of the Unicorn’ tapestries have recently been crafted on a similar set of tapestries that were lost to time.

The Metropolitan Museum in New York has preserved a set of medieval tapestries . These tapestries at the castle though are just as precious. They’ve used the exact method used in the middle ages including the thread made up of solid colours.

According to Records in Edinburgh, King James V of Scotland was fond of tapestries. He owned at least a 100 of them!

The other precious things to see are the Stewart Heads that once adorned the ceiling of the Royal Palace. The Stewart Heads are 16 meter wide medallions made up of oak. They feature great Scottish Kings and Queens, a few Roman Gods and mythical creatures.

In 1777, the castle was in a state of neglect. the ceiling collapsed and scattered these precious medallions. A restoration team has collected the surviving Heads, pieced them together and now form a major part of the King’s exhibition on the Upper floors of the castle.

Another mentionable exhibition is that of the Regimental museum that speaks of the Argyll and Sutherland highlanders. This regiment has been with the castle for almost 200 years. Currently the museum is closed for tourists and undergoing certain updates.

This castle is a treat, isn’t it?

You must be wondering, who these lucky people were, to use these beautiful buildings and call this castle home.

History of Stirling Castle
Inside the Royal Palace

Who has Lived in Stirling Castle?

Many a monarch have lived in and loved Stirling Castle including the ancient Scottish royals as well as the famous House of Stuart, descendants of our Outlaw King, Robert the Bruce (1274-1329).

Alexander I (1078-1124) was the first Scottish Monarch to add a chapel in this castle. He died within the castle walls.

His brother David I (1084-1153) made Stirling his chief residence. And William the Lion (1142-1214), built a Royal park on the castle’s table land on its south-western side.

The castle was destroyed by the Bruce and subsequently rebuilt. The great King’s descendants, the House of Stuart often flocked to Stirling.

History of Stirling Castle
The Stewart Heads that represent various Scottish monarchs

Did Mary Queen of Scots live in Stirling Castle?

Mary, aged 9 months, was crowned Queen at the Royal Chapel in the Castle.

Mary was then kept here along with her mother. Meanwhile the English King Henry VIII tried to marry her off to his son and gain possession of Scotland.

When Mary returned to Scotland from France aged 19, she lived at the Holyrood Palace in Edinburgh and sometimes retreated to Stirling castle.

Once in 1561, when she was asleep in her quarters in the Royal Palace, her bed linens caught fire from a candle. The Queen was saved in the nick of time. If not, it’s repercussions would have altered the history of Britain forever.

History of Stirling Castle
One of ‘The Mystic Hunt of the Unicorn’ tapestries that hangs in the Royal Palace where Mary Queen of Scots lived

Speaking of history, what is the history of Stirling Castle? Its story starts with the very foundations upon which this mighty castle stands.

What is Stirling Castle built on?

Stirling Castle is built on a crag and tail.

A crag and tail formation is the outcome of the Ice Age. The Ice Age exposed the surface of the earth marred with volcanic rock. The ice obliterated the small volcanic necks but a few huge ones survived.

In southern Scotland, the ice has shaped the two prominent volcanic necks into steep hills fit for castle foundations. On one crag and tail sits the Edinburgh castle and on the other, its sister, the Stirling Castle.

When was Stirling Castle built?

The early Britons constructed a fort near the crag and tail.

The fortress where it today stands, was built in the early years of the 12th century.

Robert the Bruce destroyed this old castle in 1314. He thought this would prevent further attacks on Stirling.

History of Stirling Castle
Robert the Bruce’s statue outside the castle

In 1336, the English rebuilt a castle here which consisted of a nether bailey and a castle proper. They built new walls, a hall, the kitchens, storage rooms amongst other chambers. This castle seems to have been made using timber.

Robert of Albany, the Keeper of Stirling Castle in the early 1400s carried out repairs and maintenance work. He also rebuilt the chapel in 1412.

Work by the House of Stuart

The Stuart Kings added a lot to the Stirling Castle, almost all the buildings we see today.

James I (1394-1437) used Stirling Castle as a place for his executions. And there were plenty of those!

James II (1430-1460) made the castle a Dower house for his Queen.

James III (1451-1488) seems to have commissioned the Parliament Hall.

The majority of the work was carried out by James IV (1473-1513). James IV built the Great Hall that seems to be the highlight of the castle today.

During his reign, many masons, painters and carpenters worked here. He built his famous gateway called the Forework on the southern end of the castle. This Forework makes it difficult for the enemy to march on the main castle through its gates.

James IV further built the King’s Old Building, the Great Hall, designed a beautiful garden and extended other structures.

By the 15th century, this garden was stocked with fruits, flowers, vegetables, and vines.

James V (1512-1542) along with his french wife Mary of Guise built the Royal Palace in a baroque style, very unique in Scotland.

Mary of Guise came from the flamboyant French court. The King designed the royal palace luxuriously to make her feel more at home.

The Royal Palace is still one of the best decked up rooms in the castle.

James V’s grandson, James VI (1566-1625) was left with an old Royal Chapel that leaked. He needed a new one to baptise his son and heir. In a span of just 7 weeks, they built the current Royal Chapel in the castle, right opposite to the Royal Palace.

History of Stirling Castle
The Baroque Royal Palace built by James V and Mary of Guise

What happened to Stirling Castle after the crowns united?

After King James VI, left for London as the King of Scotland as well as England, he promised his Scottish subjects he’d return every three years.

However after 1604, he returned only in 1617. The entire city of Stirling waited with bated breath for their King. The King’s son and heir, Prince Henry had been born here. He felt a certain affinity towards the castle. The Prince would be the last royal heir to be born in Stirling.

After James VI, his surviving son Charles I briefly visited Stirling Castle. He would be the last King to live here.

When in exile, Charles II, as a young twenty year old is also have thought to reside in Stirling. However he wasn’t a crowned monarch then and thus isn’t counted to be a royal in residence.

During the Jacobite uprising, Queen Anne commissioned some fortification work. An engineer called Grant built the Grand Battery (a fortified emplacement for canons) in 1689 . The Queen herself never came to the castle though.

The roof of the Royal Palace caved in, in 1777.

By 1780s, the castle had almost been left to rot. The famous Scottish poet Robert Burns even wrote about the pitiful condition of the castle in one of his poems.

“Here Stewarts once in triumph reigned,
And laws for Scotland’s weal ordained;
But now unroofed their palace stands,
Their sceptre’s swayed by other hands;
Fallen, indeed, and to the earth

Robert Burns

In the 1790s, the army used the castle as a barrack.

Queen Victoria and her husband Prince Albert visited in 1849, the first to do so since Charles I.

And from 1881 to 1964, the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders used Stirling castle as a military depot.

The castle though was not always a military depot.

History of Stirling Castle
The Argyll and Sutherland Highlander Regiment’s memorial

What was Stirling Castle used for?

Over the years, Stirling Castle had been used for various purposes like setting up a garrison, tutoring an heir to the throne and as a royal retreat.

The early Kings of Scots resided within the castle’s walls and then the English King Henry II in the 13th century, set up his garrison here.

After the Stuarts became Kings and Queens, they used Stirling as a respite from the politics at Edinburgh.

The heirs sometimes lived here as did some young Scottish monarchs themselves. The young royals would liven up the court with their fun and games. They’d also be expected to sit for daily lessons with a tutor.

After the Monarchy of England and Scotland united in 1603, the Stuart King, James VI and now James I of England, left Scotland for London.

History of Stirling Castle
The Royal Chapel built by James VI and the frieze painted by Valentine Jenkin

Subsequently, Stirling castle was used as a prison too.

You’ll be surprised to know that the castle’s life as a prison was less exciting than a couple of legends, secrets and creatures that roam the castle.

Murder at Stirling Castle

Stirling Castle has seen a King murder his courtier and chuck him out of a window.

Sir William Douglas was a nobleman at the court of James II. The King caught wind of the Douglas’ plans to overthrow him. Yet James II called the treacherous leech to dine with him. All seemed fine when the two retired to discuss private matters into another chamber.

The King was then heard shouting, “False traitor, if you will not I shall” and then he stabbed Douglas with his knife twice. The other courtiers present including Sir Patrick Gray, Sir Alexander Boyd, Stewart of Darnley finished off the King’s work and threw the dead traitor’s body out of the window.

History of Stirling Castle
The place where they found Douglas’ body

Who Is Buried At Stirling Castle?

In 1997 a group of archeologists found nine skeletons buried under the Royal Chapel that had been built by King Alexander I in the early years of the 12th century.

These nine skeletons were 7 men, a woman and a child. They seem to have been brutally killed.

In 1997 archeologists were unable to dig deep into the past lives of these skeletons.

With the advent of technology, they have now been able to listen to the stories these skeletons seem to tell. They have carbon dated the bodies to belong to the time the Scottish Wars of Independence took place. It is however very tricky to know where these people came from.

They might be French, English or Scottish. In those years all these countries held Stirling castle. Recently, they’ve eliminated the possibility of the skeleton being French.

The fact that these bones had been buried within the Royal Chapel, makes them important. These influential people though were subjected to vicious deaths.

One skeleton is larger than the others and is probably of a knight.

Ghosts at Stirling Castle

It is almost impossible to find a Scottish castle that is not haunted. Stirling Castle is no exception. In all its brutal wars and the number of people who have lived here, there are bound to be a couple of ghosts.

The most common one tourists have claimed to have seen is a Highland man dressed in his Kilt and the entire Highlander dress. He seems to be a tour guide and when you walk towards him, he turns away and disappears in front of your eyes. Now you see, I like such ghosts. Live and let live. I would have liked to meet him.…

History of Kilts
The Highlander Dress (Statue at Edinburgh Castle)

The second, not so welcoming ghost, is the Green Lady. This green lady is not as well dressed as her Highlander colleague. Her hair is a mess and so is her face. I didn’t meet this ghost either.

The Green Lady has a story. She was the servant or Lady-in-Waiting for Mary Queen of Scots. Apparently she helped Mary escape when her bed caught fire but perished herself. She now roams around the castle in search for her Queen. Anyone needs any loyal friends?

And then there is of course the Queen herself called as the Pink lady. Stirling castle seems to have a number of colourful lady ghosts. This pink lady looks a bit like Mary Queen of Scots. Although I wonder what she is doing wandering around Stirling like that. And if she is, isn’t it time for her to call for her friend, the Green lady. That’ll be one successful happily ever after for Mary.

Besides these stories, there are many others to tell. Like the world’s oldest football used by Mary Queen of Scots was found within her chamber in the palace or the hilarious tale of the alchemist who jumped from the castle walls with a view to fly to France. He crashed in a garbage dump and survived!

With its gory past, intriguing tales, hilarious anecdotes and ages of history, does Stirling Castle fascinate you? Comment below if it does and also tell me about your thoughts on the Stirling castle.

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You might also like to read

The History of Edinburgh Castle

Back to Medieval England: Warwick Castle

A Podcast on York Minster


Stirling Castle, Its Place in Scottish History: Eric Stair-Kerr

Royal Palaces of Great Britain: Beatrice Home
Poem Stirling By Robert Burns
Official Stirling Castle website
The Forework: Undiscovered Scotland
Secrets of Great British Castles: BBC Documentary

Post Author: GiGlee Magazine

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