Articles - Scottish Castles
Leading towards Stirling Castle, a circuitous path known as the Back Walk rises from Dumbarton Road and follows the line of the old town wall. Historical information boards along the way offer insights into features such as the watchtower built into the raw rock. On the lower slopes where trees and shrubs flourish look out for the wood sculpture of a howling wolf. Legend has it that in the 9th century a howling wolf saved Stirling by alerting the townsfolk to the midnight approach of Viking raiders. Now Stirling’s coat of arms includes the figure of a wolf.
A stroll here was not always pleasant or safe, however. The Royal Court in Stirling was forever being attacked and as an outer defence, the wall was constructed in 1547 when King Henry VIII of England was seeking to force a marriage between the infant Mary, Queen of Scots and his son Edward.
Further up the path, a gate in iron railings gives access to a rocky knoll known as Ladies’ Rock. Some believe it was so called as the extra height allowed ladies of the castle a better view of medieval tournaments being held on flat ground, now called the Valley, lying between Castle and town. More likely the name derives from Our Lady’s Hill, the site of a pre-Reformation shrine.
The Valley has been a cemetery for years and predominant amongst many impressive gravestones is the Star Pyramid, a smaller version of the structures more usually associated with Egypt. Another headstone, the so-called Service Stone, is pitted on both sides with musket shot possibly from being utilised as a shield during General Monck’s siege of Stirling Castle in 1651.
Continuing along the path and up a few steps leads to the Castle esplanade where a statue of King Robert the Bruce is a popular subject for camera toting tourists. Their photographic efforts might also include the memorial tower to Sir William Wallace on tree clothed Abbey Craig in the middle distance and the Ochil Hills in the background.
From the esplanade, stout wooden gates allow a way inside the castle’s defences. As well as being a fortress of great strength enclosing a palace that was a place of safety for generations of Scottish kings, Stirling Castle was almost a self-contained village. Visitors can wander through well-preserved kitchens and in the footsteps of royalty. The restored Great Hall, built for James 4th around 1503, is especially impressive. After years of neglect, an entirely new hammer beam ceiling crowns a room of lofty proportions complete with wall hangings, embroidery, stained glass and thrones. The so-called Stirling Heads that cover the ceiling of another room are portraits carved in Polish oak and painted. They were created to show the wealth, status and connections of the Scottish monarchy with the intention of impressing guests.
Outside on the battlements, a view indicator helps in identifying distant hills and sites of battles, including Bannockburn in 1314 and Stirling Bridge in1297 that influenced the course of Scottish history.
Before heading down into the streets of the old town nestling below the castle, it’s worth stopping off in the visitor centre at the end of the esplanade. In the comfort of the small cinema, a potted history of Stirling from the 1100s onwards vividly unwinds.
Back out in the daylight tread carefully on the cobble stones of Castle Wynd leading past Argyll’s Lodging. This nobleman’s town house is now refurbished to show how the nobility lived in 17th century Stirling. Furniture and fittings are based on the original inventory of house contents at that time.
Further down the brae Cowane’s Hospital built between the years 1639 – 49 offered charity to unsuccessful merchants. Work on the building will see it restored to its original glory.
Nearby, on the edge of Valley cemetery is the Church of the Holy Rude whose oak roof timbers were shaped by adze 600 and more years ago. Here in 1567, preceded by a Protestant sermon preached by John Knox, James 6th, a mere infant of thirteen months(baptised a Roman Catholic seven months earlier in Stirling Castle) was crowned King of Scotland. Meanwhile his mother, Mary Queen of Scots, languished in Lochleven Castle in Fife.
In 1651, during a campaign to subdue the Highlands, General George Monck, who was Oliver Cromwell’s Commander-in-Chief in Scotland, set up his guns in the tower of the church for the last successful attack on Stirling Castle.
Further disruption of a different kind took place in the 17th century when the church was divided into two parts for two different congregations. Rival ministers would then voice their religious disagreements over a wall. The wall is long gone and stained glass windows symbolise more enlightened times. In 1935 the Church and congregations were re-united.
Changes for the better would have topped many wish lists of those unfortunates who landed in the Old Town Jail on St. John Street where Victorian punishments were meted out in an attempt to correct ‘the sinning ways of those lacking morals’. In 1844 one cell held 24 prisoners. A visiting judge described the conditions as ‘wretched’ and ‘fearful’. The new prison, opened in 1847 had a modern design which allowed for solitary confinement, constant observation and hard work. As well, the chaplain could preach to all the prisoners whilst they were still in their cells. A tour of the jail can be taken with guide/actors who recreate the harshness of these times.
Markets took place on Broad Street. The Mercat (market) Cross that stands at the lower end is topped with a statue of a unicorn known locally as “the puggy”. Under it, proclamations were read out and important occasions celebrated. On royal birthdays, town officials drank copious toasts round bonfires while pipers or trumpeters played and church bells were rung. Rioting also took place here such as the one in December 1706 in protest at the proposed Union with England.
Continuing downhill past narrow buildings with crow stepped gables leads to the modern centre of Stirling. There is a choice of pubs, cafes and restaurants but if the weather is fine it’s worth considering picnicking about a mile away at Cambuskenneth Abbey and leaving the bustle behind.
Head past the railway station and cross the road-bridge over the railway lines. At the end of a street of terraced houses fronted by neat gardens, a pedestrian bridge spans a bend in the River Forth. On the far side, Cambuskenneth village has won Britain in Bloom Awards four times over the years.
Of Cambuskenneth Abbey (the abbey of Stirling founded around 1140 by David 1st) only the restored bell tower still stands. Where kings stayed as guests and Scottish parliaments met, low lines of stone above the grass are all that remain of the once impressive abbey. Behind railings there is a reconstructed tomb of King James 3rd (1452-88) and Queen Margaret of Denmark.
A return to the starting point of this trip back in time will take you through Stirling’s thoroughly modern temples to consumerism.
First published in The Glasgow Herald