11/12/2018
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A history of Stirling Castle

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Neil Oliver explores the history of Stirling Castle, a favourite residence of the royal Stewarts.

We in the Oliver family consider Stirling Castle our own personal property, so there. Since 1927, anyone living within the space defined by what is called ‘the Old Burgh boundary’ – the ancient city limits, if you will – has had free entry to the place. As long as we remember to take something with our address on it – like a gas bill, for instance – we are in, buckshee. But whatever Historic [Environment] Scotland is charging for a ticket now, it is worth it. Stirling Castle is just the best.

They say Stirling, and more specifically the castle, is the silver brooch that hitches the Highlands of Scotland to the Lowlands. As usual there is truth even in that sentimental statement. In ages past, before the drainage that came with modern farming, the few miles around the castle rock provided the only dry passage for men or beasts.

On either side, to east and west, was miserable morass. Right up into the modern era any warlord or general needing to march and army north or south had to pass close by the rock. Hold the rock and you controlled all the comings and goings. The Romans appreciated as much and built a road leading straight to it, but if they bothered to raise a fort on it, not a trace remains.

Atop a crag

The rock on which it stands – like nearby Abbey Craig, upon which sits the National Wallace monument – is what geologists call a ‘crag and tail’. When a glacier of the last ice age ground its way across that part of the world, it hit stumbling blocks of hard volcanic basalt. Those stubborn plugs defied the bulldozing power that lowered the softer material all around them and so remained proud.

The hard crags also shielded and protected the softer material immediately behind them and it is this that forms the sloping ramps called the tails. Edinburgh Castle – more famous but not nearly as good – sits atop another of the same, with the tail there providing the slope of the Royal Mile.

King Malcolm Canmore – who killed Macbeth to avenge the murder of his father, Duncan – had a fortification on the site in the eleventh century. From that time on, Stirling Castle is shot right through Scotland’s story, and therefore though the story of the British Isles.

Royal connections

Kings and queens were born there, christened and crowned there, died there. Edward I pounded its walls with a colossal trebuchet – an outsize catapult – he called War Wolf, to punish Scottish defiance of his will. The garrison had already surrendered, but he battered the place to smithereens for his own amusement and because he could. William Wallace had it for a while. Robert Bruce fought the Battle of Bannockburn to keep it and then smashed it down so it might not ever again fall into English hands. On and on it goes. James II of Scotland lost his temper with the young Earl of Douglas there, murdered him and flung his still-warm body out of a window.

James III was born in the castle in 1451. James IV built the Great Hall, famous for its hammerbeam roof (built without a single nail) and for being, then and for a long time thereafter, the largest indoor space in Scotland. After his death at Flodden in 1513 his son, James V, completed the construction of most of what stands on the rock today. To please his French queen, Marie de Guise, he had French artisans build her a glamorous Renaissance palace.

Houses in the nearby King’s Park have plum trees in their gardens, and local legend has it they are descended from others planted in what was then open parkland by a Scottish king anxious to provide food his French wife might like. Their daughter, Mary Stewart – who would be queen of Scots – was hidden from Henry VIII behind the castle’s walls until she could be got away to the elegant sanctuary of the French court, aged five.

Stirling Castle and Mary Queen of Scots

The old horror wanted Mary as a bridge for his infant son, Edward, but in spite of the ‘rough wooing’ he dealt Scotland – murdering, raping and burning – he never got her. Cut through the topmost battlements is a little circular spy-hole her guardians made for her – so a toddler queen might peek out at her demesne without fear of her ginger curls being spotted by Henry’s agents prowling below.

In due course her own son, fathered by the disastrous Henry Stewart, Lord Darnley, was christened in the Chapel Royal. Soon after his birth she told one of her advisors ‘this is the prince whom I hope shall first unite the two kingdoms of England and Scotland’.

The Scotland in which James was born was Protestant, and yet the rites at his christening, on 17 December 1566, were Catholic. Elizabeth I was his godmother, but stayed away. Darnley had been part of the recent murder of David Riccio, Mary’s favourite courtier, and was as far from Mary’s favour as it was possible to be. He too ducked the ceremony, skulking in corners and would be murdered the following year in Kirk o’Field in Edinburgh.

He was heir to the Lennox Stewarts and claimed by some as a rightful king of Scotland and yet hardly a soul remembers him as such today. Instead of king, or even king consort, he is just Darnley, little more than a cipher. By custom, the priest ought to have spat into baby James’s mouth, but Mary forbade it. No expense was spared, so they say, and the event was marked with the first recorded fireworks display in Scotland.

Recent years at Stirling Castle

In more recent years the castle has been the regimental headquarters of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. They had the great Hall for a barracks, but by 1999 they had moved out and the whole place was restored to glory, the exterior limewashed to golden brilliance so that it shines now like a crown. The interior of the fabulous palace built for French Marie has been restored too and is a wonder to behold – colours so bright it almost hurts to look at them.

Something of the world before survives in Stirling Castle. Because so much of it is what James IV and V made real, their decades hang around the place like dust sheets over furniture worth preserving. Of those two kings – in fact of all the men, women and children of Stirling Castle – I am most affected by James IV. 

in the first year of the sixteenth century, a wandering friar called John Damian presented himself before James at Stirling Castle, claiming among other things that he was an alchemist. James evidently liked him and let him stay. He financed the experiments and lost money to him at cards and marbles. Years passed, however, and no base metals were ever transformed. Possibly in a bid to direct attention from him failings, Damian said he would fly from the castle walls. A crowd gathered. Either by luck or good judgement, he landed in a soft but stinking pile of muck. His leg was broken but he was still alive.

If it ever happened it ought surely to have reminded a well-read man like King James of the Greek legend of Icarus, who flew too close to the sun on similar wings and fell to his death.

In 1513, James embarked upon a grand adventure of his own. Placing too much faith in technology, and in his own prowess, he set in train a sequence of events that would – directly and indirectly – change the destiny of Scotland and of these British isles.

QUICK LINK: Map of Viking Scotland - 800 to 1014AD

Extract taken from The Story of the British Isles in 100 Places by Neil Oliver, published by Penguin.

Mary Queen of Scots magazine

Images copyright DeFacto

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