Edinburgh Castle may be Scotland’s largest but it’s not necessarily its best. Ruth favored Stirling, which is about 37 miles west of the city of Edinburgh, Scotland’s current capital. I liked Mey best, but Stirling was a very close 2nd.
Stirling Castle sits high on a volcanic crag, the most strategic location in the country, overlooking plains and the town of Stirling, once Scotland’s capital and now often referred to as Gateway to the Highlands. It has been said for millennia that to hold Stirling was to hold Scotland. To be known as impenetrable, of course, meant it was prized, so Stirling was the scene of 15 sieges and two of the most important battles in Scotland’s history–Stirling Bridge and Bannockburn.
Stirling Castle became the favored home for Scottish royalty for centuries, especially for the Stuart line that ended with the death of Queen Anne, the 14th Stuart monarch, who left no heir despite 17 pregnancies. Stirling was the main royal court for Kings James 4 through 6 and Mary Queen of Scots.
All of the James came to bad ends. James I was trapped and killed in a sewer tunnel. Its exit had been blocked to keep tennis balls from being lost. I didn’t make that up! A cannon exploded and killed James II. James III either died from falling off a horse or being slain by enemy soldiers in the Battle of Sauchieburn. Influenced by the Renaissance and the palaces of other kings, James IV created much of the castle seen today. His alchemist John Damian, fearing loss of sponsorship, tried to fly off the castle walls, but his wings didn’t work. Luckily, he plummeted into a royal rubbish heap, which broke his fall. James V, whose rule began in 1528, needed money and married for dowries. He used to put on his kilt and sneak into town to have a good time with the peasants. His 2nd wife, Mary of Guise, bore him 2 sons who both died in infancy. He reportedly died of “nervous collapse” after a defeat in battle. However, he had a six-day-old daughter to succeed him–Mary Queen of Scots. In the next decade, Mary of Guise relocated to Edinburgh’s Holyroodhouse, which meant that Mary Queen of Scots, barely a year old, was crowned in Stirling Castle and grew up there. James VI, son of Mary Queen of Scots, became James I of England and died of dysentery complicated by arthritis, gout, and kidney stones. Later there was a James VII.
Stirling Castle musts include a tour. Because it’s so big and crowded, you won’t learn much just wandering around. Also, take the time to explore the Royal Palace. Six royal apartments have received a complete redo so they look as much as possible like MQoS’s childhood home. They reopened to the public in 2011 with costumed characters to provide information.
Seven hand-woven 16th century tapestries named Hunt of the Unicorn are being painstakingly duplicated by weavers. Some of them work in a studio at Stirling Castle. This project was supposed to be done by the end of 2013, but when we were there in July they were still weaving away. The original tapestries hang in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Check out the dark, authentic looking kitchens where staged preparations for a royal feast are underway.
Climb up into the 1503 Great Hall that’s painted a sickly shade of gold to arrest water damage. Mary Queen of Scots threw a 3 day party with a Camelot theme here that ended in a drunken fight. No nails, just wooden pegs, were used in its construction, a major engineering feat.
To go to Scotland and not see 5 Compass Stirling Castle is a bad idea.