Day 7 – Wednesday, 25th May
Welcome back loyal Clan! 👍. We’re on the second leg (Day 7) of our Scottish trip, currently staying in the tiny village of Gartocharn (pop. c680).
The road so far… (Click here)
I think I’ll give up looking at the weather forecast here! One minute, blazing sunshine, the next – rain, rain and more rain and then, sunny! 🤔
Today, our plan is to avoid the wet stuff by exploring inside and we have Stirling Castle is in our sights! 👍. It’s only around a forty-minute drive east (around 25 miles) from where we are – and there’s plenty to see there.
10.35:am: We’ve arrived! A pretty straightforward journey along the A811 where true-to-form, we had the now familiar rain, sun, rain and then sun throughout our journey.
This is a major tourist attraction for Scotland. The principal buildings are from the 15th and 16th century whilst there is some evidence of older structures dating back a further 100 years. It has been in royal hands since 1110, although its outer defences are ‘newer’, constructed in the 18th century. It’s been a royal residence and a military barracks too!
Other famous moments in history here include the murder of the Earl of Douglas by James II; the childhood home of Mary Queen of Scots and James I aka James VI of Scotland. In more recent times, it was also home to the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. Since the Highlanders marched away for the last time there has been a lot of effort in returning the Castle to its original magnificence.
10:45am: The Castle opened at 9.30, and it was already starting to get busy when we arrived. Parking is free and if you are already members of English Heritage then the entry fee (normal £18) is slashed to £8.50!
On our way to the meeting point for our Tour we noticed two very contrasting buildings. On the left, the Royal Palace, whilst on the right, The Great Hall (more about both later). So, why the massive difference in colour? Well, to our surprise, the right hand building has been cleaned to reveal the NATURAL colour of the brickwork (sandstone) but coloured with ochre to make it more ‘gold-like’ and ‘fit for a King’.
11:01am: Just as the 11am Tour was about to begin, down came the rain (again!). So, it was just a pity that Jenny, our Guide, had to do her opening piece, err, out in the open!
Our tour began…
After the initial introduction, we were led out to the Forework (the late-medieval frontage). Built in 1500, it was originally, five storeys high and the main facade to the Castle
…and you could immediately appreciate why the castle was built where it was – commanding views for miles. Its main strategic position was to control the crossing of the River Forth to the east, but no-one was going to sneak up on this place from any direction without being spotted! Amazingly, the castle has survived a total of FIFTEEN sieges in its life! 😲
The Great Hall
This is the largest Hall ever built in Scotland (for James IV) completed in 1503. Recent renovations included a complete rebuild of the hammerbeam roof from Scottish Oak – and not a nail in sight!
The Chapel Royal
This was a very spacious Chapel – probably one of the largest we’d ever seen. It was built for James VI in 1594 for the baptism of his first son, Henry.
It had been well-restored and also featured an elaborate frieze added for Charles I in the late 1620s.
The Royal Palace
This was probably the highlight of our visit…
In contrast to many other historic attractions we’ve visited over the years, rather than renovate or restore, here they’d completely rebuilt it on the inside to show how the Royal Palace would have looked when it was brand new!
Well, the rooms were certainly bright! The whole project cost just short of £12m and there was plenty to see. The seven wall-hangings known as the Stirling Tapestries (originally woven around 1500) had been lovingly recreated by West Dean College of Arts & Restoration near Chichester, taking fourteen years to complete. I know nothing about tapestries, but they all looked fantastic! There was so much detail to be enjoyed depicting the hunt for the fabled unicorn.
Staff dressed in period costume helped to bring the rooms to life and it all felt very authentic.
But for us, without doubt, the most impactful part of the Palace was the Stirling Heads – all 37 of them! staring down at you from the ceiling. Like so much else here, they had been completely rebuilt (actually, re-carved) from scratch. In short, 34 of the ‘heads’ survived when the ceiling was removed in 1777. Subsequently, two were destroyed by a fire in the 1940s, but expert Craftsman, John Donaldson, was able to recreate the missing two, just from drawings, whilst the 37th was a depiction of his daughter! Nice touch! 👍. It took him five years to complete the work and it really looked like a ‘labour of love’.
Not all the ‘heads’ are named, but those that are include: Hercules, Julius Caesar, Emperor Titus, James I, James V, Charles V, Margaret Tudor, John – Duke of Albany, Madeleine de Valois, Hercules, Hercules again! Hercules again!! (obviously a Hercules fan!), Putto (nope, me neither), Henry VIII and Mary of Guise, And the best part of all? Many of the original oak medallions ‘heads’ were on display in a special exhibition towards the end of the Palace area. 👍
To give you an idea of how valued the heads are, I read later that these are often referred to as ‘The Crown Jewels of Scotland’. 🙂
Queen Anne Gardens
Dating back some 500 years, these were actually quite small compared with the size of the Castle, but they were well maintained…
…and offered great views of the Castle! Look out for the beech tree that’s more than two centuries old!
12.35pm: We finished our visit with a walk around the Castle Exhibition, a long thin and ‘mind-your-head’ low series of exhibits explaining Castle’s history. It’s located adjacent to the Gardens (I think we probably should have done this first!) and worth it just to set the scene.
Our verdict? A thoroughly worthwhile visit with plenty to see inside as well as out. Loads of staff on-hand who were very knowledgeable and friendly. There were a few other areas we didn’t cover, including: The Tapestry Studio, North Gate and the Great Kitchens but they’re for next time!
No plans as yet for tomorrow – it’s all very weather-dependant! ☔☔
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