Stirling Castle, Scotland

Stirling Castle

(Photo credit: Stirling Castle, Scotland, courtesy of Bob Travis, Flickr Creative Commons)

September 9 is a pretty big day in Scottish history, thanks to two big events that occurred in the 16th century, both of which involved Scottish monarchs: James IV and Mary, Queen of Scots. This day in 1513 saw a catastrophic defeat for Scotland, with James IV’s army being smashed by the English forces at Flodden Field; 30 years later to the day saw the crowning of his granddaughter Mary (at the age of nine months old) at Stirling Castle. Actually, it’s Stirling Castle I really wanted to talk about. There’s been some sort of stronghold there for maybe 1400 years, though the earliest existing structures date back to about 1490.

James IV, who saw himself as a cosmopolitan European-style king, was responsible for kicking off much of the construction from this period. After he died (at Flodden, sadly) the work was continued by his successor, James V, and later James VI (Mary’s son, who eventually became king of both Scotland and England—the guy the “King James Bible” is named after). These early Scottish Stuart kings, who weren’t complete idiots (see later), turned Stirling into an important royal center. Mary was crowned in the royal chapel (now sadly gone). She stayed in the castle for about 5 years until she was sent to France.

Today Stirling Castle is a scheduled ancient monument, and it’s open to tourists thanks to Historic Scotland, an agency of the Scottish government with some similar responsibilities to the National Park Service in the States. I was last there in 1999, when they were still renovating the Great Hall, the huge sandy pink-painted banqueting hall built by James IV and the centerpiece of the castle. One of the problems with touring around to visit monuments is that all too often by the time you get there someone has closed it or restricted access or covered it with scaffolding and an enormous scrim, so your experience is going to be a bit limited. It’s not always easy to just “come back in a couple of years” when it’ll all be finished. Fortunately that wasn’t too much of a problem at the time I went, since the work was advanced enough that the tour guide could let us go into part of the Great Hall and see the work in progress. Still, I’d love to take another look at the place now that the work is done. This is a castle that really feels like a Proper Castle. The Outer Defences, largely expanded in the 18th century, include impressive artillery fortifications, bastions, and casemates.

Stirling Castle is an amazing set of structures, made even more impressive by being built on a massive crag that sticks out of the alluvial carse of this part of central Scotland. The view from the castle is pretty stunning, encompassing a big swathe of central Scotland. However, for Scots, as for the Irish and the Welsh, castles in general bring to mind a mixed bag of nationalist emotions, and Stirling is no exception. The castle was made great by a Scottish royal dynasty, the Stuarts, and in particular James IV, perhaps one of the best Scottish monarchs ever (notwithstanding his decision to fight the English at Flodden). But his descendants weren’t always regarded as the sharpest knives in the drawer. When the Stuarts went on to rule both kingdoms of Scotland and England for much of the 17th century, they shifted their attention to the richer, southern kingdom and largely ignored their dynastic home. You could also say that their royal leadership qualities were also called into question inasmuch as two of them were “relieved of their command:” Charles I, James VI’s son, was tried and executed by Parliament in 1649, during the Wars of the Three Kingdoms (the English Civil War); and James II was deposed in 1688’s Glorious Revolution and fled to Ireland. So by the early18th century the Hanoverians were firmly in charge in London. And while Stirling Castle had stood defiantly as a Scottish fortress in the 16th century, by the time of the First and Second Jacobite uprisings (in 1715 and 1745) it was a defiantly British fortress used to help in subjugation of rebellious Scots. (Bonnie Prince Charlie in 1745 failed to seize the castle, marching past it on his way to Edinburgh and then south to England, on his vainglorious and ultimately disastrous decision to try to retake the English crown.) The castle remained a center of the British Army up to the recent past: It’s no longer garrisoned, but it remains the regimental home of the Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders. Mixed feelings, indeed.


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