The History of Stirling Castle, Scotland

Dominating the landscape, Stirling Castle has been a royal palace and military fortess. More recently, its history has made it a popular visitor attraction.

Castles, in the shape of the fortified buildings which we know today, came to Scotland only in the twelfth century (Chris Tabraham). There was certainly a royal fortress at Stirling by 1214 and it later became not only a (not altogether successful) defensive site in Scotland’s wars with the English but also a palace for Scotland’s royalty. Its military role continued into the second half of the twentieth century.

The Strategic Location of Stirling Castle

Stirling Castle sits on a volcanic crag of rock dominating the flat valley of the river Forth. Commanding a major route between the central lowlands and northern Scotland (main roads northward from both Edinburgh and Glasgow meet here) its strategic advantages are immediately obvious, and though the castle itself is a mere 900 years old, it may well have been a defended site for much longer (Tabraham).

For all its defensive strengths, Stirling Castle proved anything but impregnable. During the Wars of Independence in the late twelfth/early thirteenth centuries it changed hands repeatedly: indeed, Robert the Bruce ordered the destruction of its existing defences so that it couldn’t be held against him. Eventually it was held by the Scots once more and remained with them until the Civil War, when it again changed hands.

The massive defensive walls which characterise the castle date from some centuries later, although written accounts of the 1460s indicate that extensive building work was taking place at the time and the huge entrance gateway defences, topped with cannons, which greet the modern visitor were built in the early sixteenth century (Stirling Castle website).

Royal Stirling Castle, Home and Palace

Stirling was more than a defensive fortress: it was a preferred home of the Stewart dynasty for hundreds of years and, as such, functioned as a home for the royal household. Scotland’s great Renaissance king, James IV, was responsible for the building of the castle’s dominant (and recently refurbished) Great Hall. The main location for living and entertaining (and once the venue for the Scottish parliament) the hall is the oldest remaining building in the castle.

James’s son and successor, James V, continued to expand the castle’s domestic building programme and was responsible for the construction of the magnificent Royal Palace, described by the Collins Encyclopaedia of Scotland as ‘the finest Renaissance building in Scotland’. Equally impressive is the Chapel Royal, rebuilt by James VI for the baptism of his first child.

Stirling Castle was home to some of the most famous characters of Scotland’s history. It was the childhood home of the unhappy Mary Queen of Scots and (after her abdication) her son James VI. But all was not domestic bliss: the castle was the location for many acts of folly (such as the attempt by one man to fly from its ramparts) and violence (such as the treacherous assassination of the Earl of Douglas in 1452).

The Later History of Stirling Castle

With the accession of James VI of Scotland to the throne of England in 1603, the role of Stirling changed. James made London the centre of his court and so the castle was stripped of the glorious function of a royal palace, reverting to a military structure. The outer defences were substantially strengthened during the early eighteenth century, no doubt contributing to its successful defence by Hanoverian troops during the Jacobite rebellions.

The castle reverted thereafter to a purely military role, becoming an army barracks and later a military depot. It passed into the care of the Ministry of Works in 1906. By then many of its historic buildings, most notably the Royal Palace and the Great Hall, had been adapted for military use or had fallen into disrepair.

Now in the ownership of Historic Scotland, the castle’s museums and displays complement an ongoing programme of restoration which has seen its major buildings, including the Great Hall and the Chapel Royal returned to something close to their original condition.

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