‘Who does not know its noble rock, rising, the monarch of the landscape…’ – James Johnson, 1834, on Stirling Castle
A few weeks ago my partner and I escaped Edinburgh for the first time in a long time, and we decided to take a jaunt to the nearby city of Stirling. Stirling was the medieval capital of Scotland and historically it was like a gateway between the Highlands and the Lowlands. There’s an old saying that ‘He who holds Stirling, holds Scotland’. So it was a strategic site…the perfect place to build a castle! And Stirling Castle was our first stop on our visit there. A mighty fortress perched on a craggy hilltop which, I have to say, exceeded my expectations!
Not only was there lots of cool 18th century historical stuff to learn about there, but also stories and buildings dating from much earlier too: the 1500s, 1600s. What I did find was that the castle is LARGE, bigger (if I remember correctly) than Edinburgh Castle. I think if we hadn’t had our trusty Lonely Planet guide book with us (we’re old school and carry around the physical book), I would have felt a bit overwhelmed and unsure where to start. The book (quite helpfully) had a recommended itinerary for going through the castle, which we roughly followed.
If you are like me, I’d probably recommend giving yourself a good few hours (if not the entire day or afternoon) to explore the castle itself. It’s worth going for the views alone.
Here are a couple of our favorite things from our Castle explorations…
Firstly, I’d recommend that you get coffee on your way up to the castle. Because coffee is delicious. I’d recommend Unorthodox Roasters which we grabbed on the way and it was really nice. Another super lovely coffee shop and bookstore we visited while in Stirling was called The Book Nook.
Once you’ve actually arrived to the castle itself, I’d say head to the ‘Castle Exhibition’ first. It is this giant multi-room display which features a timeline of all the Scottish Kings and Queens of yore. I have lived here for ten years, I love history, and I cannot keep it all straight, so this is a brilliant refresher. It was also there that I learned about Jane Ferrier, an 18th century lady from Edinburgh who lived at the castle and developed a fascination with the ‘Stirling Heads’ (carved oak decorations that covered the palace ceiling) and eventually made a book about them! I’d love to do a Madeira Mondays all about her…
After that, we took in the wonderful views. Then headed to the Tapestry Studio. The unicorn tapestries at Stirling Castle are probably the coolest thing that we learned about/saw. The Studio is where, for many years, the castle employed modern day weavers to use an actual loom to weave giant unicorn tapestries by hand, to replicate tapestries that had once been housed in the castle. It took them over 13 years. They hand dyed the wool, they wove it all by hand! You used to be able to see them working in the studio but now…they’re done! You can still visit the studio but the actual, finished tapestries are in the Royal Palace.
This whole story was amazing. I only wished I could have seen the real weavers at work!
Another place we stopped was the kitchens, which were quite transportive. It was very dark in there so I couldn’t get a good photograph, but it was full of stone figures who represented real people who worked in the kitchens. These figures were frozen in mid-motion: some cooking, some carrying things or berating other servants. There was fake food, noises of plates and animals and fires were playing the background and it was all very, very atmospheric. It was almost like they were ghosts, quite honestly! It was a tad spooky but really brilliant and gave a good sense of the chaos and hustle of that environment.
Lastly, I’d recommend checking out the Royal Palace and seeing those ‘Stirling Heads’ that Jane Ferrier was so fascinated by. (If I recall correctly, the originals are housed in a small, separate display, at the castle, and these are replicas hanging on the ceiling!).
Finally, when you’ve made your way through the castle, I’d recommend walking five minutes down from the castle to the Settle Inn, which is an incredible 18th century pub! Truly you feel like you are stepping back in time. Low wooden beams, crackling fire…it reminded me of the Benbow Inn from Treasure Island. I would NOT skip it if you love history and find yourself in Stirling.
I hope that you enjoyed this wee jaunt to Stirling Castle and that the recommendations are helpful if you do visit. It’s got 18th century history and SO much more.
Recommended Further Reading:
– You can book a trip to the castle here if you’re in Stirling
– My trip to Culloden Battlefield in 2020
‘Madeira Mondays’ is a series of blog posts exploring 18th century history and historical fiction. Follow the blog for a new post on the first Monday of every month! Thanks for reading.