Stirling Castle

Stirling castle crowns Castle Hill, an intrusive igneous crag.  Like Edinburgh it is surrounded on three sides by steep cliffs, giving it a strong defensive position.  Its strategic location, guarding what was, until the 1890s, the farthest downstream crossing of the River Forth.  Consequently it has been suggested that this made it an important fortification from the earliest times.  Several Scottish kings and queens have been crowned at Stirling, including Mary Queen of Scots in 1542.

Stirling castle is built on a formation of quartz-dolerite rock which is around 350 million years old.  This was subsequently modified by glaciation to form a "crag and tail" just like Edinburgh castle 32 miles away.  Despite various claims there is no archaeological evidence for occupation of Castle Hill before the medieval period.  Stirling was often know as Snowdoun as is shown by the works of William Worcester in the mid fifteenth 

Stirling first enters history, rather than fantasy, around 1110 when King Alexander I dedicated a chapel at the castle.  It appears to have been an established royal centre by this time, as Alexander died here in 1124.  During the reign of David I (1124-53), Stirling became a royal burgh and the castle an important administration centre.  King William I (1165-1214) formed a deer park to the south-west of the castle, but after his capture at Alnwick in 1174 he was forced to surrender several castles, including Stirling and Edinburgh to King Henry II (1154-89), under the treaty of Falaise.  There seem to be no records for the garrisoning of the castle - although Edinburgh (castellum Puellarum) was garrisoned at a cost of £26 13s 4d in 1175 - and all the castles were formally sold back to William by Richard I of England in 1189.  Stirling continued to be a favoured royal residence, with William himself dying there in 1214.  Alexander III (1249-86) laid out the New Park for deer hunting in the 1260s.

In 1291 King Edward I (1272-1307) demanded and received Stirling, together with the other royal castles of Scotland, be put under his control during his arbitration over who should be king of Scotland under him.  Edward as judge and his barons, English, Welsh, Scottish and French, as jury, gave judgement in favour of John Balliol.  However, when John refused to help Edward collect troops for warfare in France or honour the agreements he had entered into concerning the legal governing of the kingdom, it caused Edward to invade Scotland and depose its king as a rebellious subject.  Edward found Stirling castle abandoned and occupied it.  After the victory of Andrew Moray (d.1297) and William Wallace (d.1305) at the battle of Stirling Bridge in September 1297, the royalist commanders, William Fitz Warin (d.1299), a grandson of Fulk Fitz Warin (d.1198) of Whittington, who had been made constable of Urquhart castle, and Marmaduke Thweng (d.1323), retreated into the castle where they were starved into surrender by the rebels and sent as prisoners to Dumbarton.  The castle was reclaimed by Edward I after his 22 July 1298 victory at Falkirk, but was besieged again in 1299 and forced to surrender.

It was only in April 1304 that King Edward decided to take Stirling castle again, this time he was accompanied by at least 17 siege engines including giant ballista and mangonels with names such as Segrave, Forster and Robinet.  The king also hazzarded himself during the action, once having his garments and saddle pierced by a quarrel and once by being thrown from his horse when the defenders scored a near miss with a catapult.  Finally the defenders, under William Oliphant (d.1329), surrendered on 20 July, but were ordered back into the castle by Edward, as he had not yet deployed his latest engine, 'Warwolf' - supposedly a large trebuchet, but as these had been in England since the days of King John, this seems rather unlikely.  When the garrison surrendered unconditionally, Edward granted the men their lives, except for the man who had betrayed the castle to Wallace four years previously as he was a traitor.

King Edward died a year after Robert Bruce's 1306 revolt and Edward's son had neither the inclination nor the ability to continue to govern Scotland.  By 1313, only Stirling, Roxburgh, Edinburgh and Berwick castles remained to him in Scotland.  Edward Bruce, the king's brother, laid siege to Stirling, which was held by Philip Mowbray (d.1318).  Hard pressed, Mowbray agreed to surrender the castle if it were not relieved by 24 June 1314.  The consequence was the battle of Bannockburn fought by Edward II's relieving army on 23-24 June within sight of the castle walls.  Although Mowbray could have claimed that Edward coming within sight of the castle constituted its being relieved, he surrendered the castle and his person to King Robert Bruce.  In turn Robert ordered the castle to be slighted to prevent its reoccupation by Edwardian forces at a later date.

The castle site fell to the forces of Edward Balliol, the son of King John, after his great victory over the Scottish regents at the battle of Dupplin Moor in 1332.  In 1336 Thomas Rokeby was captain and indulging in extensive works, probably repairing the damage done in 1314.  Andrew Murray of Bothwell attempted a siege in 1337, when guns may have been used for the first time by the Scots.  However, it was Robert Stewart (d.1390), the future King Robert II, who retook Stirling in the siege of 1341–1342.  In the aftermath Maurice Murray was appointed as keeper.  In 1360 Robert Forsyth was appointed governor of Stirling castle, an office he passed on to his son, John, and grandson, William, who was governor in 1399.

It is said that Earl Robert Stewart of Menteith, the regent of Scotland as brother of Robert III (d.1406), undertook works on the north and south gates as the earliest surviving masonry on the site.  In 1424, Stirling castle was part of the jointure (marriage settlement) given to James I's wife, Joan Beaufort.  This established a tradition which later monarchs continued.  After James' murder in 1437, Joan took shelter within the castle with her son, the young James II.  Fifteen years later, in 1452, it was at Stirling castle that James stabbed and killed William, the eighth earl of Douglas, when the latter refused to end a potentially treasonous alliance with Earl John of Ross and Earl Alexander Lindsay of Crawford.  King James III was born here and later undertook works to the gardens and the chapel royal.  Like Edinburgh, the manufacture of artillery in the castle is recorded in 1475.  King James' wife, Margaret of Denmark, died within the fortress in 1486.  Two years later James himself died at the battle of Sauchieburn, fought over almost the same ground as the battle of Bannockburn, just to the south of the castle.

Most of the standing masonry of the current castle is said to have been constructed between 1490 and 1600.  The architecture of these new buildings shows an eclectic mix of English, French and German influences.  James IV (1488–1513) kept a full Renaissance court at Stirling as he sought to establish a palace of European standing.  Although he also undertook building works at the royal residences of Edinburgh, Falkland and Linlithgow, his grandest works were at Stirling and included the King's Old Building, the Great Hall, and the Forework.  He also renovated the chapel royal, one of the two churches within the castle at this time.  In 1501 he even received approval from the pope for the establishment of a college of priests.  The Forework, of which little now remains, was derived from French military architecture, although some details were added more for style than for defence.  If a satirical account in two poems by the poet William Dunbar is based on fact, the castle walls may have been the site of an attempt at human-powered flight about 1509, by the Italian alchemist and abbot of Tongland, John Damian.  King James also kept an alchemist called Caldwell maintaining a furnace for quinta essencia, the mythical fifth element, at the castle.

The building works begun by James had not been completed at the time of his death at the battle of Flodden in 1513.  His successor, James V (1513–1542), was crowned in the chapel royal and grew up in the castle under the guardianship of Lord Erskine.  In 1515, the Regent Albany brought 7,000 men to Stirling to wrest control of the young king from his mother, Margaret Tudor.  Despite this, the king continued expanding his father's building programme, creating the centrepiece of the castle, the Royal Palace, built under the direction of Sir James Hamilton of Finnart and masons brought in from France.  James V also died young, leaving the unfinished work to be completed by his widow, Mary of Guise.  His infant daughter, Mary Queen of Scots, was brought to Stirling castle for safety, and crowned in the chapel royal on 9 September 1543.  She too was brought up here until she was sent to Inchmahome priory and then to France in 1548.  When Anglo-French hostilities spread into Scotland, artillery fortifications were added to the south approach of the castle.  These form the basis of the present outer defences.

Queen Mary returned to Scotland in 1561 and then visited Stirling castle frequently. She nursed Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley, through an illness here in 1565, before the two were married.  Their son, James VI, was baptised here in 1566.  After Darnley's murder, Mary was travelling from Stirling when she was abducted by the earl of Bothwell, beginning the chain of events that led to her forced abdication and flight to England.

After the queen's flight the young King James VI was crowned in the nearby church of the Holy Rude, and grew up within the castle walls under the tutelage of the humanist scholar George Buchanan.  Frequently used as a pawn in the struggles between his regents and the supporters of Mary, the young king was closely guarded.  Stirling became the base for James' supporters, while those nobles who wished to see Queen Mary restored gathered at Edinburgh, under William Kirkcaldy of Grange.  Grange led a raid on Stirling in 1571, attempting to round up the Queen's enemies, but failed to gain control of the castle or the king.

The keeper of the castle, Alexander Erskine of Gogar, was ejected by supporters of Regent Morton in April 1578, after his son was fatally wounded during a struggle at the gate.  The rebellious earls of Mar and Angus seized the castle in 1584, but surrendered and fled to England when the king arrived with an army.  They returned the following year, forcing the king to surrender, although they proclaimed their loyalty to him.  King James' first child, Henry, was born in the castle in 1594, and the present Chapel Royal was constructed for his baptism on 30 August.  The chapel completed the quadrangle of the Inner Close.  Like his predecessors Henry spent his childhood here under the second earl of Mar, until the Union of the Crowns of 1603, when his father succeeded as king of England and the royal family left for London.

After the king's departure, Stirling's role as a residence declined and it became principally a military centre.  It was used as a prison for persons of rank during the seventeenth century, but did not feature in the civil and religious wars of the 1630s and 1640s.  Following the execution of Charles I, the Scots crowned his son as Charles II, and he became the last reigning monarch to stay here, living at the castle in 1650.  The Royalist forces were defeated at Dunbar by those of Oliver Cromwell, before the king marched south to defeat at Worcester.  General Monck laid siege to the castle on 6 August 1651, erecting gun platforms in the adjacent churchyard.  After the garrison mutinied, Colonel William Conyngham was obliged to surrender on 14 August.  Damage done during the siege can still be seen on the church and the great hall.

Although garrisoned by the government during the first Jacobite rising, the castle saw no fighting.  In the second Jacobite rising of 1745, the rebel army marched past Stirling on the way to Edinburgh and the south.  Following the Jacobites' retreat from England, they returned to Stirling in January 1746, where the town soon surrendered.  The castle governor refused to capitulate and artillery works were set up on Gowan Hill.  These were quickly destroyed by the castle's guns and the Jacobites withdrew north on 1 February, effectively ending the castle's military career.

The outer defences comprise artillery fortifications and were built in their present form in the eighteenth century, although some parts, including the French spur at the east end, date back to the regency of Mary of Guise in the 1550s.  The spur was originally an ear-shaped bastion known as an orillon and contained gun emplacements which protected the main spur.  This projection was fronted by an earth ramp called a talus, which was entered via a drawbridge over a ditch.  Excavations in the 1970s showed that much of the original stonework remains within the eighteenth 
century defences.

Following the attempted Jacobite invasion of 1708, improvements to the castle's defences were ordered and completed by 1714.  The main result was that the front wall was extended outwards to form Guardhouse Square.  This had the effect of creating two defensive walls, both of which were fronted by ditches defended by covered firing galleries known as caponiers.  One of the caponiers survives and is accessible from Guardhouse Square by a narrow staircase.  To the rear of the walls, chambers called casemates were built to strengthen the wall, and to provide gun emplacements.  The French spur was modified slightly to allow more cannons to be mounted.

The gatehouse, providing entry from the outer defences to the castle proper, was only finished around 1506.  It originally formed part of a forework, extending as a curtain wall across the whole width of Castle Hill.  At the centre is the gatehouse itself, which now stands to less than half its original height.  The round towers at the outer corners rose to conical roofs, with battlements carried around the tops of the towers.  These were flanked by more round towers, of which only traces now remain.  There were further round towers at the rear of the gatehouse, making it a square tower with 4 corner turrets and the gate passageway in between.  The overall design, as drawn by John Slezer in 1693, shows French influence, and has parallels with the forework erected at Linlithgow palace.  Like this, the forework was probably intended more for show than for serious defence, as it would have offered little protection against contemporary artillery - either that or the original defences are merely refaced and much older than is currently reckoned.  The entrance to the ward was via a central passage, flanked by two separate pedestrian passages.  This triple arrangement was unusual in its time.  Classical triumphal arches have been suggested as an influence.  The gatehouse was dismantled gradually, and then consolidated in its present form in 1810. 

The gatehouse is coated in a fine ashlar, which is totally different to the rubble built curtain walls that begin 20' either side of it.  Just beyond these junctions there were semi-circular projecting towers similar to the ones on the gatehouse.  However these are faced in well-laid rubble.  Adjoining the south-west tower is the plinth of the older curtain which runs off to the rectangular Prince's Tower.  This is overlain by ashlar of a similar quality to that which coats the gatehouse.  At each end of the curtain wall is a rectangular tower.  The west tower, known as the Prince's Tower, survives to its full height, and is now attached to the later palace.  At the east end, the Elphinstone Tower contained a kitchen and possibly an officer's lodging.  It was cut down to form a gun battery, probably in the early eighteenth 
century, when the outer defences were rebuilt.  This marks the extent of the surviving medieval castle.

Within the forework is a courtyard known as the outer close, containing eighteenth 
century structures.  The early north gate, giving access to the nether or lower bailey, contained the original castle kitchens, which were probably linked to the great hall.  The kitchen which is now visible was constructed later.  In 1689 these rooms were infilled to provide gun emplacements.  To the west of the outer close, the main parts of the castle are arranged around the quadrangular inner close: the royal palace to the south, the king's old building on the west, the chapel royal to the north, and the great hall to the east.

The oldest part of the inner close is thought to be the king's old building, on the west side.  This was complete by 1497.  It was begun as a new residential range by James IV and originally comprised an L shaped building.  The principal rooms were on the first floor, over cellars and included two chambers with wide open views to the west.  The projecting stair tower has an octagonal upper section, which was copied for a second, later stair tower on the same building.  In 1855, the 
north end of the building burned down, and was rebuilt in a ‘baronial style'.  At the south-west end of the range is a linking building, once used as kitchens, which is on a different alignment to both the king's old building and the adjacent royal palace.  It has been suggested that this is an earlier fifteenth century structure.  Excavations within this building revealed burials, suggesting that this may have been the site of a church or chapel.  The skeletons found, all buried with dignity, seem to have mostly met gruesome ends and were thought to have been members of the garrison mainly beaten to death in isolated groups.  One was a woman who had been knifed.  Many were shown to have been from the early fourteenth century.

On the east side of the inner close is the great or parliament hall.  This was built by James IV following on from the completion of the king's old building in 1497 and was being plastered by 1503.  It represents the first example of Renaissance influenced royal architecture in Scotland and was worked on by a number of English craftsmen, being comparable to Edward IV's hall at Eltham palace, built in the late 1470s.  It includes Renaissance details within a conventional medieval plan.  Inside are five fireplaces and large side windows lighting the dais end.  It is 138' by 47' across, making it the largest such hall in Scotland.

To the west of the fourteenth 
century gatehouse, forming the south side of the inner close, is the royal palace.  It was begun in the 1530s and was largely complete by the time of James V's death in December 1542.  The architecture of this is French inspired, but the decoration is more German.  The statues include a line of soldiers on the south parapet and a series of full size figures around the principal floor.  These include a portrait of James V, the devil, St Michael and representations of Venus and several planetary deities.  Internally, the palace comprises two apartments, one for the king and one for the queen.

The collegiate chapel established by James IV in 1501 lay between the king's old Building and the great hall, but was further south than the present building.  This was the chapel in which Queen Mary was crowned in 1543.  After this a new building was erected within a year, 
north of the old site to improve access to the hall.  This too was later modified for military use, housing a dining room.  The wall paintings were rediscovered in the 1930s, and restoration began after the Second World War.

Beyond the 
north gate, the nether bailey occupies the north end of Castle Hill.  Surrounded by defensive walls, the area contains a nineteenth century guard house and gunpowder stores as well as the modern tapestry studio.  There was formerly access to the nether bailey from Ballengeich to the west, until the postern was blocked in response to the threat of Jacobite rebellion.     

Due to its similar appearance to Colditz castle in Saxony, the castle was used to film the exterior shots for the 1970s TV series Colditz.

Why not join me at Stirling and other Great Scottish Castles this Spring?  Information on tours at Scholarly Sojourns.


Copyright©2016 Paul Martin Remfry