Stirling Castle is one of the largest and most important castles in Scotland. It is situated on a crag, or small hill, close to Stirling, in the county of Stirlingshire. It has been one of Scotland’s most important fortresses since it was first built about 2,500 years ago by the Picts. Today’s blog explores Stirling castle history.
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The castle is thought to have been built on the site of an earlier fortification that controlled a crossing point over the River Forth. It was a property of the Scottish Crown from very early times (the first reference to its ownership being in 906). King James II created Stirling Castle a royal burgh with its own Provost and Council in 1457, making it one of the oldest towns in Scotland.
The castle was captured by King Edward I of England in 1296 and remained a royal castle until the Union of Crowns of 1603. It is Scotland’s largest castle, is roughly circular in shape and dominates the surrounding area.
The Castle is an excellent example of Scottish Baronial architecture with its many towers, including the “Princes’ Tower” (where the royal princes were often imprisoned), and a central “Great Tower” (the entrance to which was once flanked by two large semi-circular bastions). One of these bastions is externally complete with a decorative spire. The Great Tower houses the Honours of Scotland, the Scottish Crown Jewels, on public display for the first time. The Castle has been described as having “an incredible array of gun loops, battlements and batteries”.
The castle has been much altered over the years and during the Commonwealth. The interiors were restored in 1828 when many of the Tudor apartments were cleared away to make way for more adequate living quarters.
Stirling Castle was an important royal fortress long before it was developed into a royal palace. Its position, guarding what was, until the 1890s, the farthest downstream crossing of the River Forth, has made it one of the most strategically important strongholds in Scotland. Stirling Castle was at one time the key stronghold of the Kingdom of Alba (Scotland).
The original castle was built in the late 11th century by Máel Coluim III (died 1034) and was occupied by King William I (1072-1093). The castle had been constructed on a small hillock which is naturally defensible and may already have been fortified; there is no archeological evidence for a large pre-12th century fortification on top of pinnacle rock. The site of the castle is naturally defended on three sides, by steep cliffs and the final fourth side, the south-east, by a valley now occupied by Stirling town centre. As such, it occupied a strong defensive position atop an isolated crag and is visible from nearly all directions.
The castle was first besieged in 1101 during Máel Coluim’s reign when it was attacked by his northern neighbour Alexander I of Scotland (reigned 1107-1124) during a war between Alexander and Thorfinn Sigurdsson, Earl of Orkney. The siege was not successful and the defenders were able to retreat into the safety of the castle. Alexander invaded again in 1103, when the castle was still held by Máel Coluim, who had taken refuge in it. There is no record of what happened to Máel Coluim and it is presumed that he died within Stirling Castle that same year.
In 1124, during the reign of David I (reigned 1124-1153), the future King Máel Coluim IV (died 1165) – son of Alexander’s successor, David – was imprisoned there after being captured by Earl Óengus of Moray in a civil war. Although it is said that the barracks of the castle collapsed. Stirling Castle was probably already a royal castle at this time.
David was succeeded by his second surviving son, William I (reigned 1165-1214), who captured the fortress from his brother Alexander I in 1209 during a struggle for control of Scotland; this may have necessitated some rebuilding work. Stirling, along with Roxburgh Castle, was one of William’s primary residences.
In 1255, during the minority of King Alexander III (reigned 1249-1286), Stirling was captured by the Englishman William de Ypres, a mercenary captain in the service of the English king Henry III. During the interregnum period in Scotland, Sir William Wallace captured and refortified Stirling Castle after defeating the English garrison occupying it in 1297. He held it for a short time before being defeated at Falkirk by an army containing many Englishmen and led by John de Warenne, 6th Earl of Surrey and Edward Longshanks (later King Edward I of England). Wallace was taken prisoner and sent to London for execution.
By the late 14th century, the castle’s defences were considered to be some of the best in Scotland and it was seen as being impregnable to any attack. At this time, the castle garrison comprised royal troops including members of several noble families that served as a focal point for defence of Stirling against raids from neighbouring clans and English armies during periods of war with England. There are no surviving records of expenditure on Stirling Castle and its upkeep during this period. After 1314, there is little evidence that Stirling Castle was occupied until King James I returned to Scotland in 1424. The Battle of Bannockburn in 1314 and the subsequent fall of Stirling to the English meant that Scotland’s new-found independence under David II, while affirmed by the English king Edward III (reigned 1327-1377), was not recognised within much of England. David II returned to a kingdom still at war with England. He had French and Middle Irish troops fight his Scottish enemies while he sat back and watched their destructive campaign from his castle at Perth.
In 1337, David II was forced into exile when his position became untenable due to his inability to defeat an English army during the siege of Berwick upon Tweed.
In 1371, David II was defeated by the English at the Battle of Neville’s Cross. The next year in May, after a siege of six weeks, Stirling Castle surrendered to an English force led by Henry Percy ‘Hotspur’ and his father the Earl of Northumberland. Robert Stuart (‘King’ Robert II) surrendered on terms with honour and was subsequently imprisoned for almost eleven years and fined 50,000 marks by King Edward III (reigned 1327-1377), who laid waste to much of southern Scotland. By 1379, these terms were revised: further significant payments due went into abeyance as he agreed to forfeit Stirling Castle again in return for being released from prison. In February 1382 it was finally returned to Robert II, who was now frequently resident at Stirling.
The castle consists of four towers, a corner tower known as the King’s Whetstone (or King’s Old Whetstone) and the Governor’s Tower. All four towers were built by James IV.
The oldest part of the castle is Stirling Tower, also called Barbour’s tower, which was built in 1496 by master mason John Barbour on the foundations of an earlier building probably dating from the reign of James III (reigned 1460–88). Barbour is credited with rebuilding the Governor’s Lodging into its current form and he may have been responsible for the round stair tower. The Great Hall was built by French mason Thomas Randolph between 1501 and 1512.
In August 1547, Cardinal Beaton sought refuge in Stirling Castle after his defeat at the Battle of Pinkie. However, he was betrayed by his own men and handed over to an English force led by Richard Lee and his nephew Sir Henry Sidney on 23 September 1547. Beaton was subsequently imprisoned in the Tower of London, where he died on 1 August 1579.
The castle continued as a royal residence until the reign of James VI (reigned 1567–1625). James was probably born at Dunfermline in 1566 while his mother, Mary, Queen of Scots, lived in the castle. After his accession to the English throne in 1603, James granted several charters allowing faires to be held in the town; he visited Dunfermline ten years later on 9 July 1613. After 1603 the castle no longer served as a royal residence and fell into decline; it was used more as a military base. During the Wars of the Three Kingdoms, Oliver Cromwell is said to have stayed at Dunfermline for six weeks in 1650 after his victory over Charles II at Battle of Inverkeithing (1651). Cromwell swept through Scotland in a campaign that culminated in the battle of Worcester (1651). Historian Robert Wodrow stated that Cromwell’s forces stayed at the castle after the battle of Inverness (1650) and then spent fifteen days at Dunfermline before heading to Glasgow. It is possible that Cromwell visited Stirling Castle briefly but there is no evidence to suggest he stayed for a longer period.
The Governor’s Tower was built by James IV between 1501 and 1512. It contains private apartments, including the King’s Gallery where James VI would immortalise himself by painting an image of himself holding a scepter and orb, as well as rooms used by Charles I during his stay.
The King’s Old Building is one of the oldest parts of the castle; it was built by James II in 1460 and formed part of the royal apartments. It contains private chambers for the King, Queen and their court; a chapel; as well as a painted chamber built by James IV to immortalise his coronation. The King’s Old Building was restored during the 20th century to house public displays, including items from the British Crown Jewels, personal possessions of Mary, Queen of Scots, and displays relating to Scottish Crown Jewels.
The Princes Tower is a late 14th-century building built by Robert Stewart, Duke of Albany in 1384 when he was Regent for his nephew David II until 1388. The tower was the main entrance to the castle in this period, and at its base are the Royal Apartments. The Princes Tower has been described as “the most perfectly preserved medieval tower in all of Europe”. The walls of the tower are thick and highly decorated, featuring carvings of flowers, animals, grotesques and biblical scenes dating from its inception.
The Great Gallery was built by James IV between 1507 and 1512 as a ceremonial entrance to Stirling Castle’s royal apartments. It is located above the gatehouse entrance set into the Governor’s Tower. It was later used as a bedchamber for Charles I. It is a long rectangular room, around , with walls over high. There are three windows, the two at the south provide views of the King’s Old Building and Jacob’s Ladder, while the window at the north has a view of the Great Mound. In 1693, Jacobite supporters painted murals depicting themes from Scottish history on its walls.
The King’s Gallery and a bedroom were built by James V in 1532 as part of additions to the Great Tower; it may have been used by him or his eldest son, Prince Alexander Stewart (died 1541). The private apartments contain bedchambers and the Great Gallery, as well as a longer gallery. The King’s Gallery was decorated by Robert Scott and David Watson in 1774 to celebrate his marriage to Princess Maria Amalia of Saxony.
During World War II, Stirling Castle was used by the British Army for storage of weapons and ammunition. In 1956 the castle was used as a training location for troops during Operation Musketeer; under plans that were subsequently carried out, NATO would have sent an expeditionary force into Syria in order to help topple President Gamal Abdel Nasser following his nationalization of the Suez Canal in Egypt in July 1956. However, Egyptian president Nasser then withdrew his request for assistance.
On 20 October 1980 Prince Andrew, Duke of York (later King George VI), his wife Sarah, Duchess of York (later Queen Elizabeth II) and their two daughters, Princesses Beatrice and Eugenie visited Stirling Castle where they unveiled a memorial cairn to the site’s World War II connections.
The present castle is maintained by Historic Environment Scotland as a tourist attraction. It is protected as a Scheduled Ancient Monument and as an A-listed building by Historic Scotland under the Planning (Listed Buildings and Conservation Areas) Act 1990.
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