Welcome to Stirling

The name Stirling is believed to have come from "striveling" meaning "place of strife"; perhaps a fitting name for a town which has borne witness to gory murders, long sieges and bloody battles. In part this is due to the fact that the castle at Stirling was the main royal residence for a period of about 300 years, a period marked by friction between the crown and the nobility. But more importantly, no other location was more pivotal in the Scottish "Wars of Independence", in the 13th and 14th centuries. Indeed, the history of Stirling at this crucial time goes hand in hand with the history of Scotland as a whole and, as a result, no other location is more important to the Scottish psyche. It is no accident that Stirling has proved so important: located in the heart of central Scotland, Stirling sits in the zone between the Rivers Forth and Clyde, at the only point in the Forth where the river could be safely forded and where bogs to the west made passage practically impossible throughout the Middle Ages. Thus, the domination of this zone allowed for control of large swathes of central Scotland and the potential for control of the kingdom itself. Anyone seeking to rule Scotland had to hold Stirling. Looming high above the river to the west, a rocky outcrop imposes itself on the landscape. The fortresses that would be built here would provide a seat for the guardians of this crucial strategic zone. Securing this crag was of paramount importance to any who sought to wield power in early Scotland.


Wallace Monument overlooking Stirling

Early Settlement

The importance of the crag, where Stirling Castle now stands, was recognised at least as early as the Iron Age (in Scotland dating from about 750 BC), to which the first evidence of settlement can be dated. It is believed that the first fortifications may have come when the Votadinii tribe were governing this area, perhaps from about the 1st century BC, although no archaeological evidence has yet been found to confirm this hypothesis. One of Scotland's earliest historians, Hector Boece (1465 - 1536), asserts that the Romans raised fortifications on the rock, thereby displacing the Celtic tribe, before they themselves were ousted from Scotland. The Picts were probably the next to control the rock, until 843, when the Scots' king, Kenneth MacAlpin (c.810-c.859), brought the Pictish kingdoms under his control. Later that century the new kingdom was invaded by Northumbrian Saxons who appear to have taken over the land south of the forth, and with it, Stirling. It is believed that within 20 years the Saxons returned these territories to the Scots on the condition that they help against the invading Danes. Despite all of the upheaval that occurred before the 10th century, this place of strife had yet to see its darkest days.

Clear evidence of Stirling's development begins to emerge from the 12th century. King Alexander I (c.1078-1124) seems to have favoured the fort with his presence: in 1110 he dedicated an existing chapel within its walls and 14 years later he died in the castle. His brother, David I (1084-1153), founded Cambuskenneth Abbey below the fort, by the River Forth. In 1170 King William I "William the Lion" (1143-1214) created a royal hunting park at Stirling. Four years later he was captured by the English at Alnwick, from where he was sent as a prisoner of Henry II (1154-1189) to Northampton and later to the English King's castle at Falaise, Normandy. The terms of William's release, called retrospectively the "Treaty of Falaise", were severe: William was forced to accept Henry as his feudal superior and his overlordship of Scotland, which meant surrendering key Scottish castles to English garrisons. As a result, Stirling was occupied by the English for the following 15 years, until Richard I "The Lion heart" (1157-1199), who succeeded Henry, offered to withdraw his troops from Scotland in return for William's agreement to help finance Richard's crusades in the Holy Land. With Richard on his crusades, where he was to be captured and imprisoned, English pressure eased in Scotland. When William, by this time old and senile, died in Stirling Castle in 1214, he may not have been aware that his gung-ho attitude to kingship had opened up a can of worms: successive English kings would claim the "Treaty of Falaise" as a basis for their overlordship of Scotland. William had ensured that the English would be back in Stirling.

Alexander III (1241-1286) was the next monarch to develop the castle at Stirling. In 1263 he created additional hunting parks to the south and, in 1280, he authorised extensive building work to be carried out. This was an energetic and effective monarch who wrested the Western Isles and the Isle of Man from Hakon, King of Norway, in the Battle of Largs in 1263 (later confirmed in the treaty of Perth 1266). He also succeeded in maintaining good relations with England while, nonetheless, refusing to swear homage to the English King. But catastrophic misfortune within the Scottish royal family (all three of Alexander's children died in a three year period, between 1281 and 1284) was about to plunge Scotland into a war for its very survival. When Alexander fell off his horse and died, in 1286, his three year old granddaughter, the "Maid of Norway", daughter of the Norse King, remained as his sole heir. Tragically, this girl, who embodied the hopes of the kingdom, soon followed her grandfather to the grave, en route to Scotland from Norway, in 1290. With no heir the contenders to the throne were raising armies and Scotland was on the verge of a civil war. In the south, the astute Edward I of England (1239-1307) saw an opportunity: he offered to arbitrate on condition that the contenders accept his overlordship. Stirling Castle was placed under the English King's control while he deliberated and on the 12th of July 1291 the Scottish nobility swore fealty to the English Crown at Stirling Castle.

Stirling and the Wars of Independence

Edward's choice was John Balliol (1250-1313), the most malleable of the contenders, who became Scottish King in 1292. From the start Edward made it clear that John would be nothing more than a puppet of the English court. Balliol was obliged to go south where he was subjected to humiliating rituals of submission to Edward. When, in 1294, Edward demanded Scottish soldiers be supplied for his war in France, some of the nobility rebelled and forged a defensive alliance with Phillip IV of France: "The Auld Alliance" which lasted for 300 years. By 1296 Balliol had had enough and renounced his fealty to Edward. Edward responded by ordering an all out invasion of Scotland and after the Scottish defeat at the battle of Dunbar, East Lothian, Balliol surrendered Scotland to the English King. Later that same year, Edward captured an undefended Stirling Castle.

Scotland was facing the most serious threat it had yet had to deal with. It looked as if the independence of the kingdom had finally come to an end. However, there were those who would not give in so easily. In 1297 Sir Andrew de Moray escaped from imprisonment in England, for earlier rebellion against English occupation, and from his home, in the Inverness area, began a series of ever more daring guerrilla raids against English garrisons, most notably in the Highlands and Aberdeenshire. In the south, William Wallace, came to light by killing the Sheriff of Lanark and openly rebelling against occupation. By the summer, Moray and Wallace are believed to have joined their forces in Perthshire, having wrested control from the English north of the River Tay. Predictably, Edward I sought revenge and, almost inevitably, when the crunch came it was in Stirling.

On the 11th of September 1297, leading a force of perhaps as much as 20,000 men (although this figure is disputed), the Earl of Surrey, Sir John de Warrene, and Hugh Cressingham, the English treasurer in Scotland, marched to confront the Scottish rebels camped on the Abbey Craig, a steep hill and vantage point where the 19th century Wallace Monument, one of Stirling's most emblematic landmarks, now stands. Surrey and Cressingham had reason to be confident: they were in possession of the best trained and best equipped army in Europe, consisting of nobles and commoners; of infantry, cavalry and Welsh archers, who had already seen success in France, England and Scotland (including the battle of Dunbar). Moreover, the Scots were an unprofessional army of mainly commoners (the nobility had already been defeated at Dunbar) and outnumbered 2 to 1. Many were without even rudimentary forms of armour (like metal helmets) and many only had home made weapons. For these reasons it makes what happened next all the more remarkable. The English commanders inexplicably decided to ignore the fording point on the Forth, two miles down river, and opted to cross the river on a small wooden bridge (less than half a mile up river from the existing 15th century stone bridge) which could only allow two men to cross abreast. Wallace and Moray watched from the Abbey Craig until Cressingham had led half of the English force across the bridge before sounding the attack. The half formed English ranks were cut apart: organisation and morale collapsed and the English heavy cavalry were driven back into the river, where horses and men drowned together. The English reinforcements sent across the bridge, in two's, only added to the confusion, and were assailed by Scottish spearmen from both sides. At some point in the battle, the bridge collapsed sending the reinforcements tumbling into the river. The triumph was made complete when a detachment of Scots, who had been posted to guard the ford, arrived at Surrey's rear and attacked the remaining English troops. Surrey fled, but the English baggage train was captured, as was Cressingham, who is said to have been skinned. The Battle of Stirling Bridge was a rout and marks the first time in European history that a professional standing army was defeated by a peasant force. In the aftermath, Stirling Castle was surrendered to the Scots and the English were driven out of Scotland. William Wallace was made "Guardian of the Realm of Scotland" and would rule in the absence of Balliol, who remained a prisoner of the English until his death.



Stirling Castle


The Bloodbath

But Sir Andrew de Moray did not survive the wounds he suffered at Stirling Bridge. His skills would be missed when a furious Edward I was to turn his full attention on Scotland in 1298. In this year, Edward, in person, led the largest army to invade Scotland since the time of the Romans. On July the 22nd the army William Wallace, abandoned on the field by his nobles (leaving him with as little as 5,000 men by some accounts) was routed at Falkirk (South of Stirling, on the Stirling plain). In the aftermath, Stirling Castle was again abandoned to the English. However, the victory at Stirling Bridge had inspired confidence, and while Wallace, who resigned his Guardianship after Falkirk, never again succeeded in forging a power base sufficient to take on the English in pitched battles, he continued to wage guerrilla warfare on the occupiers for the rest of his life. But this kind of stalemate between occupiers and guerrillas turned Scotland into a bloodbath. For the English it must have seemed at times that they had unsuspectingly entered into a painfully protracted war without the possibility of any kind of glorious victory: a kind of 14th century Vietnam.

At the same time a new star of Scottish Independence was on the rise: Robert the Bruce (1274-1329), a rival of Balliol for the throne. Robert was a political animal as well as a great tactician and, although he had sworn fealty to Edward, it seems clear he was never comfortable with this situation. Undoubtedly inspired by Wallace's victories, he became more and more a thorn in Edward's side. Aided by Edward's preoccupation with continental politics, in 1299 Robert laid siege to Stirling castle and won it back for the Scots, in whose hands it remained until 1304 when it again surrendered to Edward. However, the war was changing. After the betrayal, capture and execution of Wallace, in 1305, national sentiment reached fever pitch. Bruce declared himself King in 1306, after murdering the remaining contender, John Comyn. In 1307 Edward died and his successor, Edward II (1284-1327), could not match his father's military or political genius. In the next seven years growing resistance, led by Bruce, liberated all but five of Scotland's castles. Stirling was still held by the English in 1314 and so Bruce laid siege to it. The English garrison agreed to surrender if they were not relieved by midsummer's day (*). Unfortunately, by the 23rd of June, midsummer's eve, the English army had arrived, and another showdown was made inevitable.

(*Midsummer's day is traditionally celebrated on the 23rd or 24th, although the longest day is the 21st.)

The Battle of Bannockburn and the "end" of the war

Led by Edward II in person, the English army was twice that which had won at the battle of Falkirk: around 40,000 men. On this bright summer's day, the armour of the English was described by one eye witness as making the "land seem all aglow". The Scots, led by the now King Robert I, had a force of less than 15, 000 men. However, the Scots had the advantage of choosing the terrain: the area of the Bannock Burn (or stream) south of the castle, where the Bannockburn Memorial Centre now stands (now one of Stirling's major tourist attractions). Here a statue of Bruce marks his approximate position at the outset of the battle where the first blow in the battle was struck by Bruce himself: killing, with one blow of his axe, the English knight and champion, Henry de Bohun, as he made a charge for the Scots king, who had become separated from his ranks. However, the main battle took place on the 24th. The fate of the English was sealed by the Scots' superior tactics: the key to Scottish success was that the English force had allowed itself to be cornered in a loop in the burn, thereby permitting only the front ranks to fight, making a mockery of their superior numbers. The English rear was driven back into the mud and water where many men drowned, while the forward ranks were cut down one after the other.

In the aftermath of the battle Robert I destroyed the fortifications of Stirling castle to prevent the English taking advantage of them again. This made sense as the war did not end after the Battle of Bannockburn, even if the tide had finally turned inasmuch as that after the morale boosting victories in Stirling, Scotland became virtually ungovernable to the English. The war did not officially end until the Treaty of Edinburgh was signed on the 17th of March, 1328 when Edward III (1312-1377) eventually accepted the independence of the Scottish Kingdom, before invading again 4 years later! In 1333 the English took Stirling castle once more and rebuilt the fortifications. In 1337 the Scots unsuccessfully besieged Stirling Castle, but in 1342 Robert Steward (1316-1319) - the future Robert II - successfully won it back for the Scots. Although Stirling remained in Scottish hands during the next English invasion, in 1347, the king seems to have felt that the castle needed to be fortified. In 1380 the defences were strengthened, including the North Gate, which is the oldest part of the castle still visible today.

Stirling and the Stewart Kings' Residency

It was in the time of the Stewart monarchs, the first of whom being the aforementioned Robert II, that the castle that we know today finally started to emerge. For the next 300 years it would be the most important of the Stewarts' royal residences and the place where much of the bloody politics of the 15th century would unfold. James I (c.1388-1437) chose Stirling as the site of his revenge against the Albany Stewarts who, ruling Scotland as regents in his absence, had allowed the king to languish in captivity in England for 18 years. Within a year of his return to Scotland, in 1424, he had seized the Albany lands and sent 3 generations of the family to the "Beheading Stone", on the rocks west of the castle walls. James I may have been lauded as the best poet of his age but he was a brutal and unpopular ruler: in 1437 some of his nobles had had enough and murdered him at his residences at Perth. When Perth fell out of favour with the royal house, Stirling Castle took on the role of the main royal residence.

In 1437, James I's frightened widow moved the young king, James II (1431-1460) aged 6, to Stirling for safe keeping while the conspirators in his father's murder were hung drawn and quartered. James II's violent entry into Scottish politics more than likely conditioned his reign. In 1452, it was Stirling Castle where James II, now an adult, chose to have a final confrontation with the 8th Earl of Douglas, whose powerful family had resisted the king's authority throughout his reign. In a fit of rage at dinner on the 22nd of February, James II leaned across the table and stabbed the Earl to death, before hurling his bloody corpse out of the window. A plaque in the garden in Stirling Castle marks the spot where the Earl's body landed.

James II's son, James III (1451-1488), was to meet a violent end in Stirling too. Scotland's nobles had been outraged by James III's bisexuality and the promotion of his "favourites" at court. The nobles declared war on James III, which resulted in the Battle of Sauchieburn, fought over more or less the same ground as Bannockburn. During the battle James was thrown off his horse and, injured, taken to a nearby mill. Here a man posing as a priest appeared on the king's request that his confessions be heard. Screaming "This then will give you your pardon!" the man stabbed the king through the heart, and ran off before he could be identified. James III was later buried in Cambuskenneth Abbey.

James IV (1473-1513), the most popular and successful of the Stewart monarchs, contributed a great deal to the development of the Stirling Castle we see today. In 1496 work began on what is now The King's Old Building and The Chapel Royal. In 1504 The Great Hall, the largest ever built in Scotland, measuring 138ft by 47ft, was completed. The Great Hall has recently been restored to how it would have appeared in the 16th century, and is an impressive sight for any visitor to the castle. Work also began on The Forework, the southern outer defences, which remain, in altered form, to this day. James IV was a wise king, respected throughout Christendom: he is reported as having been able to speak Latin, French, German, Italian and Gaelic; he patronised the arts, bringing musicians and artist to his court from all Europe; he sponsored medicine and the sciences, including alchemy. In 1507 his alchemist fell to his death from Stirling's castle walls, undertaking the first recorded attempt at a manned flight to France from Scotland, using wings made of hen feathers! But James IV was energetic and charismatic and was dearly missed after his death at the battle of Flodden in 1513.

The Later Stewarts, Union with England & the Jacobites

In the same year the two year old James V (1513-1542) was crowned at the Chapel Royal in Stirling Castle. In 1538 he ordered that work begin on The Palace, designed to house his new French wife, Mary of Guise. It was a fitting home for the new queen; grand and ornate, and decorated with statues. It was Mary of Guise who would rule from 1542, in the minority of Mary Queen of Scots (1542-1587) who became queen when she was just six days old. Scotland's only female monarch was crowned in the Chapel Royal in 1543. But outside the castle Scotland was changing. In the church of the Holy Rude, below, the protestant reformer, John Knox (1505 or c.1514-1572) regularly delivered his damning sermons, which included criticism of Scotland's allegiance with catholic France. When Mary I returned from France in 1561, having been brought up as a catholic in the French court, she returned to a protestant Scotland which would not easily accept her catholic rule. In the same year she fuelled protestant dissent by celebrating Mass in the Chapel Royal.

Mary I's difficulties were exacerbated by her relationships with men, who bullied her and undermined her authority. One of her husbands, Lord Darnley (grandson of Henry VII), was even responsible for the murder of her secretary (Mary I was later implicated Darnley's murder). Darnley's house is marked by a plaque on the road that leads up to Stirling Castle. After a troubled reign, her abdication was forced in 1567, after which her protestant son, James VI (and later also James I of England) was crowned in the church of the Holy Rude on the 29th of July. In 1603, after the death of the English Queen, Elizabeth I, James VI would become king of England. Stirling would cease to be a Royal residence and would from now on play a lesser role in Scottish history.

By 1685 Stirling officially became a military base. Its military capabilities were to be tested to the fore just 61 years later when the Jacobite army under Bonnie Prince Charlie, the young pretender to the British throne, laid siege to the castle. The Jacobites set up their artillery on Gowan Hill, on the site of today's beautiful graveyard. The castle withstood the attacks. Indeed, when the castle's artillery destroyed that of the Jacobites, Bonnie Prince Charlie's men fell into retreat. And so the military importance of this site remained obvious. In the 19th century more fortifications were built and the castle became a barracks. However, in the 20th century work began to restore the castle to its appearance at the time of the Stewart dynasty's residency, which has made it perhaps the most historically interesting of Scotland's castles.

Stirling: Town and City

Stirling town (the city of Stirling since 2002) has developed slowly throughout the centuries: seemingly oblivious of the important events which have happened in and around it. Stirling became a town in 1120, when it was granted a Royal Charter and first elected a Provost. At this time the town was little more than a collection of wooden huts clustered around the fort. The main industry was the weaving of wool, which took advantage of Stirling's role as a minor inland port. It developed a market and had an annual fair. In the 13th century it had two friaries, of the Dominican and Franciscan orders, which made it a significant religious centre. It was the church that would run the leper colony established outside the city walls by the 15th century. By the 17th century the town had an estimated population of 1,500.

The industrial revolution largely passed Stirling by, although there was some industry: the weaving of wool, cotton and carpets. In the 19th century the town began to grow, by 1821 the population was 7,333 and by 1901, 18,000. The 19th century also saw the introduction of gas street lighting, the first police force, the building of sewers (after a serious cholera outbreak), the infirmary, the Smith Art Gallery and Museum and the Old town Jail, which now gives interesting tours for tourists. The town's expansion was partly fuelled by the arrival of the railway in 1848. Those wealthy enough could now commute to industrial Glasgow from the peace and quiet of Stirling. Houses for the wealthy were built in new streets such as Abercromby Place, Clarendon Place, Victoria Place, Victoria Square and Queens Road. Later as the "Gateway to the Highlands" and later still as 'Braveheart' Country", in the wake of the Hollywood blockbuster about William Wallace, Stirling has emerged as an important tourist location. The University of Stirling was founded in 1967, which boasts amongst its former students the former leader of the Scottish Socialist Party, Tommy Sheridan. Modern Stirling has a population of over 40,000.

For any visitor with an interest in Scottish history, Stirling is a must. For any visitor interested in history, Stirling is absolutely fascinating. This relatively small and quiet town - marked by the imposing battlements of the ancient fort and the striking Wallace Monument, on the far side of the meandering River Forth, with the dramatic backdrop of the Ochil Hills - impresses instantly with a feeling of reverence for a past which is at times murky, but never dreary. Stirling is haunted by countless ghosts: of men who exalted in the face of despotism, of tyrants who lived and died by the sword and of those lofty bygone world views we can never fully appreciate today but which have nonetheless played their part in the emergence of our own. The windswept panoramas of today's Stirling provide a setting in which one can commune with these ghosts: where we can reflect on who we are, where we've come from and where we're going.