A Matter of Faith

The first church on the Castle Hill was raised by Dominican Monks from Dunfermline Abbey, chartered to build a chapel here in 1129 by King David I. Here Robert II founded an altar, dedicated to a sacred relic: a splinter of wood believed to have been part of the Cross of Jesus Christ – the Holy Wood, or, in old English, Holy Rude – which gave the church its name. Nothing of the precious shard remains. It, the chapel, and much of Stirling itself, were burned to ashes in 1406, as the Clan Douglas wreaked fiery revenge on James II for his murder of their chieftain, William, the 8th Earl, at nearby Stirling Castle. A new Nave, South Aisle and oak-timbered roof – much of which still remains – were in place by 1414, and reconstruction neared completion in the 1450s – just in time for another destructive Douglas visitation, in 1455.

A trend was set: the turbulent history of the Holy Rude was to reflect the schisms and struggles of Scottish politics and faith for centuries to come.

Expansion continued in the 15th and 16th-centuries, the Holy Rude enjoying the patronage of many Stewart monarchs. James IV is said to have assisted Masons in extending the east wing. By the reign of his granddaughter, the ill-fated Mary, Queen of Scots, what had started life as a Catholic church was overwhelmed by the tide of Reformation. The last trappings of its Catholic past were stripped away in 1651, when visiting firebrand preacher John Knox led the congregation in tearing statues of the Saints from their plinths on the outside of the church. They remain empty to this day. Knox would return in August 1567 to preside over the Coronation of Mary’s heir, James VI, made King of Scotland at the grand old age of one year, one month and five days old.

In 1651, during the English Civil War General Monck’s Parliamentarian forces invaded: ensuring Stirling’s loyalty to their cause by laying siege to the Burgh. Staunchly Protestant, Stirling had little sympathy for these Roundheads’ Royalist, Catholic foes, but resented English interference in its affairs. The myriad pock-marks of musket-shot on the church tower, and on many nearby headstones, are lasting testimony of the fury of local forces futile defence of the town.

Anglican influence during the next decade of occupation were loudly protested by the Holy Rude’s garrulous preacher, James Guthrie. Rather than abandon his pulpit, Guthrie ordered a wall be build, dividing the church, and the congregation, in two – a partition which remained in place until 1936. Later schisms led to the construction of Ebenezer Erskine’s Marykirk (now the SYHA Hostel), in 1740, and the Allanpark South Church in the 1850s.

The Holy Rude shares a special distinction with Westminster Abbey – the only other current place of worship in Britain to have hosted a Coronation: Elizabeth II, attended a re-enactment of her ancestor, James IV’s investiture here, in May 1997.

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