A Wolf in the Fold

There’s a beast loose on the streets of Stirling…The Big Bad Wolf, in fact, though this not-so timorous beastie has never been a figure of fear for the citizens of the Royal Burgh. In fact, if local legends are to be believed, Stirling wouldn’t be here, today, without it.

Its image adorns a shield atop the 16th-century Mercat Cross in Broad Street, vying for attention with Wallace’s famous battle at Stirling Bridge, the Reverse-4 of the powerful Merchant’s Guild, and the Royal Arms of Scotland. It can be found, too, on the roof of the entrance to Sir William Bruce of Kinross’s 1706 Tolbooth, the town’s governing townhouse for many centuries, and the wall of John Allan’s Welsh Brick Wolf Craig, at the intersection of Port Street and Dumbarton Road: a gentrified grocery store at the heart of the prosperous Victorian new town. On decorative weather-vanes and garden ornaments – it’s found throughout our city. Yet, despite its ubiquity most locals are unaware of its origins. So, what’s the story? Well, there’s only one way to start a tale about the Big Bad Wolf!

Once upon a time…

Legend has it that, a little over a thousand years ago, Vikings set their sights on the tiny community of Cumbrian Celts which had settled upon the craggy promontory, flanking the wild waters of the River Forth.

In dead of night, the Norsemen crept up the rocky outcrop, intent on surprising the natives as they slept. One though, lacked his comrades’ stealth – and trod on the paw of a sleeping wolf-cub. The poor wee thing yelped for its mother, the she-wolf barked for her mate, and soon the whole pack were baying into the night. Hearing their howls Osbrecht and Ella, the Cumbrian Princes who ruled this tiny realm, leaped from their beds, grabbed their swords, and set off into the night, to do battle with the hairy horrors.

Instead, they looked out on a band of anxious Vikings, already fleeing from the wolf-pack. They raised their men to arms and saw the last of the invaders off. In honour of their four-legged friends, the Princes decorated their banners with the image of the brave beast – and it has been Stirling’s Protector ever since.

A fine, dramatic tale. Exactly the same tale, unfortunately, which can be heard in parts of Cornwall, Brittany, and in Edinburgh – where Wolf’s-Paw and Norseman are supplanted by Thistle and Englishman.

A fairy tale, perhaps, but like all good stories it has a serious point to make: a warning to expect the unexpected, and that friends and foes may be found in the most unlikely places. Some have it that Stirling takes its name from a corruption of the Gaelic Sruighlea – ‘the place of strife’ – and this first invasion was, it seems, to set a trend that would endure for centuries to come, with Stirling caught in the crossfire of every major conflict in our nation’s history.

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