Stirling Castle is first recorded as a royal residence during the reign of Alexander I, who dedicated a Chapel within its walls, in 1110. His heir, David I, advanced its political prominence and economic standing, making Stirling a Royal Burgh in 1130. During his reign William I created a recreational hunting ground, the King’s Park, in the woodlands south east of the Castle – extended in the 1260s by his grandson, Alexander III.
House of Stewart
The crisis of succession which followed that Kings death, in 1286, led to English occupation and the turmoil of the Wars of Independence. Constantly besieged and occupied by both sides during those long and bitter conflicts, Stirling Castle became the strategic ‘Key to Scotland’, dividing Highland and Lowland. The famous victories of Stirling Bridge and Bannockburn were fought within sight of its defences – destroyed, or ‘slighted’, by Robert Bruce, only to be raised again by his heirs, the House of Stewart, following the marriage of his daughter Marjorie to Walter, the Steward of Stirling Castle. The oldest surviving sections of the fortress, the foundations of the North and South Gates, were the work of Bruce’s grandson, Robert II.
It was at Stirling Castle that Joan Beaufort sought shelter for her son, the seven year-old James II, in 1424, when his father, James I, was assassinated; and here that that intemperate young monarch – whose birthmark and infamous fury earned him the appellation ‘James o’ the Fiery Face ‘ – would himself murder his treacherous rival, William, 8th Earl of Douglas, in 1452 – throwing his corpse from a palace window, into the garden which now bears his name.
James IV began construction of the Great Hall and the Forework. The very model of a refined Renaissance Prince, scholars and scientists, historians, poets and artists converged upon his Court, within whose walls the wordsmith William Dunbar scorned the reckless exploits of alchemist John Damian as he sought to swoop from the royal ramparts on chicken-feather wings.
James V continued his father’s work: the centrepiece of the modern Castle, his Palace, completed by his widow, Mary de Guise, after his death at Solway Moss, in 1542. As he lay dying, James is said to have prophesied the failing fortunes of his dynasty, declaring: ‘It came wi a lass, it’ll gang wi a lass!’ The Stewart line had begun with a lass, Marjorie Bruce, and some thought James’s daughter, Mary -just five days old when she became Queen of Scots – might be the last of their line. She almost was.
Mary Queen of Scots
Crowned at Stirling Castle, in 1543, Mary Stuart had a turbulent infancy: surviving the siege and strife of Henry VIII’s ‘Rough Wooing’, as he sought to steal the tiny Queen of Scots away – to be raised as consort to his own heir, Edward. Smuggled safety to France, she would return to her homeland in 1561, and to Stirling the following year, narrowly avoiding death, and the fulfilment of her father’s prophesy that their dynasty would ‘gang wae a lass’, when a blaze swept through her Palace apartment in dead of night.
Her later visits were no less eventful. She nursed her paramour, Henry, Lord Darnley, through illness here, in 1565. Wed soon after, they were quickly estranged. By the baptism of their heir, James, the following year – celebrated by Scotland’s first firework display, in what is now the Valley Cemetery – Mary had sought comfort in the arms of the notorious James Hepburn, Earl of Bothwell. Their affair and hasty marriage, with Bothwell suspected of complicity in Darnley’s murder at Kirk o’ Field, scandalised Scotland. Forced to abdicate, Mary fled to England, and to imprisonment by her cousin, Elizabeth I – to whose throne she had foolishly staked a claim.
Just one year old, James VI was crowned at the Church of the Holy Rude, in July 1567. Scotland’s first Protestant Prince, already deprived of both parents, would soon lose his grandfather, too, as the Regent Lennox was shot during a raid on Stirling by Catholic rebels, in September 1571. Only after his mother’s execution, in 1587, would James’s throne be secure.
The Last Stewart Prince
Born in 1594, James’s first child, Henry, would be the last Stuart Prince to be raised at Stirling Castle. His spectacular baptismal celebrations eclipsing James’s own: the roof of the Great Hall raised to house a replica Spanish Galleon. Athletic, scholarly and good-natured the boy’s death from Typhoid Fever, in 1612, was lamented as a tragedy on both sides of the border.
Union of Crowns
With the 1603 Union of Crowns, James – with requisite irony – inherited the throne of his mother’s jailor, and abandoned his homeland. Three decades of preparation for a Stuart King’s return to Stirling were rewarded by a two-day visit by his surviving male heir, Charles I, in 1633. Seventeen years more would pass before Charles II’s fleeting visit, in 1650. With the 1707 Union of Parliaments, the privileges of the Royal Burgh were lost. The grubby garrison-town briefly besieged by the Jacobite Charles Edward Stuart, in January 1746 – was far removed from the fabled fortress of his ancestors.
Refurbishment of Stirling Castle
Monarchs came and went, but seldom stayed. Only in recent decades, under the ministrations of Historic Scotland, would the damage inflicted by three centuries of military usage be undone. In recent years the Chapel Royal and Great Hall have been refurbished (the latter rededicated by Queen Elizabeth II, in 1999) and the Palace of James V has been vividly refurbished – reflecting the glorious legacy of Royal Stirling.