If you’re a history buff, you will love visiting Stirling, Scotland. You can hit the highlights in one very full day, or spread out your visit over two days. Here are my top picks for some of the most interesting historic sites in Stirling:
1. Stirling Castle
Stirling Castle is probably the biggest draw in Stirling, and for good reason. It’s one of the largest castle complexes in Scotland, as well as one of the most important. It held a strategic location above the River Forth, controlling access between the Lowlands and Highlands.
Some of the buildings date to the 14th century, but most date to the 15th and 16th centuries. But the earliest record of Stirling Castle goes back to 1110, when King Alexander I dedicated a chapel here.
Stirling Castle was a much sought after stronghold between the Scottish and the English over the centuries. After King Alexander III’s death in 1286, several claimants to the throne stepped forward. In 1291, Edward I of England demanded control of the castle while arbitration commenced. In 1296 he invaded Scotland, kicking off the Wars of Scottish Independence (1296–1357). During those tumultuous years, Stirling Castle changed hands numerous times between the Scots and the English.
After William Wallace’s victory at the Battle of Stirling Bridge in 1297, the castle surrendered to the Scots. But after the Scots lost the battle of Falkirk in 1298, Edward I regained control.
Robert the Bruce attacked the castle in 1299 and forced the English out. In 1304 the English once again took the castle under Edward I.
In March 1306, Robert the Bruce became Robert I King of Scotland after killing John III Comyn the Red, a rival for the Scottish crown. On June 24, 1314, after the Battle of Bannockburn, Stirling Castle surrendered to the Scots. Robert destroyed its defenses to prevent the English from using it again. That didn’t really last long, though. In 1336, the English took the Castle once more and rebuilt its defenses. This back-and-forth change of hands continued several more times in the following years.
In 1452, James II assassinated William, 8th Earl of Douglas and threw him from one of the castle windows.
Mary, Queen of Scots lived at the castle as a child, and was crowned here as an infant in 1543. Mary’s son, the future James VI, was also baptized at the castle in 1566.
In 1746, Bonnie Prince Charlie attempted to take the castle, but was unsuccessful.
The castle boasts some pretty amazing architecture. The Great Hall, for example, is the largest in Scotland. It took 5 large fireplaces to heat it! The Great Hall is the pale yellow building on the left:
It dates to 1503, during the reign of James IV. Note the ceiling, which looks like an upside down ship’s hull:
This is the Royal Hall, dating to the 1500s. Mary, Queen of Scots lived here as a child. This is also where you’ll find the incredible Hunt of the Unicorn replica tapestries.
The Stirling Tapestries hang in the Queen’s Inner Hall. These seven hand-woven tapestries are reproductions of the Hunt of the Unicorn series, dating to the 1500s. This project took 13 years and cost £2 million!
This is the Regimental Museum. Exhibits include paintings and various war-related objects from conflicts such as the Boer War in South Africa and World War I.
Note the raised octagonal mound on the grounds below. This is the King’s Knot. In late medieval times, a “knot” was an ornamental garden. As part of the castle’s formal gardens, Scottish royals hunted and jousted here. The knot as it appears today dates to the 1620s, under Charles I.
However, stories connecting the King’s Knot to King Arthur and the Round Table go back as far as the 1300s. The central mound may pre-date the current structure, leading a tiny bit of credence to this theory. In 2011, archaeologists conducted a non-invasive survey of the area. They discovered a series of ditches and the remains of forgotten buildings underneath and around the mound. More likely, these structures date to the Iron Age or could even be the remains of an ancient Roman fort. But it’s much more exciting and romantic to believe that this was the site of the Knights of the Round Table.
Stirling Castle offers audio guides for a nominal fee, which is great for exploring the castle at your own pace. But I would also recommend taking a guided tour. There’s nothing like having a real live person who’s able to answer your questions!
Address: Stirling Castle, Castle Esplanade, Stirling, FK8 1EJ
2. Stirling Old Town Jail
A visit to the Stirling Old Town Jail is a hoot-and-a-half for those who like a little drama with their tour.
Tours run every 30 minutes, and include costumed interpreters that act out various roles – the old jail governor, an inmate and the last hangman. This offers a unique spin on your typical guided tour, and the actors really get into character. After their performances, you can explore the jail cells and rooftop observation tour at your leisure.
Frederick Hill, the first Inspector of Prisons for Scotland, condemned Stirling’s old jail for its inhumane conditions. So, in 1847, Stirling’s County Prison Board opened a new County Jail – now the Old Town Jail.
This new jail implemented the “separate system,” whereby the prisoners were kept separate at all times. Inmates willing to work received pay and education, in order to gain skills necessary to lead a better life upon their release. Prison reforms also included an emphasis on cleanliness, exercise, proper ventilation, and bathing. Prisoners slept in hammocks, such as this one:
But that’s not to say that prison life was any easier for the inmates. Punishments included flogging, solitary confinement, and being restrained in irons. Some punishments were particularly harsh, such as “picking oakum” – pulling tarred rope fibres apart with their bare fingers.
In 1853, the prison installed a crank machine. Instead of doing productive work, misbehaving prisoners were put to the task of merely cranking the handle – sometimes up to 14,400 times a day!
The Old Town Jail is a short walk from Stirling Castle and the Church of the Holy Rude, so you can easily fit in all three in the space of an afternoon.
Address: Stirling Old Town Jail St John Street Stirling FK8 1EA
3. Church of the Holy Rude
The Church of the Holy Rude is the second oldest building in Stirling, after the castle. The church dates back to 1129, during the reign of David I (1124 – 1153). A fire in March 1405 destroyed the church, along with much of Stirling. The new portions of the church were completed around 1414.
Rumor has it that King James IV himself may have assisted the masons in building the later eastern portion of the church during the early 16th century.
After Mary, Queen of Scots was forced to abdicate the throne and taken to Lochleven Castle in 1567, her one-year old son, James VI was crowned in the Church of the Holy Rude.
The tower is marred by bullet marks – possibly from a siege of Stirling Castle by Cromwell’s troops in 1651.
In 1656 a wall divided the church in two, between the nave and the choir. This created two separate places of worship for two differing congregations. The disagreement stemmed from an argument between the minister of Stirling, Reverend James Guthrie, and a colleague. On June 1, 1661, Guthrie was executed for treason in Edinburgh. His head was displayed on a spike in the city as an example to others. The church removed the dividing wall in the 1930s.
Address: St John Street, Stirling, FK8 1ED
4. The Old Town Cemetery
Although the Old Town Cemetery lies between Stirling Castle and the Church of the Holy Rude, it deserves a separate entry. This cemetery is full of interesting monuments and tombstones, including those of many important historic figures from Stirling’s past.
One of the monuments dominating the grounds is the Star Pyramid. It marks the site of the Drummond Pleasure Ground. William Drummond, a land surveyor, evangelist and nurseryman, commissioned the pyramid in 1863. Drummond dedicated the pyramid to the martyrs of civil and religious liberty in Scotland. William also planted a public pleasure garden around the pyramid. The pyramid has a chamber inside it containing a bible and the Confession of faith.
The only grave here is William Drummond’s sarcophagus, located north west of the pyramid.
The Martyr’s Monument is another unusual marker. The monument contains three figures; that of a young girl reading to the other, and an angel watching over them. William Drummond commissioned the marble monument in 1859. The protective cupola was an 1867 addition.
The marble sculptures represent Margaret Wilson and her sister Agnes. The girls were followers of the Covenanters, an extreme Presbyterian group. The Covenanters strongly opposed Charles II’s Anglican reforms. Margaret and Agnes, despite only being 18 and 13 years old respectively, were arrested for their beliefs. They, along with a neighbour, were tried for and found guilty of high treason. They were drowned in the Solway Firth after refusing to renounce their Protestant faith. It’s interesting to note that the girls had no connection to Stirling – they lived in Wigtonshire. However, given William Drummond’s penchant for martyrs, it’s reasonable to assume that the girls’ sacrifice for their beliefs struck a chord with him.
The Reformer Statues are below, located in the Valley Cemetery adjacent to the Old Town Cemetery. They represent Alexander Henderson (left), John Knox (centre), and Andrew Melville (right). These men all fought for religious reform in Scotland, with varying degrees of success.
While walking through the Old Town Cemetery, keep an eye out for one tombstone in particular – one depicting the act of grave robbing!
5. The National Wallace Monument
Although the National Wallace Monument only dates to the 1800s (1861-1869), it was built to commemorate 13th-century Scottish hero William Wallace. The 220-foot sandstone tower stands atop Abbey Craig. This marks where Wallace supposedly watched King Edward I of England’s army gather, just before the Battle of Stirling Bridge in 1297. Before the English troops could finish crossing the Stirling Bridge, the Scots attacked. In the ensuing panic, the wooden bridge collapsed, causing many English troops to drown. Subsequently, the Scottish troops defeated the English in the battle.
(Side note: despite the information on the interpretive plaque at the current Stirling Bridge, seen in the distant centre of the photo below, this was not the site of the battle. The bridge from the Battle of Stirling Bridge was about 65-75 yards upstream. The current stone bridge dates to around the 1400 or 1500s.)
The Wallace Monument tower is open to the public. You can climb the 246 steps to get to the viewing gallery in the crown for panoramic views of Stirling. Artifacts attributed to William Wallace are also on display, including a 3kg long sword.
The monument is actually just outside the town of Stirling, but is accessible by train, bus, bicycle hire or taxi.
Address: Abbey Craig, Hillfoots Rd, Stirling FK9 5LF
6. John Cowane’s House
In the 17th Century, John Cowane was Stirling’s richest merchant and benefactor. He came from a line of merchants who traded with the Dutch and provided goods to the royal court at Stirling Castle. Cowane was also quite ambitious, dealing in wine, banking, and shipping. He was also a member of the town council, a Dean of the Guild, and sat in the Parliament of Scotland. In these roles, he had the power to control trade in and out of Stirling. And, when trade didn’t bring home the money, he worked as a privateer.
Although he never married, Cowane had a child with his maid servant out of wedlock. In 1611 he was fined £6, while his maid servant was fined and also forced to do public penance.
Upon his death in 1633, Cowane left a great portion of his fortune to various charities, including the Church of the Holy Rude. He also left money for the construction of a hospital for the elderly members of the Merchant Guildry.
His three-story home was one of the largest in Stirling. The oldest part of the house may date as far back as 1603, with additions added in 1633 and 1697. It’s just a ruin now, but interesting nonetheless.
Cowane’s grave is located in the Old Town Cemetery.
Address: St Mary’s Wynd
7. The Settle Inn Alehouse
End the night with a pint (or two!) at the Settle Inn – Stirling’s oldest alehouse! This adorable pub – originally opened as the Red Lion Inn – dates to 1733. It was once a favourite haunt for Bonnie Prince Charlie’s invading Jacobite army. In fact, his army briefly commandeered the pub when they occupied the town in January 1746.
Address: 91 St Mary’s Wynd, Stirling FK8 1BU, UK