The Brooch of Scotland – Stirling
Sitting at one of the great junctions of Scotland and guarding the road north to the Highlands, is Stirling Castle – towering high on an extinct volcano and dominating the lower reaches of the River Forth. Known as the Brooch of
Scotland, it has from time immemorial been a key strategic location securing the kingdom; indeed the very name Stirling may derive from an ancient term for ‘struggle’ or ‘battle’. It was here in 1314 that Robert the Bruce defeated the English king, Edward II at the Battle of Bannockburn and saw Scotland reclaim her freedom – and with the 700th anniversary looming; and all the potential events planned it is a good time to look at this most enigmatic of cities.
The Dark Age annals record a famous siege at an unidentified fort in central Scotland called Iuddeu in the year 655; when King Penda of Mercia (a kingdom in the English Midlands) surrounded his Northumbrian counterpart. Most scholars are in agreement that this mystery fort is probably Stirling Castle. The geography seems right: plus the much travelled Roman road runs close by and until the medieval period the Forth was navigable as far as the modern town. Combining this with Stirling’s natural defensive position close to the border of several Dark Age kingdoms the case is strong.
Castle rock has probably had some sort of fortification built on it since at least 500BC, and during the early middle ages it way a key site for the Maetae (a Celtic people related to the Britons of Strathclyde and the Goddodin of Lothian), until absorbed into Scotland around 1000 years ago. Over the next 600 years it played a huge part in the evolution and defence of the realm – kings were born, crowned and killed here; and the battles fought under the ramparts forged a nation that would be as stubbornly resistant as the very basalt rock itself. The town of Stirling developed below these ancient walls, echoing the growth of Edinburgh’s Royal Mile; and soon became and important market town; both independent from and welded to the castle and court. In 1130 King David I elevated Stirling into a Royal Burgh: a town with special rights and trading privileges derived directly from the crown, giving the burgeoning settlement a huge economic boost (nearly 900 years later his descendent Queen Elizabeth would bestow City Status, again resulting in economic advantages).
As part of that deal, Bruce held fairly regular parliaments, and one in 1326 was at Cambuskenneth Abbey across the river from Stirling. Although little remains today, apart from the tower, it is still possible to visit the site. Within the grounds is the grave marker to King James III who was killed nearby at Sauchieburn in 1488 by a rebel force loyal to his teenage son (later James IV). Queen Victoria paid for the elaborate tomb, paying homage to her ancestor who met with such a bloody end. Above the ruins lies Abbey Craig, and in 1861 work was begun on an even more elaborate expression of Victorian historical sycophancy – the Wallace Monument. That said, it is fantastic tower and worth the visit; and today the exhibitions do tell the story of Wallace and the Battle of Stirling Bridge well. Seemingly airbrushed out of that history is Sir Andrew Moray, the co-commander that day – but Stirling Council now plan to set this right with a statue to the accepted brains behind the operation.
Following the battle in 1297 a new bridge was erected, this time of stone, and it still remains. Although no traffic crosses today it you still get the sense walking across its cobbles of being ushered north into the Highlands. Capturing and crossing the Bridge was a key objective for any Highland army heading south; particularly during the Jacobite wars. However, during the ’45 Rising the Jacobites chose to by-pass both Bridge and Castle and crossed the Forth upstream at the Fords of Frew and marched unhindered to Edinburgh. It was a vision of the future: the age of stone castles was drawing to a close. By ignoring completely Stirling and her huge garrison the mobile Jacobite army ushered in a new age of modern warfare. It is perhaps fitting then that within a year the last battle would be fought on British soil; a new dawn was rising.
In 1603 James VI, who had been christened and partially raised behind the cold walls of Stirling Castle (and crowned nearby at the Church of the Holy Rude), became the king of England; and moved south to London. The Stewart dynasty owned and variously resided in a large number of castles and palaces across Scotland, but with James’ move south many of them became redundant. Indeed, only the Palace of Holyroodhouse in Edinburgh would be retained as an official royal residence. Stirling, with her royal association and long traditional as residence needed a new role – and the most obvious was as garrison. Many regiments would come to call home a castle more used to kings; but, the collapse of the Jacobite cause in 1746 raised the question of the necessity of retaining such places – where was the practical value in comparison to the utilitarian and effective moderns garrisons such as Fort George near Inverness? Yet, there was something special about Stirling Castle – a sense of connection with both the nation and the monarchs that have ruled it that fostered a sense of sentimentality. Not until 1964, when the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders finally departed did the citadel cease to be an active military barracks.
Today, the Castle is essentially a museum – but a brilliant one, with few parallels, especially after all the renovation work to restore it to her Renaissance heyday. Hundreds of thousands visit yearly, making it the second most visited castle in Scotland after Edinburgh. Technically, it still belongs to the Crown and the Queen has visited on more than one occasion. The town remains a bustling market, although with a heavy reliance on the service industry, and the university has brought a lot of rejuvenation. Tourism of course plays a big part in the economy and good links to Edinburgh and Glasgow adds vitality. In 2014 we hope to host the next international Clan Gathering here, and what a celebration that has the potential to be!