Stirling Castle

It would be a fool’s errand to attempt even a concise history of Stirling Castle without at least 100 pages to work with. Even then, many more would be required to do anything resembling justice to the staggeringly ancient, complex and significant history that unfolded on its grounds and within its sights. So, instead of delving into dates and details, I’d like to focus on what makes Stirling castle so important to Scotland’s story – indeed, it can confidently be said that Stirling Castle is the most important castle in all of Scotland. Here’s why.

For 2,000 years Stirling Castle was the key to Scotland, famously described as the “brooch that clasps the Highlands and Lowlands together”. The simple fact is that if you wanted to dominate Scotland, for the vast majority of recorded history – from the time of Roman occupation until Bonnie Prince Charlie went over the sea to Skye – you had to hold Stirling. Few places on earth better emphasise the importance of geography as a narrative driver of history than Stirling Castle, with perhaps Thermopylae being a better-known equivalent. Stirling sits at a great pinch-point in the land, with the River Forth forcing conquering armies into a narrow pass flanked by many miles of boggy floodplain.

A quick look at Matthew Paris’ map of Britain from circa 1250 CE shows a great mess of rivers and hills punctuated emphatically by a point where Scotland is almost entirely severed from the rest, linked only by Stirling Bridge. It’s exaggerated for effect, but drives the thematic point home. I have argued many times in the past that the best parallel for Stirling Bridge is the Frey fortress of The Twins in Game of Thrones – a single strong point that you either pay any price to cross or detour countless miles through hostile terrain to get around. It is this simple strategic reality that saw several decisive battles fought around the place whose very name, from the Gaelic Sruighlea, means ‘place of strife’.

William Wallace knew this, hence why he lay in wait with Andrew Moray upon the Abbey Craig until the English army threw itself into the land’s own snare at the Battle of Stirling Bridge (11 September, 1297). Robert Bruce knew this, hence why he drew Edward II’s army, three times the size of his own, into the noose of the Bannock Burn and boggy ground until all he had to do was tighten the knot. It was Bruce’s tactical genius and the resolve of the common Scots that is remembered as the factor that won the Battle of Bannockburn (23-24th June 1314), yet the single most important variable was the land which made his strategy possible and caused the English army to crumble into disorder and panic. It was Stirling that was the final prize in the aftermath of the Battle of Sheriffmuir (13 November 1715) at which the Jacobites had their best chance of ultimate victory, and yet, despite a Jacobite victory at the battle, Stirling remained in Government hands and so they lost the war.

Stirling Castle is often compared to Edinburgh Castle, with both looming large on volcanic crags and of a similar scale. As much as I love my neighbourhood castle of Edinburgh, it is at Stirling that you get the truest sense of what a major Scottish royal castle would have looked like in its prime. It retains far more of its medieval character of the two and, to use the proper academic terminology, just feels more castle-y. It is incredibly easy to imagine yourself as Mary, Queen of Scots wandering the gardens, or as Sir Philip Mowbray watching Edward II’s great host evaporate under the pressure of Bruce’s bristling schiltroms of spearmen at Bannockburn, visible to the south. Combine the tangible sense of awe which comes with being in such a place with its centrality to Scottish history, and it is hard to think of a Scottish castle that better earns the descriptor ‘must see’.