A short guide to Stirling in central Scotland

Written by Carol Thornton | 13th of August 2022
Stirling

The City of Stirling is known as the Gateway to the Highlands since this is where the Scottish Lowlands meet the Highland Boundary Fault line. Stirling has a population of 36,000 and is approximately 26 miles northeast of Glasgow and 32 miles northwest of the Scottish capital of Edinburgh.

Stirling was once the capital of Scotland and founded as a royal burgh by King David I in 1130. Stirling was granted city status as part of the Queen's Golden Jubilee in 2002.

The city has a popular university with 11,000 students. It was given the title of Scotland's University for Sporting Excellence by the Scottish Government in 2008 due to its available scholarships in football, swimming, golf, tennis and triathlon.

Feeling adventurous, I headed to Stirling alone to explore its many attractions. Catching the train from Inverness, Stirling was about a 3-hour journey, heading through Aviemore, Blair Atholl, Pitlochry, Dunkeld and Perth.

Checking in to The Golden Lion Hotel

Leaving Stirling Railway Station, I made my way to The Golden Lion Hotel on King Street. It is an old building with character, good food and friendly staff and it is situated in the centre of Stirling. As a tourist to the city, I was determined to pack in as many sights as possible into my two-day stay in Stirling.

Stirling City Centre

I began by making my way up the steep cobbled street, and I took the left fork in the road onto Spittal Street. On the way, I noted that there were several small cafes offering lunch or coffee and cake at reasonable prices.

The road joins St John Street, where the tourist information centre offered lots of helpful advice and provided a small souvenir shop. Next door is the old jail, so I made this my first port of call.

The Stirling Old Town Jail

In 1840, Frederick Hill was appointed as Scotland's first Inspector of Prisons. His duties took him to Stirling Tolbooth, where prisoners were kept under dehumanising conditions. He was so shocked by what he saw that he named it "The worst prison in Britain." Hill and other reformers pressured the County Prison Board to build a new jail. The architect Thomas Brown designed the new prison building, which opened in 1847.

Stirling Old Town Jail is a top-rated visitor attraction on St John's Street, within the city's heart. It offers self-guided audio tours and offers a fascinating insight into prison life and reforms in Victorian times.

Friendly actors, dressed in Victorian prison uniforms, engage in friendly banter with visitors to ensure all have a good time. Explore the prison cells and see carvings etched on doors by original inmates. Tours are suitable for all age groups, and well-behaved dogs are welcome too.

I recommend visiting the rooftop observation tower to see the views over the city. Free onsite parking is available, along with baby changing facilities and accessible toilets. The jail is open from May until November, Monday to Sunday, 10 am -6 pm.

If you are interested in history, The Old Town Jail is a fascinating and educational experience and definitely worth a visit.

Frontage of Stirling Old Town Jail
Stirling Old Town Jail.

The Church of the Holy Rude

Moving on up the street led to, The Church of the Holy Rude. It was founded in 1129 during the reign of David I (1124 -1153). 'Holy Rude' means Holy Cross. In 1405 Stirling suffered from a catastrophic fire, and the church was destroyed. Rebuilding began in 1414 in the first stage, constructing the new nave. It is an impressive structure with an oak-beamed roof, held together by oak pegs. It is one of the few medieval timber roofs still surviving today.

The second phase of building began in 1507 under the concerning eye of King James IV with the construction of the choir and its spectacular apse. James IV was killed at the Battle of Flodden in 1513, but the building continued.

The church was designed and built in the Scottish Gothic style and cruciform in plan with a large tower at its west end. Throughout the centuries, the Holy Rude Church held the close support and patronage of the Stuart Monarchy.

Holy Rude Church
Distant view of Holyrood Church and grounds.
 
Holy Rude Church interior.
Interior view of Holy Rude Church, showing the impressive ceiling.

Mary Queen of Scots

In 1567 Mary Queen of Scots was forced to abdicate and was imprisoned in Lochleven Castle. Her infant son was crowned James VI at Holy Rude, the former Catholic Bishop of Orkney, Robert Stewart, placed the crown on James' head, and the Presbyterian minister John Knox delivered a sermon from the Book of Kings. James the VI of Scotland later became James I of England in 1603 after the Union of the Crowns.

The church's tower is pockmarked with musket shots, reputedly from gunfire during the siege of Stirling by Cromwell in 1651.  The Church of Holy Rude is home to the largest Romantic–style pipe organ in Scotland, and it has an impressive 19th-century stained glass window designed by Crear McCartney.

Visiting the church is free, but a donation in the fund box is appreciated. The church is open July – September from 1:30 pm – 4 pm daily. Times may vary due to covid. Headstones in the cemetery date from 1579 with the grave of a stonemason called Gibb. The kirk-yard is a pleasant place to sit, rest and ponder over the unique part Holy Rude has played in the turbulent past of Scottish history.

Cowan's Hospital

Next door to the church is the old Cowan's Hospital, built in 1637 as an almshouse. It is now a café; try a plate of haggis, neeps and tatties served with whisky sauce and sticky toffee pudding for dessert.

Old Cowan's Hospital.
Old Cowan's Hospital

Argyll's Lodging

Moving on to Castle Wynd, I came across this magnificent old building which once belonged to Archibald Campbell, the 9th Earl of Argyll. The mansion is clad in pink harling, built and decorated in the Renaissance style, and it is one of the most notable town-houses surviving of its period in Scotland.  

The National Trust turned Argyll's Lodging into a museum at the end of the 20th century; the main rooms were restored and furnished to replicate their 1680 state.  Archibald Campbell was a staunch supporter of the Monarchy, but in 1680 the Earl opposed the oath attached to the Test Act. This oath was intended to ensure the loyalty of all public office bearers to King Charles II. However, it also demanded conformity with the king's beliefs on forms of church government and religious worship.

The Earl of Argyll's refusal to take the oath led to him being called a traitor; he was imprisoned in Edinburgh Castle. He escaped and fled to the Netherlands, but on his return to Scotland many years later, he was captured, taken to Edinburgh and beheaded. Unfortunately, the museum is closed for repairs at the moment, but hopefully, it will reopen again soon.

Frontage of Argyll's Lodging in Stirling.
Argyll's Lodging.

Stirling Castle

An absolute must-do while visiting the area is Stirling Castle. This Medieval Bastion, first mentioned in 1110, is situated on a craggy volcanic outcrop at the top of Castle Hill in Stirling. It is one of the largest and most important castles in Scotland and has a long, turbulent history featuring many historical characters such as William Wallace, Robert the Bruce, Mary Queen of Scots and Bonnie Prince Charlie. The castle overlooks the meeting point between the Lowlands and the Highlands.

Stirling Castle
Stirling Castle from the gardens below.
 
Stirling Castle entrance.
The main entrance to Stirling Castle.

The Great Hall

Visit the Great Hall, built by James IV and completed in 1503. The external walls are coloured with rich Royal Gold harling. The Great Hall was used as a banqueting hall and was heated by five huge fireplaces. There is a minstrel's gallery where musicians played Highland harps.

Stirling Castle entrance.
The main entrance to Stirling Castle.

The Royal Palace

Walk in the legendary footsteps of Mary Queen of Scots, who spent her childhood in Stirling Castle. The refurbished rooms with rich decoration and luxury furnishings are designed to show what the palace looked like around the 1540s.

Interpreters dressed in Renaissance period costumes give a splendid glimpse into the way of life and times of the Stewart Kings and Queens. There are seven beautiful tapestries, called Hunt of the Unicorn, hanging from the walls of the Royal Palace; they took thirteen years to make and cost £2 million pounds.

Stirling Castle tapestries.
Stunning tapestries at Stirling Castle.
 
Fireplace and heraldry at Stirling Castle
Hearth with heraldry at Stirling Castle.
 
Seating in the great hall at Stirling Castle.
Seating fit for a king and queen.

The Castle Exhibition contains the Stirling Heads Gallery and is worth a visit to see the original 16th-century oak medallions carved and brightly painted with images of the kings, queens and nobles which once adorned the palace ceilings

The Chapel Royal

This chapel was the last royal building constructed at Stirling Castle, built in just seven months in 1593 as commanded by James VI. His son and heir, Prince Hendry, was baptised here the following year.

The Kitchens

Visit the Great kitchens; they give a fascinating glimpse into the past where feasts for the banqueting royalty were prepared, as they indulged in venison, salmon and roast beef along with pies and puddings. Imagine the daily task of baking enough bread to feed the royal family, their guests and all the staff and servants needed to run the vast household.

Stirling Castle kitchens
The kitchens set up to give you an idea of times gone by.
 
Bakery diorama at Stirling Castle.
Scene showing how the bakery functioned, hundreds of years ago.
 
View from Stirling Castle looking out to Dumbarton Road.
Dumbarton Road as seen from the castle.
 
Old buildings seen from Stirling Castle.
Looking down upon the old streets from Stirling Castle.

Castle Gardens

Queen Anne Gardens are situated on the sunny south side of the castle. It is a pleasant location overlooked by The Prince's Tower and the Queen's Lodgings. Sit under the 200-year-old beech tree and look out over the spectacular views of Stirling and the Ochil Hills. Look down upon the King's Park, where royalty took part in jousting, hawking and hunting.

Queen Anne Gardens at Stirling Castle.
Flowers in Queen Anne Gardens.

You can also see the remnants of the King's Knot Garden. The Knot is comprised of an octagonal grass-covered mound about 3 meters high and is an excellent place to have a picnic.

Kings Knot Garden
King's Knot Garden seen from Stirling Castle's ramparts.

Argyll and Sutherland Military history museum and galleries

Check out The Douglas Garden, situated behind the King's Old Building. Here lies the body of William Douglas, 8th Earl of Douglas. n 1452 the Earl was accused of plotting against the king. Douglas had formed an agreement with two powerful lords, Alexander Lindsay, 4th Earl of Crawford and John of the Isles.

Upon the king's entreaty to support the monarchy, William refused to break his pact with Lindsay and John of the Isles. King James, in a fit of rage, stabbed Douglas in the neck and body; the king's courters added their own injuries to the earl with drawn swords and a pole axe. Douglas' body was thrown out of the window and buried in an unmarked grave.

Gift Shops and Castle Cafe

The Unicorn Cafe- soup, sandwiches, and cakes are on the menu in the castle cafe. Pick up a Souvenir from the Palace Shop or the Courtyard Gift Shop.

Scottish charity Historic Environment Scotland manages Stirling Castle. Gate Price Admission- adults £18, concession £14.50 and Children aged 5-15 years £11.

Stirling Castle from the air.
Drone view of Stirling Castle.

The Back Walk

The Back-Walk is a meandering path and ideal for an evening stroll. It follows the old city walls from the town centre and runs uphill around the base of the castle rock. The woodland walk has great views over the surrounding countryside and has a tranquil atmosphere to de-stress after a busy day of sightseeing.  

The Thistles Shopping Centre contains over 80 stores.

The Old Stirling Bridge

The old Stirling Bridge is a ten-minute walk from the town centre and is situated near Laurencecroft Road. The bridge was built around 1500 to aid access across the River Forth. The impressive structure is one of the few surviving medieval stone bridges in Scotland. It is 82m long, built of square rubble and forms four impressive semi-circular arches which span the river.

The battle of Stirling Bridge in 1297 has earned lasting fame in this location; though not the bridge itself, it is where William Wallace and Andrew Moray famously defeated the mighty Edward I's English army. This old bridge is definitely worth a visit.

Stirling Bridge
The historic Stirling Bridge.

National Wallace Monument

The Wallace Monument on the shoulder of Abbey Craig is a 67-metre tower that overlooks Stirling and the site of William Wallace's victory over King Edward I in 1297. Built-in 1869 to commemorate Sir William Wallace, it is an outstanding place to visit, not only for the views but the history it promotes too.

Within its walls are many interesting artefacts, the most impressive being The Wallace Sword, the very sword said to be wielded by William Wallace himself. The sword is 1.68m long and weighs 3kg!

Making my way to the top of the monument, known as "The Crown", I was beginning to regret my decision to climb the 246-step staircase, but the stunning views more than made up for it.

The Wallace Monument.
The historic Stirling Bridge.
 
Statue of William Wallace
William Wallace looking over Stirling from the monument.
 
The Wallace Monument from Stirling Castle.
The Wallace Monument as seen from Stirling Castle.

Conclusion

Although my quick visit to Stirling was over and I had checked out the main tourist attractions, I felt I had only just scratched the surface of what the City of Stirling and the surrounding area had to offer.

Other attractions in the area are Cambuskenneth Abbey, the Battle of Bannockburn Centre with the iconic statue of Robert the Bruce, King of Scots. Blairdrummond Safari Park is 7 miles away to the northwest, and contains many exotic animals, including lions, giraffes and elephants.

If you fancy the trip down to Falkirk, The Kelpies and The Falkirk Wheel are well worth a visit.

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