If you have always been an ardent fan of the mystery and romance of classic European fairy tales, of the ilk of Rapunzel, Snow White and Sleeping Beauty, you simply must visit Stirling Castle in Scotland. Built on an enormous piece of volcanic rock above the River Forth, nearly a thousand years ago, in an area between the country’s Highlands and Lowlands, it is truly a spectacular place to visit. While a fair amount of the castle is in a state of ruin, the Scottish government has contributed enormous sums of money to have aspects of the castle refurbished and restored to as authentic an approximation of the castle’s original appearance as possible, enabling you to take yourself back to a world of unicorns and dragons, princesses and magic. Photo: Patrick Daxenbichler/Fotolia



As you enter the courtyard of Stirling Castle, in your mind’s ear, you might be able to hear the footsteps of ghostly horses and their masters. Not only does Stirling Castle boast military credentials as a stronghold because of its vantage point on top of a high mountain, but it was also a royal residence of note in its time. The trajectory of its history is a long and often bloody one, seeing many fierce battles. It first appears in archived record keeping in 1107, when King Alexander the First made official application to endow a chapel in the grounds of the castle.

As the centuries unfolded, and wars were fought over territory, the castle digressed between accommodating Scottish and English royalty, depending on who the victors were, in the different battles over territory and culture.

In 1381, the castle’s North Gate was built. This is, to date, the oldest still standing aspect of the castle. And when you’re thinking of the grand and majestic span of this edifice to royalty, think also of the peasants and artisans who lived in its shadow, some of whom would have dragged great pieces of quarried stone up that immense hill in the process of building it, throughout their lives.

It was in this castle that William, the Eighth Earl of Douglas, was assassinated by King James the Second and his courtiers. William’s body was summarily thrown out of a window of the castle in 1452. Many knights and ladies saw their last days in this castle, under brutal and oft mysterious circumstances, and forensic researchers associated with the castle have over the years, discovered human remains which they’ve been able to trace back to the medieval times. Who they were and why they died remains, however, shrouded in mystery. Things to Do in Scotland: Stirling Castle - Photo: Rixie/Fotolia

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This was also the castle in which King James V was crowned at the age of 17 months, in 1513. Mary, Queen of Scots, also known as Bloody Mary was crowned here in 1543, and the Scottish poet, Robert Burns scratched out his famous anti-Hanoverian lines on the window of Wingate Inn, after visiting Stirling Castle in 1787. The words give a very graphic insight into the acrimony between the Scottish and English of the time. He declared “… The injur’d Stewart line is gone,//A race outlandish fill their throne;//An idiot race, to honor lost;//Who know them best despise them most.”

Leaping ahead to 2000, the relationship between the English and the Scottish is not nearly so hostile any longer, and the British royalty have made a number of keynote visits over the last several decades to Stirling Castle.

Also important restoration initiatives have given the castle continued relevance as a place of heritage status and a very real tourist attraction. In 2000, in fact, a £2-million, twelve year project was initiated to recreate a series of tapestries depicting the medieval Hunt of the Unicorn, to embellish the castle. These tapestries are truly remarkable: they are replicas of a similar series of seven enormous tapestries, which are understood to have been made between the 1490s and the 1500s and originally hung on the castle’s interiors.

Tapestries were extremely expensive to make, particularly in the 1400s, and their rich presence attests to the wealth of the castle itself. The replicas of the original tapestries are no less remarkable: They are hand woven according to the medieval principles of tapestry-weaving and thread colouring. The original works are currently housed in the Cloisters Museum of the Metropolitan Museum of New York, as they are much too fragile to be accessible to the public. Upon the completion of the tapestries, Stirling Castle was shortlisted for three consecutive years, from 2011, for its status as a tourist venue, in the British Travel Awards – it was the only Scottish site to appear on this prestigious list. Things to Do in Scotland: Stirling Castle - Photo: Beautifulblossom/Fotolia

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Not only is a visit to Stirling Castle a fantastic experience in terms of the sheer beauty you will see, it’s also quite fun. The Palace Vaults are downstairs facilities in which specialised techniques, crafts and art-making were accomplished over the years. Remember that a medieval castle of this nature was like a whole world to many many people, from the servants to the artisans who were employed by royalty to cook and clean, to sew and maintain the status of the royal family and the building itself.

Visiting these vaults, you can try on period costumes in the Tailors’ Vault, or try your hand at playing medieval musical instruments in the Music Vault; the Carver’s Vault offers fascinating insight into the tools of the trade of sculptors whose work decorates the architecture of the castle; and in the Painter’s vault, you can discover how pigment was made and all the different recipes applied for different colours to be mixed.

The Queen Anne gardens, restored to their former glory – they were originally gardens, but then were converted to a bowling green in the 1600s – are among the highlights of the experience, from an outdoor perspective. Here you can enjoy the shade of a 200-year old beech tree, as you gaze at the façade of the Queen’s Lodging and the Prince’s Tower.

The castle has wheelchair accessibility and a courtesy vehicle for visitors who may struggle to navigate steep staircases or inclines unaided, which will offer you splendid insight into the castle. You will not, however, be able to access the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders Museum, the Great Kitchens or the Elphinstone Tower, if you are wheelchair-bound.

There are a range of tours available of Stirling Castle; to avoid disappointment it’s always a good idea to call before you get there: some tours will be curtailed if the weather is unfavourable. There are different closing times, during the course of the year, as the sun sets earlier in winter. Please also be advised that a ticket will give you all day access to the castle, but you will be refused entry more than 45 minutes before closing time.

The castle is easily accessible by air, with an easy drive from either Glasgow or Edinburgh airports. Or you can travel to the castle by rail: the Stirling Station is on Goosecroft Road of Stirling’s city centre, and the distance from the station to the castle is easily covered by foot, taxi or bus. If you’re driving in your own or a hired car, the parking is available on a first-come-first-served basis and there is a £4 cost for parking. You can even ride your bicycle to the castle, as the complex conveniently has bicycle rails where you can safely park.

Once you’re inside, there are free guided tours, which last 30 minutes each, and are conducted each hour, on the hour. You can gain access to these tours on a first-come-first-served basis. If you miss the tour, or would prefer to explore the place alone, you are welcome to do so, and to hire an audio guide. No unaccompanied children are allowed in.

You can freshen up, eat a meal and buy mementoes at the Unicorn Café on the castle’s premises and several gift shops which sell a vast variety of Stirling Castle souvenirs, from knick-knacks such as Stirling Castle fridge magnets, cheap toys and T-shirts, as well as traditional Scottish sweets such as edible rose petals and whisky fudge, to high quality authentic pieces of tapestry, knitting or pewter collectibles.

If you’ve seen the castle, but want to explore the surrounding gems of the area of Stirling, you might want to visit the Blair Drummond Safari and Adventure Park, which is about a 12 minute drive to the north; or the Battle of Bannockburn, a battle site, which you can find about 3 miles south of the castle, and the River Forth meanders all the way through the terrain.

While there are no accommodation facilities in the castle itself, there are many hotels situated less than a mile from it, including the Lost Guest House, the Portcullis Hotel, the Stirling Highland Hotel, Allan’s Guest House and Hotel Colessio, to name just a few. At any of these establishments, you can expect genuinely sterling treatment and a Stirling tourist experience that you won’t forget. Address: Castle Esplanade, Stirling FK8 1EJ, UK, Phone: 44-17-86-45-00-00 Things to Do in Scotland: Stirling Castle - Photo: nikonbhoy/Fotolia

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Things to Do in Scotland: Stirling Castle

  • History, Photo: Courtesy of Rixie - Fotolia.com
  • More History, Photo: Courtesy of Beautifulblossom - Fotolia.com
  • Facilities, Photo: Courtesy of nikonbhoy - Fotolia.com
  • Cover Photo: Courtesy of Patrick Daxenbichler - Fotolia.com