Stirling Castle is lies at the most the strategically important location in Scotland, guarding the main north south route between the highlands and the lowlands and the east west route from the Clyde valley to the Forth estuary and controls the main crossing of the river Forth to the East. Fortifications had existed on this site and as a royal residence long before King James the IV of Scotland decided to begin the replacement of the older timber, earth and rubble fortification with a new and enlarged stone one that befitted his status as a European prince. The “forework” or fortified entrance (see above) was the main outward face of this re-building and was originally 5 storeys high with 4 towers capped with conical roofs and was designed to impress. This led into the outer courtyard or “Close” around which King James IV and James VI created a sumptuous royal complex of buildings, the Kings old building, the Great Hall, the Palace and Chapel Royal. In doing so they departed from previous royal building in adopting continental renaissance ideas. James V’s French queen was Mary of Guise and it is largely due to her influence that artisans and craftsmen came over from the continent to create what James wished people to view as a “Palace of Princelie virtue”, a demonstration of his culture, erudition and power written in stone and wood.
The palace, which contains the Royal Apartments is decorated externally with statues which were at their inception revolutionary in scale and subject in Scotland. They represent an elaborate tableau of allegorical and mythical figures intended to celebrate virtues endorsed by the King. In the castle’s visitor’s centre there is a good audio-visual reconstruction of the how these sculptures would originally have been polychrome and the building covered in stucco, presenting a very different and much more colourful aspect than it does today.
The interiors of the main apartments have been lightly restored with a focus on the decorative schemas of ceiling and wall paintings, tapestries, bed-hangings and some replica furniture. Together they convey in the parts where they are more complete an indication of the vernacular sumptuousness of the sixteenth century Scottish Royal apartments. James the V died in 1542 and may never have seen his Palace fully completed. The subsequent turmoil of the minority of his son James VI and invasions by King Henry VIII of England meant it probably took several years for the apartments to be fully completed and so the partial or light restoration they exist in the moment is intended to reflect this period in the 1540’s when they were still being worked on. The exception is the ceiling of the Kings Inner hall, where the famous “Stirling Heads” have been copied and replaced in situ. They were commissioned by James V in about 1540 and were carved in the new Renaissance style by French craftsmen at the time of his second marriage to Mary of Guise. Several different carvers executed the heads, some of them more skilled than others and it is thought that local carvers may have worked under a French master, Andrew Mansioun.
The original “Stirling Heads” have their own gallery and museum on the upper floor of the Place and are very well presented under low light conditions. Fully coloured reproduction copies assist in places in understanding the artistic intention of the artists and craftsmen and the whole exhibition is set out in such a way that the beauty and history of the originals are equally revealed.
Opposite the Palace on the other side of the inner courtyard is the Chapel Royal. This was built in 7 months in 1594 under the orders James VI on the site of a previous a chapel. It reflects the aesthetic preferences of the new protestant religion, relatively plain and day-lit, designed for hearing the word of scripture rather than observing the mysteries of the Catholic faith. The doorway and widows were inspired by classical Renaissance designs and it’s believed that the ceiling was decorated with gold leaf and the walls were embellished with baptismal scenes. The chapel fell into disuse when James the VI became James I of England and moved the court to London in 1603 but it was redecorated by Valentine Jenkin in 1628-9 for Charles I’s coronation visit to Scotland in 1633. The painted frieze around the upper parts of walls is best preserved along with a trompe l’oeil window painted on the west end.
The castle also has a visitors centre housed in some enclosed embrasures near the entrance. In it you can see reconstructions of a man and woman probably killed in battle and buried beneath the floor of the old chapel probably in the 1300’s. The man appears to have come from the south of England and this may date from the period when Stirling Castle was captured by Edward III in 1336 and its defences improved. It was retaken by the Scots in 1342. Other artefacts such as artillery and other arms are of interest as is a large model of the castle which gives a useful overview of its overall contemporary form and layout, which is sometimes difficult to grasp when inside it. Overall this a well thought through and engaging visitor experience. It is not dumbed down and on the other hand it is not too esoteric. The presence of costumed staff in character adds much to the experience and one comes away with the sense that real history and real historic architecture and interiors have been glimpsed.