Many people visit Edinburgh as part of a wider itinerary, travelling around Scotland and discovering the variety of places and landscapes the country has to offer.
Although I don't take tours out of Edinburgh, there are plenty of places I'm always keen to recommend to visitors - and Stirling Castle is one place I always suggest is worth taking a day trip to visit.
In fact - whisper it! - I think Stirling Castle is better than Edinburgh Castle... *Shocked face* So here's my brief guide to this iconic fortress.
Like Edinburgh, Stirling grew up along a ridge of volcanic rock which rises from the surrounding plateau. And like Edinburgh Castle, Stirling Castle rises from the dome of the rock as a settlement which overlooks the landscape around it.
Unlike Edinburgh, Stirling was once one of the rotating capitals of Scotland - until 1437, the capital was wherever the king was, meaning cities like Stirling, Dunfermline, Inverness and Perth took it in turns to hold the honour.
Although the site would have been a strategically significant location in prehistory, and would doubtless have been occupied as a settlement, the earliest record of the castle at Stirling dates back only to the early twelfth century. The structures that form the basis of the castle site today were started by James IV of Scotland prior to his death at the Battle of Flodden in 1513.
The palace itself was built by his son, James V - later the father of Mary, Queen of Scots - as a wedding present for his wife, Mary of Guise. When James died shortly after the Battle of Solway Firth (leaving his week-old daughter as queen), Mary of Guise made the palace her home.
Featuring huge amounts of Gothic carvings on the outside, and typically Rennaissance stylings on the inside, James V's palace is the jewel in the crown of Stirling Castle.
The internal quad through which visitors enter the palace today is known as the Lion's Den - and it is believed that James kept an actual lion in this space after being gifted the creature in the 1530s.
A multi-million pound renovation of the palace was recently completed, restoring several of the interior spaces to the kind of style and decoration that Mary of Guise would have had. In particular the queen's bedchamber and the hall in which she accommodated visitors and guests, which are hung with replicas of original Flemish tapestries that are held today by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York city.
Representing the hunting of the unicorn - often seen as a Christian allegory - the tapestries were created on-site at a tapestry studio that can be visited at the top of the castle site.
THE GREAT HALL
Built by James IV, the heart of the fortress was the Great Hall, a cavernous space which served not just as a location of banquets but for all manner of courtly gatherings.
On 30 August 1594, to mark the baptism of James VI's infant son Henry - who would pre-decease his father and so never became king himself - a huge banquet was held in the Great Hall at which a series of grand presentations were given. Most notably, a full-size galleon, complete with masts, rigging, sails, and functioning canons, and decorated all around with fish and sea creatures modelled in sugar and sweet pastries. It is this grand piece of food theatre which is credited with originating the phrase 'to push the boat out', meaning to make a great effort in some venture!
The Great Hall was renovated in the late 1990s, and its plaster painted a vivid shade, which is believed to be the colouring of the original structure.
THE CHAPEL ROYAL
Stirling Castle included a variety of different buildings within the complex, including a chapel for religious worship. The original chapel was built around 1501, and it was here that Mary, Queen of Scots, was crowned queen of Scotland in 1543.
That original building was demolished and rebuilt in 1594, for the baptism of Prince Henry. The structure was later used for a variety of purposes, including as a military barracks and a storage room, but has been restored to its original stylings today.
The interior of the space was redecorated in the 1630s, ahead of the visit of Charles I - James VI's surviving son, who became king on his father's death - and features royal iconography as well as a false window to create the illusion of more light from the outside...
THE STIRLING HEADS
Originally commissioned to decorate the roof of the king's presence chamber in the palace, a series of 56 carvings feature heads of a series of historical and mythical figures. The newly renovated palace features brightly coloured painted recreations of the original heads, whilst the surviving originals are displayed in an accompanying gallery nearby.
These elaborate decorations were carved from Polish oak, and include figures representing kings and queens of Britain, including Henry VIII and James V, as well as faces representing the likes of Julius Caesar, Hercules, and a court jester.
A multimillion pound project to restore the palace apartments allows visitors now to see both the originals and the reproductions - in all their vivid colour.
In all, Stirling Castle offers a fantastic alternative perspective to Edinburgh Castle. Whereas the latter was predominantly utilised for military purposes and protection, Stirling was most certainly a luxurious space, where the monarchy of the sixteenth century could display their style and their status.
As such, it is well worth a visit, and cold be combined with a number of other options for a day trip out of Edinburgh - if you're driving, you could take in the Kelpies along the way, or visit historic villages like South Queensferry, or you could take the train to Stirling and spend a day in the city.
Discover more of Scotland's history on my private walking tours of Edinburgh!
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