He Who Holds Stirling, Holds Scotland

By Cameron Hewitt

For years, we’ve had great coverage of Scotland included in our Great Britain guidebook. But as I research our new, stand-alone Rick Steves Scotland guidebook, my priority is finding sights or towns that we’ve not had the space to fully develop until now. One of the most important additions is Stirling. This patriotic heart of Scotland is like Bunker Hill, Gettysburg, and the Alamo, all rolled into one.

Stirling perches on a volcanic crag overlooking Scotland’s most history-drenched plain: a flat expanse, cut through by the twisting River Forth and the meandering stream called Bannockburn, that divides the Lowlands from the Highlands. Many of the great Scottish victories (William Wallace at Stirling Bridge, Robert the Bruce at Bannockburn) — and defeats (William Wallace at Falkirk) — took place just outside of Stirling. And capping the ridge is Stirling’s formidable castle, the seat of the final kings of Scotland.

 

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It’s said that “he who holds Stirling, holds Scotland.” And visiting Stirling Castle, you can literally see the layers of history. This castle was built up by a series of Stuart monarchs: Mary, Queen of Scots, and a gaggle of Jameses (for whom the “Jacobites” are named). Centuries later, the British Army further fortified the castle to defend against a Jacobite siege. On this gate, you can still (faintly) see the cannonball pockmarks from the time when Bonnie Prince Charlie — the Stuart heir — attacked his own ancestors’ home.

 

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Stirling Castle fell into disrepair for centuries, and was only recently refurbished. Today the structure feels empty and soulless. But a handful of finely decorated rooms (perhaps a bit too perfect and colorful) are brought to life by the chatty docents who greet visitors and tell them more about castle lifestyles.

 

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While almost nothing original survives at Stirling Castle, the exception is a highlight: this collection of the elaborately carved and painted portrait medallions that decorated the ceiling of the king’s presence chamber. Today they’re lovingly displayed and described in a modern museum that shows off that fine Renaissance craftsmanship.

 

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Beyond its famous castle, Stirling is pretty sleepy. I was there on a summer weekend, and — aside from rowdy crowds inside a couple of industrial-strength chain pubs — the place was dead. Scotland has more engaging towns to spend the night in, but Stirling’s convenience for hitting a variety of great side-trips is second to none.

 

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I checked out about a dozen B&Bs in Stirling, and chose my favorite six to recommend in our upcoming Scotland guidebook. With its central location and royal ties, Stirling just feels wealthy and put-together. The tidy residential zone behind the castle, with its postcard-perfect Victorian homes, is fun to simply wander.

 

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In Scotland, anywhere there’s tourists, there’s a bagpiper. Yes, I know it’s a cliché, but I can’t resist a good street piper. This one seemed particularly sprightly — he seemed to get a genuine kick out of interacting with tourists (not just posing for them).