Stirling Castle is the lesser of the two most famous medieval strongholds of Scotland still standing today. Just like Edinburgh Castle, Stirling Castle is located on a steep hill in the middle of an important historic town, which meant that the Castle was of great military significance for the country in the past. In addition to being an architectural masterpiece, Stirling Castle has also historically served as the final line of defence in the Scottish Central Belt for any army planning to invade the Highlands. It is precisely for this reason that many of the most decisive battles in Scottish history have been fought in the proximity of this fortified base. It was also because of its strategic importance that Stirling Castle became the preferred residence of the Scottish royal family more than once.
Despite its later importance, archaeological evidence of ancient settlement on the Stirling Castle Hill is lacking. When the Roman forces conquered southern Scotland in the first century, they established a fort at the nearby Doune instead of Stirling. Nevertheless, it is almost certain that the hill was fortified to at least some extent during the early medieval ages, for by the early-twelfth century A.D. at the latest, it had gained the status of royal residence. King Alexander I of Scotland passed away at Stirling Castle after reigning for seventeen years in 1124. In December 1174, the Castle was formally handed over to England as part of the Treaty of Falaise, but returned fifteen years later. During this time in the 12th-13th centuries, Stirling Castle was the favourite royal residence of many Scottish monarchs, and a vast deer park was established nearby for the Kings.
At the Frontlines
With the death of King Alexander III in 1286, the good times of both Scotland and Stirling Castle ended for good. The ambitious English King Edward I “Longshanks” took advantage of the succession crisis which followed the death of the aforementioned ruler, and established John Balliol as King of Scotland. When Balliol was practically overthrown in 1295 due to his incompetence and compromising attitude towards his English rival, Edward used this as an excuse to invade the country the next year, triggering a cycle of warfare between the Anglo-Saxons and Celtic Scots which would continue for centuries to come.
During the invasion of 1296, Stirling Castle, like much of Scotland, was caught unprepared and captured without resistance. However, in 1297, Andrew Murray and William Wallace, two prominent leaders of the Scottish cause, gathered a significant force in the Highlands, which met with the English army of John of Surrey on the banks of River Forth near Stirling Castle. The resulting action, known as the Battle of Stirling Bridge, was the first crushing defeat for Edward Longshanks and all of Scotland was liberated within a few months. A small part of the army defeated at Stirling Bridge fled to the Castle, but was besieged and eventually surrendered. This is the first of the eight major sieges of Stirling Castle known to modern historians. It marked the end of the Castle’s status as a royal palace and practically brought it to the frontlines of the Scottish Wars of Independence.
In 1298, the Battle of Falkirk was once again likely fought near Stirling Castle, although its exact location is still disputed. When most of Scotland fell in the summer of 1303, Stirling Castle was one of the last bastions of Scottish resistance. In fact, the Castle held out so well that Edward ordered the construction of the largest trebuchet in history to bring down its walls. It was finally this weapon dubbed “Warwolf” which forced the garrison to give up. After its capture by the English, the Castle again stubbornly resisted all efforts at subjugation for over ten years.
The Battle of Bannockburn in 1314 forms an interesting part of the history of Stirling Castle. During this time, the Castle was held by Philip Mowbray, a Scottish noble loyal to Edward II of England. Before the battle, the Castle was besieged by Edward Bruce, brother of Robert Bruce (King of Scotland). Mowbray proposed a rather peculiar deal; if the garrison was not relieved by the 24th of June, he will surrender the Castle without a fight, but in exchange, Edward Bruce must lift his siege for the time being. In a bizarre feat of destiny, the expected battle was decided on precisely 24 June 1314. When the defeated English King Edward II sought refuge in the Castle, Mowbray refused to let him in, since the deadline was over one day earlier. This remarkable encounter was later imagined by an artist in the nineteenth century.
This was far from the last time Stirling Castle changed hands during the Anglo-Scottish wars, however. With the outbreak of the Second War of Scottish Independence in 1332, Stirling Castle was once again besieged and captured by the English. In 1337, the Scottish loyalists under the Guardian of Scotland Andrew Murray, son of the leader who died at Stirling Bridge, surrounded the Castle and for the first time, used gunpowder artillery, but the siege ended in failure. Stirling Castle was eventually taken back by Robert Steward, founder of the Steward Dynasty, in 1342, and placed under the command of Maurice Murray, who died a few years later.
It was under the Forsyth family that the Castle was extensively rebuilt in the last decades of the fourteenth century. The oldest surviving parts of Stirling Castle are believed to date from this period. During this time, Stirling Castle once again became one of the preferred royal residences of Scottish Kings. In 1437, King James I was assassinated by his own uncle, Walter Steward, in the most high profile regicide case of Scottish history. The young James II and his mother took refuge in Stirling Castle, which became the effective seat of government of Scotland for the time being.
Tensions concerning the Stewards’ relations with England were far from gone, however. In 1452, James II killed the 8th Earl of Douglas during a meeting, suspecting him of treason. Relations between the House of Steward and the Scottish nobility reached an all-time low during the reign of James III (starting from 1460), who was eventually killed in combat by Scottish rebels at the Battle of Sauchieburn in 1486, within sight of Stirling Castle.
The next hundred years were arguably the peak of Stirling Castle’s days of glory. Not only was it the favourite royal residence of James IV, V and VI, but it also saw significant construction work during this period. The new buildings thus added include the Forework, the Great Hall, the King’s Old Building, a tennis court and most significantly, the Royal Palace. It was also during this time that John Damian, an Italian in the service of King James IV, tried to fly with artificial wings by jumping from the walls of Stirling Castle in 1507, but ended up breaking his legs.
In 1566, the Castle was placed under the custody of the Earls of Mar on a hereditary basis, shortly before the Marian Civil War broke out. During the Civil War, Stirling Castle successfully held up against the rebel forces supporting Mary Stuart, in contrast to Edinburgh Castle, which became the most prominent stronghold of the Marian side. The Castle was once again the site of an armed conflict when the Earl of Mar also revolted against the authority of the young King James VI in 1584-5. The main concern behind almost all of this infighting was the supposed or real secret allegiance of some Scottish nobles to the English throne.
Amidst this rivalry between the crowns of England and Scotland, however, came an abrupt relief. In 1603, Queen Elizabeth I of England died without issue, and despite all the animosity between the two, the English nobility was forced to accept James VI of Scotland as the first Stuart king of England.
After the departure of James VI, Stirling Castle never became a permanent royal residence again. Instead, it was established as a military base, a role it officially continued to serve until recently. The last monarch to ever live in the Castle was Charles II, who stayed there during the English Civil War, until shortly before the Castle was besieged and captured by the forces of Oliver Cromwell in 1651.
The last time Stirling Castle saw military action was at the height of the Second Jacobite Rebellion in early 1746. The Castle was besieged by the Jacobite army of the pretender Charles Stuart, but the siege was short-lived and abandoned after less than a month on the 1st of February. The Castle continued to serve as a military base and prison afterwards. From 1873-2006, Stirling Castle was the official headquarters of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders.
Today, Stirling Castle is a public tourist attraction and is regarded as one of the national icons of Scotland. In 2019, more than 600,000 tourists visited the site, making it the second most-visited historical site in Scotland after Edinburgh Castle. Interestingly, the Castle resembles the famous Colditz Castle of Germany to such an extent that it was used to film the TV series Colditz, which aired from 1972-4.
Image: Stirling Castle