Arriving in the town of Stirling itself, turn briefly south-east from town on the old A9 to Bannockburn. Above the Bannockburn Heritage Centre, the Saltire flag proudly flies, perhaps more so here than in other places. Here, in 1314, lead by their unstoppable leader, Robert the Bruce, the Scots gave their 'Auld Enemy', the English, a sound thrashing and, as they sing in Scotland's alternative national anthem, Flower of Scotland, sent them homeward to think again. The National Trust for Scotland puts on an admirable display describing the event, the lead up to it and the historic aftermath.
The craggy crown of Stirling Castle and the massive rock on which it stands can be appreciated from any angle of approach. As a symbol, it represents a measuring rod of Scotland's history. Over the past 400 years there have been seven major battles fought over these lands mainly in the cause of Scottish independence.
There is no doubt that it is the hugely advantageous position that made Stirling Castle so important. The River Forth collects from numerous other waters and meanders back and forth to form a wide alluvial plain. Before the eighteenth century this was impassable marshland with the only decent north-south route crossing through the town. Stirling was also the first point on the river that could be bridged further, compounding its position as the 'key to Scotland'.
The city of Stirling is now effectively two towns in one. There is the Castle and Old Town set on and around the outcrop of basaltic rock, while the rest of this fairly typical twentieth century Scottish conurbation stretches south and east.
The Old Town
The Old Town is still well preserved not only with the magnificent castle but a splendid medieval church, the Holy Rude, as well as merchants, dwellings, the Guild Hall, the Tolbooth and a broad market place. The aristocratic Argyle's Lodging built in 1632 is one of Scotland's finest surviving Renaissance mansions. All of this is easily explorable in a half-day.
There is a tourist information centre and a Stirling Castle Visitor Centre, which can equip you with some insight into the castle's history. It was the Stuart kings who embellished the castle and held court here in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. In the Chapel Royal, Mary Queen of Scots was crowned at the age of 9 months. Outside in Broad Street or throughout the Old Town, the local tourist board has lead initiatives to bring the area's history alive by organising various events.
The Stirling Old Town Jail is worth a visit, especially to be scared half-witless by the actors who guide you through the epochs of this ancient penitentiary. Compared to its predecessor, as we are informed, this must have seemed like a luxury hotel. The jail's roof-top outlook, now accessed by a glass elevator, provides excellent views of the castle and surrounding countryside.
There is a good transport link to see most of Stirling on the Castle Shuttle or the open-top Heritage Bus Tour which both leave from the railway station and town centre.
A visit to the Wallace Monument means a steady climb but it is well worth the effort. First you scale the 220ft (67m) high Abbey Craig hill on the otherwise flat Carse of Forth, supposedly the position from which Wallace watched his men defeat the English at the Battle of Stirling Bridge in 1297.
The monument sits like some kind of Victorian rocket ship about to take off. Above the door is a bronze statue of William Wallace and inside is his double-handed claymore, which gives you an idea of the stature of its owner. William Wallace was the father of Scottish patriotism when the concept of a nation was almost non-existent amongst the Scots, the Norse, the Angle-Saxon and Norman factions. Wallace came from an average background, a young man in his twenties with the burning idea of one nation of Scotland at a time when the country was cruelly subservient to its English overlords.
There are some 249 steps to reach the top of the monument. The Hall of Scottish Heroes, two flights up, is a rather clinical collection of white marble busts featuring such 'champions' as John Knox, David Livingstone and Adam Smith. Further on is a parapet just below the cap of the monument from where you can enjoy excellent views of Stirling Castle and the Forth Valley with the Trossachs away in the northern distance. It is possible to drive to the monument if you are unable to walk the half-mile up the hill, but most park in the facilities at the bottom.
Bridge of Allan, north of Stirling, is an elegant residential area established as a Victorian Spa town when the healing qualities of its water were discovered.
Now there is the University of Stirling on its western end, one of Scotland's newer universities until colleges and polytechnics recently acquired university status. The wooded grounds of the university are worth seeing for their landscaping and views over to Wallace's Monument. There is a par 3 golf course for the students while Bridge of Allan Gold Club (turn up the hill at the bridge crossing the River Allan) is a fairly hilly 9 hole course with stupendous panoramas of the Ochils and Forth Valley.
Dunblane is a pleasant little residential town only a few minutes drive from Stirling, build around and in close proximity to its cathedral, a rare occurrence in Scotland where most cathedrals and communities are kept separate. Once on the main route between Perth and Stirling, it is now by-passed, a quiet and compact little town with narrow streets and walks along the Allan Water.
St Blane of Bute originally built Dunblane Cathedral in AD600. The present cathedral was built in the thirteenth century although it fell foul of the Reformation and was partly destroyed. After lying in ruin for nearly 300 years it was restored in 1892 to its present exceptional condition. There are still parts of the old Celtic church found in its red sandstone walls. The interior is well worth exploring for both its stained glass and modern wood-carving.
Three miles (5km) along the A820 is Doune, once the pistol making capital of the country. It produced beautifully crafted weapons, which are now museum pieces. Its coat of arms has pistols incorporated. Doune is a pretty village on the banks of the River Teith and nestles in a vale with attractive wooded hills to the north. In the seventeenth century it was also a thriving sheep and cattle market with ramshackle stalls selling ale and broth to the locals and drovers.
Doune Castle, built in the fourteenth century, is
one of the best-preserved medieval fortifications in Scotland. It was established
by Robert Stewart, first Duke of Albany, who was one of the most powerful and unscrupulous
men in medieval Scottish history. Doune Motor Museum contains a collection of vintage
cars, some in working order and including such makes as Hispano Suiza, Bentley, Jaguar,
Rolls-Royce and Aston Martin. A number of events take place throughout the summer
including car and radio-controlled aeroplane rallies.
Thursday, December 26th, 2019
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