Stirling – Part 1 Gateway to the Highlands

In the summer we visited Stirling up in Scotland and learnt a lot about the culture and history of the beautiful city. When we did a tour of the Isle of Skye, the tour guide highly recommended visiting Stirling Castle as it was his favourite Scottish castle.

So we did, and made it a trip to visit Stirling – the Gateway to the Highlands. And here is some history behind why Stirling was so important and strategic as a stronghold for both the English and the Scottish.

I talk about our historical visits to Stirling Bridge, the National Wallace Monument, the Battle of Bannockburn Visitor Centre, and Cabuskenneth Abbey.

A brief history

The Scottish King Alexander III died and didn’t leave an heir. Margaret of Norway was selected as the next heir, aged 3, but never made it to English shores. The Scottish noblemen then fell to infighting as to who would be king.

Robert the Bruce’s grandfather was one of the contenders, the other contender was John Balliol. The Scottish noblemen invited the English King Edward I to select a king to keep the peace, but he demanded that whoever would be king would be subservient to England. Edward I selected John Balliol to be king, but John Balliol made a treaty with the French against Edward I’s wishes, which is why Edward I invaded Scotland.

Many battles ensued: Stirling Bridge, Falkirk, Stirling Castle, and Bannockburn.

Stirling Bridge

Old Stirling Bridge (a medieval bridge) is a pedestrian bridge not too far from the original Stirling Bridge (a roman bridge), which fell after the fateful Battle of Stirling Bridge in 1297.

This crossing of the River Forth, known to be the gateway to the Highlands, was strategically selected by the Scottish as the place of battle.

When standing on the current bridge you can see Stirling Castle on one side and the Wallace Monument on the other side, where the English and the Scottish, respectively, watched and planned the battle.

The National Wallace Monument

To commemorate the Battle of Stirling Bridge this monument was built 200 years ago to mark where William Wallace and Andrew de Moray planned and executed the battle. This is actually a really well thought out tourist attraction with buses, a cafe, two gift shops, and even a shuttle bus.

We hopped on a bus near Stirling train station, which takes you right outside the bottom of the Monument car park. Walking from the car park up to the Monument took maybe 15 minutes, less if we didn’t stop for pictures.

We walked via the Wallace Way route, where there were wooden sculptures/ carvings detailing the history of the area. It was steep but still an enjoyable walk up. There is also a shuttle bus that takes you from the bottom right up to the top.

We reached the Wallace Monument and the views down to Stirling centre were amazing – though it did start to pick up a little wind. From a distance the monument appears old but up close you can tell it’s a little more modern, at least you wouldn’t expect from afar that it was only built 200 years ago.

We bought tickets on the ground floor and were informed to keep right when passing others on the small spiral staircase. The staircase was somewhat narrow, but manageable to pass people coming the other side if you have small bags with you – much better than the spiral steps of Dover Castle! So up we went, almost 250 steps.

The Hall of Arms

We reached the first room, which had a short video charting the lead up to the Battle of Stirling and Wallace’s life after. Wallace killed the hated Sheriff of Lanark and later joined with Andrew de Moray to plan the Battle of Stirling. De Moray died in battle, but Wallace lived on and became Guardian of Scotland.

After the failed Battle of Falkirk years later, Wallace renounced his title as Guardian of Scotland and fled to France/ Spain. Later he came back to Scotland and was betrayed by a nobleman to then be tried in London and later hung, drawn, and quartered.

This room also holds Wallace’s sword, which was taller than me! There was also some interesting bits about what Wallace’s life might have been like.


The Hall of Heroes

Up a few flights of stairs was this second room which held busts of famous Scottish men and women. Poets and writers Sir Walter Scott, Robert Burns, and Mairi Mhor nan Oran were mentioned, along with James Watt who invented the steam engine, William Murdoch who discovered gas to light homes, and economist Adam Smith who wrote about free trade.

There were also busts for politician William Gladstone – the Victorian prime minister who changed primary education, taxes and voting rights, racing car driver Dorothee Pullinger, the first woman marine engineer Victoria Drummond, mathematician and astronomer Mary Somerville, and Maggie Keswick Jencks who co founded cancer support centres in Scotland.

Women have only recently been added to this room so there were only a couple of female busts on display, but things are changing and projects have been started to include more women in this room. A replica of Robert the Bruce’s sword, along with a bust of the king, are also displayed in this room.

The Royal Chamber

The last room in this monument shows how the Battle of Stirling Bridge was won. The English vantage point was at Stirling Castle, whilst the Scottish vantage point was here on the crag the monument sits, both viewpoints allowing good sight of the bloody battle.

As the English army crossed the narrow Stirling Bridge and before they could organise their formations, the Scottish attacked, and the English were trapped by three sides of river and the fourth side being a row of Scottish fighters – genius, really.

In this room you can also design your own coat of arms for your battle shield and pose with it – of course we had to create one with a dog!


The Crown Spire

Right at the top is 360 views of Stirling. Sometimes closed due to high winds, we decided not to go up to the top as it was pretty windy, so headed back down the spiral steps.

The Battle of Bannockburn Visitor Centre

The Battle of Bannockburn fought in 1314 was a fight for Robert the Bruce to be king, as well as a fight for independence. The Visitor Centre is where the battle was planned, not fought.

Only a short bus ride from the city centre, the Visitor Centre operates with guided tours, videos, and an immersive experience.

Lead up to battle

The first room of the guided tour showed a video charting the lead up to the Battle of Bannockburn. As mentioned previously, there was infighting amongst the Scottish for the crown and the English King Edward I wanted whoever was king to be subservient to England.

The Battle of Stirling Bridge took place, Scotland won, and William Wallace became the Guardian of Scotland. Then the Battle of Falkirk took place, England won this time, and William Wallace stepped down as Guardian of Scotland.

Robert the Bruce and John Comyn became joint Guardians of Scotland, then Bruce removed Comyn, after which Bruce was excommunicated by the Pope and declared a treasonous rebel by the Crown.

Robert the Bruce married Elizabeth, an English noblewoman. The English took Robert the Bruce’s wife, sisters, and daughters because he was accused of treason for removing Comyn from the Scottish throne.

The person who held Stirling Castle at the time informed King Edward II of England that he would give up the castle if there was no English army there. So Edward II’s hand was forced and he moved his army north to meet Robert the Bruce for battle.

The battle

The second room of the guided tour had a massive map of Stirling in the middle and the tour guide informed us how the battle actually happened.

On the first day of battle, Robert the Bruce was lightly armoured on a horse, out on display at the front coaxing the English. One fame-seeking English lord, Sir Henry De Bohun, saw Bruce and seized his opportunity to charge with his horse and tried to attack with his spear. But Robert the Bruce killed him with one strike of an axe to the face – savage.

The Scots had set out traps, leading the English to go north west. Under Sir Robert Clifford, the English had hoped to get behind the Scottish army and reach Stirling Castle, but they couldn’t break through the Scottish schiltrons led by Bruce’s nephew, Randolph.

That evening, a Scottish knight, Sir Alexander Seton, serving under Edward II’s English army switched sides and informed Bruce that the English troops were tired and morale was low.

Knowing the land, the Scottish had led the English to be enclosed between the Bannockburn and the Pelstreamburn – two rivers – where they camped for the night.

On day two of the battle, the Scots advanced. The English army had to either cross the rivers or face the Scottish schiltrons. The archers/ long bows at the back were ordered to cross the river and attack the Scottish.

Robert the Bruce saw this and ordered some cavalry horses to attack the unprotected archers. Bruce then ordered his schiltrons to advance, cornering the English.

A cousin to Edward II and brother in law to Robert the Bruce, thought he would be treated well as a prisoner. But Bruce said no prisoners, and so he was killed. The English fled, but in their heavy mail and armour, fell to a 40m ditch and died.

The tour guide informed us that the larger English casualties was from fleeing and falling to death in the ditch and not from battle – it would have been a mad panic.

Edward II was dragged to Stirling castle, but wasn’t given entry, so fled to Dunbar and got a boat back to England. The English left a lot of armour and weapons, which the Scottish seized. The Englishmen left were then ransomed back.


Immersive fighting

The next room of the tour showed the different fighting styles and tactics of the battle. Then we had a look around and read the information screens. We were given 10 minutes but I felt it wasn’t enough time to read everything in this room.


Aftermath of the battle

The final room of the tour showed a video of the aftermath of the battle. Those who supported Bruce were gifted land, titles, and wealth; and those who didn’t support Bruce were disavowed of what had previously belonged to them. Bruce got his Queen back and had another child.

Parliament was held in Cambuskenneth Abbey and later Scotland was recognised as an independent country by the Pope.

King Edward II was even less liked than before, favouring Hugh De Spencer, but the English barons didn’t like him. Queen Isabella and her lover Mortimer had de Spencer killed and took power in the name of Edward III who was still a child at the time. It is alleged that Edward II was then murdered in prison.


Outside

The tour ended with an unguided tour outside, where there is a statue of Robert the Bruce.

It was interesting learning about the Battle of Bannockburn, one I didn’t know much about before. The Scottish really know their land and appear to really like cornering the English between rivers.

Cabuskenneth Abbey

Located in the village of Cabuskenneth, east of the River Forth, Cabuskenneth Abbey is only open to the public a few times a week.

Now a ruined abbey, this was where parliament met after the Battle of Bannockburn and where King James III and his wife Queen Margaret are buried.

It was a lovely walk through the village to get to the abbey and it was so peaceful when we visited. I had never heard so many happy chirping birds!

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