by Lucy Keir
Though not as well-known other Scottish cities, Stirling — located where the Highlands and Lowlands meet — is a city of historical depth and stunning landscapes. The ancient capital of Scotland, Stirling was home to the seat of Kings and Parliament and is the site where many of the battles of Scotland’s Wars of Independence took place (one of these battles, the Battle of Stirling Bridge, is featured in the movie Braveheart).
With so much to see, where should you head first? Below, you’ll find a few recommendations for history and outdoor enthusiasts alike.
Perched atop Castle Hill and surrounded on three sides by steep cliffs, Stirling Castle offers views of the city and the village of Bannockburn, where Robert the Bruce defeated the English in the summer of 1314.
This view alone is worth the steep hike up from the town center, but if you don’t want to walk, driving is also an option (parking is available right outside the castle gates). Sign up for a guided tour to learn more about the castle’s history of assassinations, kidnappings, skullduggery and general political intrigue; along the way, you’ll also learn about the Castle’s art and architecture, the legacy of Stewart Kings James IV, V and VI.
The chapel royal has two completed recreation tapestries from the Hunt of the Unicorn; you can visit the tapestry studio every afternoon at 1:00 to see the remaining five being woven by hand and to learn more about the craft. Tickets to the castle also give you free admission to the Argyll Lodgings next door, the most complete surviving example of a seventeenth-century Scottish townhouse.
The Church of Holy Rude
Also neighboring the castle is the second oldest building in Stirling, the Church of Holy Rude (rude meaning here holy cross, not impolite). Founded in 1129 during the reign of David I, a 1405 fire left nothing of the original building. The church was rebuilt in 1530; 37 years later, the infant James VI was crowned King of Scotland there following the forced abdication of his mother Mary Queen of Scots. The Church of Holy Rude is therefore thought to be the only living church in the United Kingdom outside of Westminster Abbey to have held a coronation.
The church is beautiful inside and out; outside, be sure to take the walkway through the graveyard up to a beautiful lookout. If you’re brave enough to venture through the graveyard at night, you’ll be rewarded with stunning views of the castle, which is illuminated at night.
The Old Town Jail
Stirling’s Old Town Jail, now a vibrant tourist attraction, showcases the grim realities of a Victorian reform prison. “Coarse food; a dress of shame; hard incessant, irksome labor; a planned, regulated and unrelenting exclusion of happiness and comfort” was the prescription for the unfortunate souls who ended up within these prison walls.
The Old Town Jail offers fantastic live prison tours, where you’ll meet characters such as the prison warden, the Victorian reformer, Stirling’s notorious hangman, and a convict determined to escape. (For kids, there’s also a prison beastie hunt.) Tickets to the National Wallace Monument (below) will give you a discounted entrance to the jail, so it’s advisable to visit both attractions on the same day.
National Wallace Monument
One of the best views of Stirling and the surrounding area can be found atop of the National Wallace Monument, just outside the city center (though this is not advised for those afraid of heights). The monument, which honors William Wallace and all things to do with the Battle of Stirling Bridge, is home to a 220-foot tower completed in 1869. The tower sits upon Abbey Craig hilltop, from which in 1297 Wallace watched the English army approach across Stirling Bridge.
The tower has four rooms on its way to the top, making the 246 steps more manageable (be careful of your footing, though; the tower’s steps are worn down from age):
• The first 71 steps lead to The Life of William Wallace room. Here, you can learn about his life, his conquest over the English Army at Stirling Bridge and relive his trial, complete with a 3-D simulation of his testimony. Also on view is Wallace’s sword, which, at 5 feet 4 inches, is a wonder he ever managed to lift it, let alone fight with it.
• The next 64 steps lead to the Hall of Heroes, where you can learn about the achievements of other great Scots such as Robert the Bruce, Adam Smith and Sir Walter Scott.
• Another 62 steps will lead you to the Building the Monument Exhibition, where you can learn the history behind the actual construction of the monument.
• The final 49 steps leads you to The Crown, the open-air top deck of the monument, where awe-inspiring views of the surrounding landscape await you. To the north, you can see the Ochil Hills, Dumyat hill and the University of Stirling. To the east, the Forth Valley, which snakes its way into the distance, and to the south, you’ll find the city of Stirling itself with its ever-prominent Castle. To the south you can also see Stirling Bridge; although the original wooden bridge is no longer there, a stone version offers a good idea of where the battle may have taken place. To the west are the Trossachs woodlands, Loch Lomond and, on a very clear day, distant views of the Southern Highlands.
Once you’ve reached the top of the tower, be sure to visit the gift shop, where you can purchase a certificate proving that you got to the top — which by now you will appreciate is no small achievement.
University of Stirling
Looking to stretch your legs after all that history? Head to the nearby University of Stirling. Built in 1967, the 300-acre grounds include the picturesque Airthrey Loch and are open to the general public and students alike. The many walkways include a trail around the loch, where you can feed the ducks and swans.
Diehard sports fans will also enjoy the university’s many sporting facilities, including an Olympic-sized swimming pool where the Scottish national team trains. The school’s gym is often used by the Scottish Rugby team, meaning you may get to train alongside some of the country’s best athletes. Looking for something a little more laid-back? Head to the campus golf course.
If all this activity leaves you famished, be sure to visit the café bar located at the university’s MacRobert Arts Centre,where you’ll find delicious, reasonably priced entrees such as steak ciabatta with fries and salad and seasonal mussels.
MacRobert’s cinema offers a selection of art-house, foreign-language, and second-run films; the center’s theatre has a wide range of productions, from dance to live theater to the Christmas pantomime show, which is always a ball.
Blair Drummond Safari Park
If you’re traveling with children, Stirling offers the only African Safari Park in Scotland. Located just a quick 15-minute drive from Stirling’s city center, the park offers tours through the game reserve, boat rides to chimp island, and everything from sea lions to birds of prey. The monkeys are no longer allowed to roam free, so windshield wipers are safe.
Also about a 15-minute drive from Stirling’s center is the medieval Doune Castle, built in the fourteenth century for Robert Stewart, Duke of Albany. Contemporary visitors may also recognize it as the setting of the film “Monty Python and the Holy Grail.” The annual Monty Python Day! celebrates all things Monty Python and Grail-like each September.
Planning Your Trip:
When to Visit
The end of Spring through the beginning of Autumn is the best time to visit Stirling, which can be rainy and cold in the winter. February is the best month for snow, but bundle up; the wind chill factor can be strong.
Budgeting Your Time
When planning a trip to Stirling, you should allow for at least three days, depending on how many outside excursions you plan on doing. Two days will is enough to cover all the historical sites, especially since many of them — the jail, Church of Holy Rude, Argyll Lodgings, and the castle — are all within walking distance. Blair Drummond Safari Park, one the other hand, will probably take you an entire day, but you could easily combine Doune Castle and the university in one trip.
Where to Stay
Stirling and the town next door, Bridge of Allan, are filled with many bed and breakfasts,where you’ll be treated to authentic, homely lodging. The owners may also offer you tips on places to visit during your stay.
Eating and Drinking
One of the best places to eat in Stirling city center is a delicatessen called Peckhams which offers a restaurant tucked out the back.
For an old-fashioned hearty pub meal, visit Westerton Arms ,also located in Bridge of Allan. Back in town, Settle Inn — the oldest pub in Stirling — offers a quiet, authentic setting, despite its run-down exterior. For a more lively night on the town, head to The Meadow Park Hotel bar.
Stirling also boasts two very good cocktail bars. Obu Eru caters to a younger crowd, but the cocktails are the best you will taste, while the drinks Pink Cadillac and Southern Bullet are particularly deadly. Pivos is a Czech bar offering a variety of beers and two-for-one cocktails all day Sunday through Thursday.
For More Information on Stirling: