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An hour’s train ride from Edinburgh, Stirling is a wonderful taste of Scotland (and the site of some of its most significant history). As the saying goes, "he who hold Stirling holds Scotland," and it was here in 1297 that William Wallace enjoyed a victory over the English (memorialized in Braveheart).
The city center you’ll want to see is small and easily walkable (though hilly, which is the source of so much of its rugged beauty). Once you emerge from the train station, start walking up the hill (you’ll easily be able to tell you’re going the right way - your calves will let you know).
FULL PINTS ONLY
We grabbed an early lunch (11:15 AM) at one of the local pubs on our walk up the hill (having experienced the town, I’d have waited for lunch until I got closer to the castle, recommendation below, but it’s always hard to walk by a pub without popping in!). A nice lunch deal was on offer - sandwich and a pint. I (apparently ridiculously) asked to substitute a half pint, as it was at this point...perhaps 11:19 AM...but here in lovely, perfect Scotland, even 5’3 American lawyers are required to drink pints of beer at lunch. The bartender replied to my request, with an entirely straight face, as though we had asked for a free round of shots, “Full pints only. No half pints.” I drank it. Obviously.
This gorgeous church is the first stop on our whirlwind tour of Stirling. Built just slightly after the ancient castle that looms above it, the version we see today was begun in the 15th century. The interior is lovely and well-maintained, but to me the churchyard was the main attraction - large, expansive, and covering centuries of Stirling’s history, we spent quite a while perusing the intricate gravestones and enjoying the view of the church, castle, and surrounding countryside.
Reminiscent of Edinburgh Castle, Stirling Castle juts majestically out of the rolling hillside. With its location as the gateway to The Highlands, the castle has been the site of a number of significant battles, from the earliest days of its existence. The portion you will see is mainly from the 15th and 16th centuries, though earlier portions have been preserved. Mary, Queen of Scots was crowned here, and Bonnie Prince Charlie was responsible for the most recent siege of the castle, in 1746 (he was unsuccessful). The Great Hall of the Castle (one of many buildings of the structure, like all castles), was one of many buildings that ultimately had to be restored and largely reconstructed. Historic Scotland elected to do so in the bright limewash that would have covered the castle, causing it to contrast starkly with the city below and hills behind. It stands today as an excellent reminder that castles were not always old, and history was not always written. It reminds me of the affinity that we hold for the ancient Greek and Roman statues we see in art museums - sedate and dignified, we do not see the colorful pain that would have brought them vividly to life, so many years ago.
An excellent summary of the restoration of Stirling Castle is available from 99% Invisible.
The castle offers helpful and thoughtful itineraries, though, for a traveler such as myself, following the map is likely sufficient.
Having completed your visit to the castle, we were fortunate to be able to visit Argyll's Lodging, a well-preserved 17th-century townhouse, with entrance fee included in our ticket price to the castle. Unfortunately, the Lodging is currently closed for "essential maintenance." Check back on the website - hopefully this will change soon!
Our final stop was THE PORTCULLIS, a cozy pub near the castle, as we ambled back down the hill. I'd recommend lunch here, before or after the castle, but as we had already eaten, we opted for a pint (they do allow half pints, I came to find).
Stirling is a lovely town - full of history and Scottish charm. Stop by for a day and check it out (and if you have more time than we did, journey out to The Wallace Monument which, incidentally, does offer complimentary transportation, as it's a bit outside the town itself).
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