Towns / Cities Visited: 116
Countries Visited: 23
Steps Taken Today: 12,202
Steps Taken Around the World: 3,078,912
We were up bright and early once more, for another ambitious endeavour of trying to cram two castles into one day. As with most things, it is often best to complete the smaller tasks before the larger ones, and as such we headed off to the lesser of the two; Doune Castle. This rather petit but still imposing medieval stone castle is, unsurprisingly, located near the village of Doune. If you will, allow me to give you a little background on the site before we begin. It was originally built in the 13th century, and was likely damaged during the Scottish Wars of Independence, before being rebuilt in the late 14th century by Robert Stewart, Duke of Albany and son of King Robert II of Scots. The castle itself has a long and varied history, from being the property of Robert Stewart, to becoming a royal hunting lodge, to seeing military use during the Wars of the Three Kingdoms, the Glencairn’s Rising, and the Jabobite Risings. As such, the place had fallen into ruin by 1800 and restoration didn’t begin until 1880. The property is now cared for by Historic Environment Scotland.
Robert Stewart himself also has a rather interesting history, as he was regent in 1388 as his father was elderly and unable to perform his duties, and his elder brother was infirm at the time. Robert later became regent again in 1406 when his brother had passed away, and his nephew King James I was captured by the English. In an extremely selfish and wildly morally questionable move, he made very little effort to have his nephew freed, and would not pay the ransom for his release. This in turn meant that he was able to remain in charge of the country until his death in 1420. At this point the regency and the dukedom was passed down to his son Murdoch. The ransom for James I was finally paid in 1424, and after his return to the throne, he took revenge on his cousin by capturing and imprisoning him and his two sons, before having them all executed for treason. This seems harsh until you remember that Murdoch’s father, and in turn himself, left James in the hands of his captors for almost twenty years.
Despite all of Robert’s and the castle’s fascinating past, this place is most recognisable in the modern era as a film location for ‘Monty Python and the Holy Grail’, and more recently as a backdrop for scenes in the TV show ‘Outlander’. As we parked the car and neared the castle we were faced with the dreaded scaffolding which had haunted so many of the attractions we had visited thus far. Regardless, as I looked up at the parapet of the corner tower, I could almost hear the comical French knights spewing forth insults about hamsters and elderberries at King Arthur, and half expected a cow to come catapulting over the wall at any moment. As someone who grew up on the humour of the Monty Python gents, it was a satisfying and amusing sight to behold.
Picking up our Scotland Explorer Passes, which would see us have unlimited entry to many of the fascinating places cared for by the Historic Environment Scotland group over the next fortnight, we were soon walking into the inner courtyard of this tiny fortification. The space itself is rather sparse, with a central well, and buildings only taking up two of the four walls. The castle had been intended to be much larger, but after the death of Robert Stewart the construction stopped and thus the other two walls stand as they are, with no inner construction. Still as we began to make our way around the courtyard, we slipped on our headphones and began listening to our audioguides.
Now, it must be said that there is very little to see in the interior other than the stone walls, stairs, and fireplaces, and only the Lord’s Hall has been restored with decoration to give a feel of how the interior may have appeared in its heyday. The castle does have a few noteworthy quirks and additions though, like the fact that despite the Lord’s Hall having a unique double fireplace, the Great Hall was likely heated by a central fire and ventilated by a louvre in the wooden roof. None of the original rooves remain, but the reconstructions are convincing enough.
The upper rooms make up the living quarters of the lords and ladies who resided her during its long history, and they offer a scenic view out over the surrounding lands. One of these rooms even includes a small niche with a holy water font when would likely have been used as a small private place for prayer. The kitchen was also one of the most fascinating of rooms, like in most medieval castles, as its stone fixtures makes it easy to imagine it in use. Its massive fireplace is basically big enough to throw a party in, and the stones around the window show sure signs of being used to sharpen knives all of those centuries ago.
Despite the lack of accoutrements, it is the audioguide, voiced by Monty Python’s very own Terry Jones, that brings this place to life. Along with explaining the historical facets of the building, it also speaks of the filming of ‘Holy Grail’, and plays the audio of a few of the scenes recorded in each of the rooms used. For those of you familiar with the film, aside from the mocking French Knights and Trojan Rabbit scene, this place was used as the backdrop for many of the locations in the film from Swamp Castle, to Castle Anthrax, as well as the Great Hall playing host to the ‘Knights of the Round Table’ song at Camelot.
Although it wasn’t a hugely lengthy visit, we left contented and amused by our visit. Alas, we had another, much larger, castle that required our attention, and after a short drive and a long hunt for parking, we were soon hiking up the steep path to gain entry to the hilltop beauty that is Stirling Castle. This is one of Scotland’s largest and most important castles, and although most of the walls and buildings it comprises of date from the 15th and 16th century, there has likely been some form of fortification on this sight for over 1500 years. Much like Doune castle, Stirling castle has a long and checkered history, and was fought over, conquered, and surrendered multiple times, especially during the many struggles by the Scots for independence from England, and the retainment of their own royal bloodline. It has been the place of royal births and royal deaths, and even the murder of William, 8th Earl of Douglas, by King James II when he refused to end a potentially treasonous alliance.
As it was just after midday, we took a quick moment to grab a bite to eat at the castle’s cafe, before ducking through the inner gate and beginning our exploration.
Before heading inside, we took the opportunity to first visit the Queen Anne Gardens, although the monotonous drizzle of Scotland meant it was a somewhat damp affair. Still the delightful pops of colour in the flowerbeds, and the towering beauty of the 200 year old beech tree helped to lighten the mood. The parapets here also give a stunning view down to the town of Stirling, over the peaceful cemetery also located on the hill, and out to the grassy fields which once held further royal gardens; the outline of which is still clearly visible in the neatly mown grass.
In the old stables just beside the garden is now housed an impressive timeline of the Stuart family and their claim to the throne. This includes that blip in history where King James VI of Scotland, who was the great great nephew of King Henry VIII of England, and the son of Mary Queen of Scots, became dual ruler of both countries, being simultaneously King James VI of Scotland and King James I of England, after all of Henry’s children passed away leaving no heir. Mary became Queen of Scots as just six days old, and similarly her son ascended to the throne at just 13 months old when his mother abdicated after becoming unpopular due to her marriage to the divorcee and protestant James Hepburn, 4th Earl of Bothwell. It is prudent to note that it’s widely believed that it was Bothwell who orchestrated the murder of Mary’s second husband, and father to James VI, Henry Stuart (Lord Darnley), only a month prior to their marriage. All in all the Stuart family history is messy, bloody, and intrinsically complicated, but then weren’t they all back then.
From here we moved through the castle vaults, which lay out a fun and kid friendly series of interactive displays from which to learn about a number of facets of medieval life including information on: the music and instruments of the 1500’s; how rare dyes and pigments were shipped across the world for the wealthy to use; the finer points of the royal wardrobe and its luxurious fabrics; and the tools and techniques used by master stone masons to carve the many intricate decorations around the site.
Next up it was time to explore the interior of the royal palace, which has been redecorated to show how it would have looked during the reign of James V in the 1500’s. The detail is spectacular, especially the addition of replicas of the famous Stirling heads which are attached to the ceiling in one of the rooms. For those of you unfamiliar with them, they are intricate wooden panels carved and painted to depict many of the royals and members of court at the time, as well as famous historic figures including Roman emperors, and biblical and mythological figures. In the queen’s apartments you are also presented with the incredibly reproduced medieval tapestry series called ‘Hunt of the Unicorn’. Their vivid colour and detail really makes you feel as though you are seeing them as those of the past would have, instead of having to look at the ageing, tattered, and incomplete original, which now reside in a museum in New York. From the richly decorated bed chambers, to the huge Great Hall and its wooden beamed ceiling, the place offers a stunning representation of life within the castle’s walls.
From here we wandered over to the Stirling heads gallery which houses some of the original metre wide, carved oak panels from the 16th century ceiling, which have managed to survive. The ceiling collapsed in 1777, and after this the panels were dispersed. From then on they were bought and sold by private buyers. Due to their private ownership, many of them are in stunning condition. Jane Graham, wife of the castle’s deputy governor, fell in love with a few of the carvings and began working to reunite them, whilst also creating incredibly detailed sketches of those she could not pry from their owners in 1817. Thanks to her sketches, and the remaining originals, the restoration team were able to recreate 36 of the heads in stunningly accurate detail. Some minor paint flecks found on the originals also allowed them to speculate as to how they were painted when they hung pride of place.
We then headed across the courtyard for a quick duck into the Chapel Royal, which was built in 1593 by order of James VI for the baptism of his son and heir Henry. It was the first Protestant church in Scotland, hence its rather less gaudy interior, although it does include a beautiful frieze painting added in 1628 in expectation for the coronation of James VI surviving younger son Charles I. However Charles was never crowned there, and spent the majority of his life in England, where he was also King, before being executed for high treason in 1649 after Oliver Cromwell gained control of England.
A little more exploration of the courtyards and the gun batteries, and we found ourselves venturing into the massive kitchens, squirrelled away in a rather dark corner of the castle. The place is chock full of figures of all those hard working men who would have churned out the meals of the hundreds of hungry aristocrats and royals within the castle walls. They are posed amongst replica food and equipment, in such a way that it almost feels that if you snapped your fingers, they would all awaken from their trance and continue on with their tasks. A few folders dotted around teach you of old medieval recipes, along with some of the now obsolete culinary terms from the 16th century. There was a few surprising facts amongst it all, for example the fact that the word ‘desservies’ or dessert appears in Scots in the 1590’s, some 100 years before it began being used in English.
It was almost time to head off, but we quickly stopped into the last display, which describes the mammoth task which was recreating the Unicorn tapestries. The start of the exhibit explains the story the tapestries tell, which on its surface just seems like a hunt for a unicorn, but apparently is all metaphors about the life, capture, and death of Jesus. The other part of the exhibit has a short video about all of the work that went into remaking the tapestries, including coming up with the imagery for the missing portions of the originals. We were flabbergasted to learn that they seven tapestries took 10 years to complete, at a cost of two million dollars. Although, considering the fact that they used traditional medieval techniques and materials, this seems fair, as well as wildly impressive.
We had done it. We had managed to get through both castles in a day, and as we wandered back down the hill towards our car there was just one little piece of the Scottish culinary world that I wanted to introduce my partner to before we headed home for the night; deep fried mars bars. A short stop at the local fish and chip shop, and we soon had our prize in hand and chowed down on the chewy, melty goodness of one of the most undeniably unhealthy snacks we’d had so far.
It was a quiet night in, with another home cooked dinner, and as I lay in bed I thought over all we had seen and learned. My partner and I are huge fans of Game of Thrones, and as I thought about the bloody, backstabbing, and somewhat incestuous history of not only these two castles, but all of those we had visited up to that point, it was hard not to laugh at the fact that A Song of Ice and Fire, once you take out the magic and dragons, is probably more akin to a historical work of literature than a fantasy novel. Things that seem absurd and disgusting to our modern eyes were the norm of times past. A time when if you killed enough of the right people you could rule a country; a time when upper class marriages were all strategy and no romance, and more often than not involved you slipping a ring onto the finger of your cousin, or even your sibling; a time when adultery seemingly was both a mortal sin and a rite of passage for wealthy men, and royal bastards were rife; a time, not so long ago, when playing the game of thrones literally ended with either victory or death. Sometimes we don’t need to create fantastical worlds to find actions which defy belief and sense, sometimes we simply have to look back in time.