Thursday, July 4, 2019

Stirling Castle

A few years ago we went to Edinburgh Castle, I'd previously seen it as a child and had romantic memories of it, D had never been, so it was an obvious Edinburgh thing to do. Both of us were disappointed. It's an amazing sight, but quite expensive and most of what's inside the castle compound seems to be regimental museums, and the Scottish war memorial. It's also incredibly crowded.

By contrast I'd never been to Stirling castle, but D had. The ferry from Aberdeen to Shetland released us on to the mainland at 7am and we hadn't really planned what to do beyond breaking the journey back to Leicester somewhere about halfway. Not much is open to visitors at 7am (in fact not much I looked up was open before 11am) but Stirling Castle opens at 9.30 and we were there about 10 minutes after that very ready for coffee and scones.

If it's a choice between Stirling and Edinburgh, choose Stirling. Both castles sit atop dramatic rocky outcrops, though Stirling still looks out over quite a lot of countryside. Both attract a lot of visitors but Stirling early in the day is much more manageable than Edinburgh (there was space to look at things and choose how you moved around the sight).

Stirling was owned by the war office and used as a barracks from 1800 to 1968, its now looked after by Historic Scotland who have been slowly restoring the castle. What they've done is spectacular - Stirling was an important royal stronghold, a palace as well as a fortress, with some fabulous renaissance detailing. The royal apartments have minimal furnishing but maximum colour thanks to the painted friezes on the walls.

What furniture there is, is new, but traditional. It means nothing is roped off, and we see everything looking fresh and vibrant. This is especially true of the tapestry sequence of the hunting of the unicorn. Research suggests that this set was in the Royal collection so a new set was created using an original sequence now in New York as a template. We’re all used to seeing faded tapestry in galleries or country houses, seeing it fresh off the loom is something else entirely.

The tapestry would have been worth the admission price alone, but then there are the Stirling heads… these were carved ceiling decorations that represented contemporary figures, fancy figures, and figures from mythology. They had been taken down in 1777 after a ceiling collapse, and seem to have been scattered around. Recreations in full glorious technicolor are back in situ. There's also a tremendous exhibition which has some of the originals, as well as copies you can get up close to, and which shows the process of making these things.

Add to that, that the staff were incredibly helpful and friendly and it's easily one of the best historic sights I've visited. There's a really good mix of things to make it equally entertaining to children and adults. It’s easy to explore (looking at the website it seems that all the major areas are wheelchair accessible), and the way the sight is being interpreted seems pitch perfect to me. It's definitely worth going out of your way to see.

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