Its magnificent strategic position on a steep-sided crag made Stirling Castle the grandest prize in the Scots Wars of Independence in the late 13th and early 14th centuries. The Battle of Bannockburn in 1314 was fought within sight of its walls, and the victory by Robert the Bruce won both the castle and freedom from English subjugation for almost four centuries. Take time to visit the Castle Exhibition in the Queen Anne Garden beyond the lower gate to get an overview of its long history and evolution as a stronghold and palace.
The daughter of King Robert I (Robert the Bruce), Marjory, married Walter Fitzallan, the high steward of Scotland. Their descendants included the Stewart dynasty of Scottish monarchs (Mary, Queen of Scots, was a Stewart, though she preferred the French spelling, Stuart). The Stewarts were responsible for many of the works that survive within the castle walls today. They made Stirling Castle their court and power base, creating fine Renaissance-style
buildings that were not completely obliterated, despite reconstruction for military purposes.
Enter the castle through its outer defenses, which consist of a great curtained wall and batteries from 1708, built to bulwark earlier defenses by the main gatehouse. From this lower square the most conspicuous feature is the Palace, built by King James V (1512–42) between 1538 and 1542. The decorative figures festooning the ornate outer walls show the influence of French masons. An orientation center in the basement lets you try out the clothes and musical instruments of the time. Then you are led across a terrace to the newly refurbished Royal Apartments, which re-create the furnishings and tapestries found here during the reign of James V and his French queen, Mary of Guise. The queen's bedchamber contains copies of the beautiful tapestries in which the hunt for the white unicorn is clearly an allegory for the persecution of Christ. Overlooking the upper courtyard is the Great Hall, built by King James IV (1473–1513) in 1503. Before the Union of Parliaments in 1707, when the Scottish aristocracy sold out to England, this building had been used as one of the seats of the Scottish Parliament. It has since been restored to its original splendor, with sparse but impressive furnishings. Here the king once ordered a full-size galleon to be placed in the hall during the fish course of a major banquet.
Among the later works built for regiments stationed here, the Regimental Museum stands out; it's a 19th-century baronial revival on the site of an earlier building. Nearby, the Chapel Royal is unfurnished but was the site of a visit by Charles I in 1633. The oldest building on the site is the Mint, or Coonzie Hoose, perhaps dating as far back as the 14th century. Below it is an arched passageway leading to the westernmost section of the ramparts, the Nether Bailey. As you walk along the high walls beyond the arch, you'll have the distinct feeling of being in the bow of a warship sailing up the carselands (valley plain) of the Forth Valley.
To the castle's south lies the hump of the Touch and the Gargunnock Hills (part of the Campsie Fells), which diverted potential direct routes from Glasgow and the south. For centuries all roads into the Highlands across the narrow waist of Scotland led through Stirling. If you look carefully northward, you can still see the Old Stirling Bridge, once the lowest and most convenient place to cross the river.