Stirling Castle dominates the skyline of Central Scotland, standing tall and overlooking the quaint town of Stirling. This Castle is one of Scotland’s most important historic sites, where Scottish kings and queens would gather to hold grand celebrations. The Castle’s illustrious history involves many notable figures and parts of Scottish history, so take advantage of a visit to Stirling Castle while exploring Central and West Scotland.
The Castle is an excellent tourist attraction, and Historic Environment Scotland manages the Castle and surrounding estate. We’ll be breaking down the intricate history of Stirling Castle, how to get there, and the attractions within the Castle and surrounding gardens that you can’t miss out on. Let’s dive right into it.
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History of Stirling Castle
Like many castles in Scotland, its early history is filled with wars, destroyed records, and ambiguous statements. But historians do know that Stirling castle dates back to at least 1110, making it one of the oldest in the county. It is said that King Alexander I dedicated a chapel here, which served as a royal centre where Alexander died. Many other kings would be crucial to building Stirling Castle, including King David I, William I, and Richard I.
Stirling remained the centre of royal administration until the death of King Alexander II in 1286, which led to the Wars of Independence. Throughout the war, Stirling Castle changed hands between England and Scotland, ruled by William Wallace, William FitzWarin, and Robert Bruce. By 1341, Stirling Castle had seen several sieges laid against it and two wars of independence and was rebuilt several times.
Finally, under Robert II, Stirling Castle was given to the Stewart family to look after – the family most strongly associated with Stirling Castle today. But it was only in the Renaissance period that Stirling Castle began to resemble what it looks like today – with much of the construction taking place between 1490 and 1600. It’s in Stirling Castle’s architecture where you can genuinely see the international influences of the royal Stewarts, with a mixture of English, French, and German design.
Notable contributors who built Stirling Castle include James IV, James V, and James VI, with James V also famed for creating the Royal Palace. During this time of significant expansion, Stirling Castle was home to many of Scotland’s most famous people – Mary, Queen of Scots (daughter of James V), and Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley. In December of 1593, Anne of Denmark gave birth to Prince Henry here, who also grew up at Stirling Castle. However, the Stewart family left for London after the Union of Crowns in 1603.
After this departure, Stirling Castle transformed from a royal centre and palace into a military residence that housed prisoners during the 17th century. This a sad fact, considering the royal palace was once teeming with life and royal monarchs. The only royal to visit Stirling Castle in a while was Charles I, who added to the gardens and Chapel Royal.
Today, Stirling Castle has been restored to what records say was its former glory as a residence and royal centre for monarchs. This is thanks to multiple millions of pounds of investment completed by 2011 and includes many beautiful highlights that visitors can immerse themselves in.
How to Get There & Details to Know
Stirling is quite centrally located, which makes it remarkably easy to reach from both Glasgow and Edinburgh. So whether you’re planning to get to the Castle by car or public transport, there are quite a few options.
Otherwise, costs to enter and explore Stirling Castle are £16.50 per adult and £10 per child, with deals for families and large groups planning to see Stirling. Stirling Castle is open from 9:30 – 18:00 during April – October & 9:30 – 17:00 during October – March.
Travelling by Car
From Glasgow, you can reach Stirling by taking the M80 until you reach Stirling Road. You can take the M9 from there until you get to the Castle. This drive should take just under an hour (about 50 minutes to reach).
The trip takes slightly longer from Edinburgh, with Stirling Castle just over an hour’s drive from the bustling capital (about an hour and 20 minutes). The drive is relatively straightforward, taking the M9 west from Edinburgh until you reach Stirling.
The castle esplanade and car park are very limited, so it’s best to plan your trip accordingly.
Travelling by Public Transport
The most straightforward route from Glasgow to Stirling Castle is via ScotRail, which you can take from Glasgow’s Queen Street right into Stirling. Stirling Castle is only a 15-minute walk from the station from there. The time is comparable to the drive, also taking around 50 minutes to reach.
Those planning to travel by transit to Stirling Castle from Edinburgh can take the ScotRail from Edinburgh Waverly to Stirling – which takes about 48 minutes to reach.
Attractions at Stirling Castle
Once you’ve reached the beautiful Stirling Castle, some attractions within and around the Castle are required. Here are the top attractions you can enjoy on your trip to Stirling Castle.
Explore the Queen Anne Gardens
Before venturing into the Castle proper, take the time to explore the stunning Queen Anne Gardens, which sits on the south side of the Castle. The Queen Anne Gardens are a beautifully well-maintained green that is overlooked by the Queen’s Chambers and the Prince Tower, from which royals could likely enjoy views of festivities and games with privacy.
The castle walls surround the green, and it is speculated that there’s been a garden here since the 1400s! In the 1600s, it was likely used as a bowling green and entertainment court for the royal residents of Stirling Castle.
Today, however, the Stirling castle features the Queen Anne Gardens as a well-kept open green from which you can enjoy the array of flowers and bask in the shade of the old beech tree.
Take a Tour of Stirling Castle’s Interior
As you begin your tour of Stirling Castle, it’s easy to become overwhelmed with what parts of the interior to spend the most time in – especially if you’re on a tight schedule. There are a few critical parts of the Castle that anyone visiting should make time to see, with the following being the most popular attractions within Stirling Castle.
The Great Hall
The Great Hall of Stirling is undoubtedly the Castle’s centrepiece and has been proclaimed to embody James IV’s legacy. The Great Hall was built between 1501 and 1504 as a venue for royal occasions and entertaining prominent guests. At the time of its construction, the Great Hall was the largest ever built in Scotland.
Today, its massive size is still imposing, with a special note for its intricate hammer-beam ceiling and ornate stained glass windows that look northward. While the Great Hall is empty of any furniture it may have had in the 1500s, it’s very easy to imagine the cheer and merriment that took place during its time. One of the most notable events was the banquet following the christening of Prince Henry in 1594, with an entire longship being placed within that served seafood to guests.
The Royal Apartments
Navigating through the interior of Castle Stirling, you’ll eventually reach the Royal Apartments, where James V stayed with their wives. The Royal Apartments are a show of the luxury that the late Kings that resided in Stirling had, with decorative pieces from the height of the Renaissance.
Throughout the six main rooms that make up the Royal Palace apartments, you can find intricate tapestries that depict the Scottish monarchs who stayed here in great detail. One of the most beautiful works on display is the Mystic Hunt of the Unicorn, a recent addition and the most enormous tapestry to be completed in the last 100 years!
The Royal Apartments allow you to gain a deep insight into how some of Scotland’s most famous kings and queens lived, featuring many of the period pieces of furniture that would have been used at the time.
The Great Kitchens
The most lively part of Castle Stirling during its height was the Great Kitchens! Cooks and servers would create fantastic creations from beef, lamb, pork, and fish to serve to the monarch and their guests. You can see life-sized replicas of the bustling kitchen staff as they are busy making pies for a royal feast – although they’ve been frozen in time, you can still feel the rush and exhilaration on their faces.
The Great Kitchens are part of the Castle where historians would receive the most information, as gossiping servants, shouting cooks, and anxious servers rushed to and from daily, making the pies and puddings for the monarchs and the daily bread that the servants ate. Take advantage of this grand attraction while enjoying your tour through Castle Stirling.
You can find the Great Kitchens next to the Grand Battery just past the North Gate of Stirling Castle.
Tapestry Studio & Hunt the Unicorn
Over several years, Scotland has gifted Stirling Castle with seven stunning tapestries that are adorned within the Queen Inner Hall. Only the wealthiest individuals could afford to buy and display tapestries during the times of James V, and it is said that James had a sizeable collection.
The tapestries you can see within the chambers of Castle Stirling took a staggering 13 years to make and cost £2 million to recreate, but the effect is substantial. Stirling is a British castle with a tapestry collection, with the other notable ones being Edinburgh Castle and Castle Wynd. You can learn all about the trials and progress of the project at the Weaving the Tapestry exhibition with the Castle – it’s well worth the look.
Of the seven that hang on the castle walls, Stirling heads should watch for the unicorn tapestries, of which the Hunt the Unicorn series is the most popular. It is based on a series of tapestries created in the 1500s, or at least when their first record was. Check out the tapestry studio at the Nether Bailey for more in-depth information on the tapestry.
Passing underneath the north gate, you’ll arrive at the least known portion of Stirling Castle – the Nether Bailey. Compared to the compact halls and corridors of Stirling Castle, the Nether Bailey is a strikingly open and green site that is best for ending your visit.
Some of the best attractions at the Nether Bailey are the Guard House, the Powder Magazine, and the Tapestry Studio, which we’ve spoken of before. The Guard House has a reconstructed prison exhibit, which shows how prisoners at the Guard House likely were kept during their imprisonment.
The Powder Magazine shows where caches of ammunition and explosive powders were kept in resilient barrels in the event of an attack on Stirling Castle. Once you’ve had your fill of the attractions within the Castle, visiting the Nether Bailey is a refreshing area with tons of sights to see.
Pay a Visit to the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders Museum
If you’re craving even more history about the old town of Stirling, then a trip to the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders Museum is well in order. This regimental Museum touches on the fascinating stories outside Stirling Castle, focusing on the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders who have fought in wars since 1881.
The Highlanders have fought in the Napoleonic Wars, the War of 1812, the Crimean War, both World Wars, and the Korean War! The Museum covers the involvement of the Highlanders during all these conflicts, focusing on the vital roles they played, like the ‘Thin Red Line’ at the Battle of Baklava during the Crimean War.
The Museum holds several exhibits with weaponry and artefacts from this unique point in Scottish history, and you may even be lucky to meet one of the many Argyll and Sutherland Highlander veterans who regularly speak at the Regimental Museum.
Costs to enter this Museum are separate from Stirling Castle, with £19.50 per adult, £11.70 per child, and a variety of family packages. We recommend an online booking from the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders website, which is usually a pound or two cheaper than the walk-up price.
Visit the Stirling Castle Shops
After touring Stirling Castle, why not remember your visit by picking up one of the souvenirs or commemorative pieces from the Stirling Castle Gift Shop? For luxury gifts, food and drink, and merchandise, this gift shop is the place to shop for everything at Stirling Castle.
One of the most popular merchandise options you can purchase here is the tapestries, specifically the Hunt the Unicorn tapestries you would likely have seen adorning the Queen’s bed chambers.
On display are also jewellery worn by James V and his wife and a series of adorable kids items based on the Stirling Mice. Don’t leave Stirling Castle without bringing a piece of your experience with you – proceeds go to Historic Scotland and maintain the picturesque castle grounds.
Grab a Bite at the Unicorn Cafe
Are you feeling a little hungry after exploring the expansive Stirling Castle? Grab a bite to eat at the Unicorn Cafe! Named after the Hunt the Unicorn tapestry, you can enjoy a delicious selection of food and drink to fuel up before travelling to your next attraction in Central Scotland.
The Unicorn Cafe has a range of soups, toasted sandwiches, cakes, and salads. And if you want a more varied selection, the hot food counter always has a range of piping and fresh food to take with you! You’ll eat like the monarchs of Stirling Castle when you stop by the Unicorn Cafe for a bite.
If the weather is hot, stop by the Castle’s ice cream van for a yummy ice to take with you.
Take a Guided Tour Through the Castle
You can explore Stirling Castle alone, but tackling this palace fortress with a guided tour is highly recommended! There are several options, from a fully guided tour with an expert guide pointing out the fascinating stories and moments within Stirling Castle to an audio tour that lets you enjoy the Castle at your own pace.
Best of all, the guided tours are included in the ticket price and happen every half hour! So if you don’t want to explore the Castle alone, taking one of these tours is a great option. There’s also a British Sign Language Tour option for those hard of hearing.
Finally, outside the Stirling Castle sits the Unicorn Garden, where the Family Trail tour occurs. The time features Sally the Palace Servant, a guide dressed in period piece outfits who is very happy to show you and your kids the horses, ponies, and, of course, the unicorns that feature in Stirling’s myths and legends.