Category Archives: history

Stirling Castle & Mary Queen of Scots’ Dad!

Stirling Castle, sitting on extinct volcano

Apologies for the tongue-in-cheek title to this post. I’m guessing that if I had headed it “Stirling Castle and James V”, quite a few of our readers would have said, “Who he?”

Stirling's statue of James V as Old Testament prophetHe is James V, King of Scots. Yes, he was the father of the rather better-known Mary, Queen of Scots.
James V and Stirling Castle had quite a relationship. (And did you know that the mound on which the castle sits is actually an extinct volcano?)

Portrait of James V of ScotlandBoth these images represent James V. In the statue, he has a long flowing beard, like an Old Testament prophet, ready to usher in a golden age for Scotland. In the portrait, he has his normal neat beard and gorgeous clothes.
He didn’t make it to prophet status. James died when he was just 30, leaving one legitimate child (Mary), who was only 6 days old. James also left at least 9 illegitimate children, so he was definitely neither saint nor prophet 😉

In addition to all those bastards, he managed two wives. The first, Madeleine, daughter of the King of France, died soon after arriving in Scotland. “Of the cold”, the guide told me, and it may be true. James’s second French wife, Mary of Guise, gave him 3 children in 4 years, but only Mary survived.

Stirling’s Royal Palace of the 1540s

Stirling Caste: James V's Royal Palace of 1540s

Perhaps because of the problem of the cold, James commissioned a new royal palace inside Stirling Castle, in the French style, which Historic Scotland has spent 12 million pounds restoring. (Some of the scaffolding is still visible in these pictures of the exterior.)

Stirling Caste: James V's Royal Palace of 1540sStirling Caste: James V's Royal Palace of 1540s from courtyard

The Restored Interior

The outside of the palace is in the standard grey  granite. But the inside? Judge for yourself. This is the Queen’s State Bedchamber, complete with real, live Lady in Waiting…

Stirling Royal Palace: Queen Mary of Guise's State Bedchamber

The pictures in this slider show you some of the other rooms, including the magnificent wall paintings above the fireplaces and the spectacular ceilings.

  • Entrance Hall to the Royal Palace
  • Antechamber fireplace decoration in the Royal Palace
  • Antechamber ceiling decoration in the Royal Palace
  • Ceiling of Queen's State Bedchamber
  • Queen's Outer Hall in the Royal Palace

Tapestries: the jewels in Stirling’s royal palace crown

In spite of all these marvels — and isn’t the palace visually stunning? — I think the best reason to visit Stirling Castle is to see the unicorn tapestries. The Scottish crown owned many fine tapestries, including (we believe) a set of “Unicorn Hunt” tapestries. They would have been carried in the royal baggage train and hung wherever the royal court was in residence.

As part of the restoration of the Royal Palace, Historic Scotland commissioned a copy of the seven unicorn tapestries that are currently hanging in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. The hand-woven copies used medieval techniques, taking several years to complete, and now hang in the Queen’s Inner Chamber.

Stirling Royal Palace: Queen's Inner Chamber with tapestries

I had the privilege of watching some of them being woven in the Tapestry Studio at West Dean College — the remainder were woven on site at Stirling — and I marvelled at the skill of the weavers. They were using their threads with the artistry of painters, some specialising in human figures, some in flowers, others in animals. There were three weavers, working full time, and they managed just a few inches a week. So no wonder it took years to complete. But the results are spectacular and even more vibrant than the New York originals because these tapestries have not faded.

  • Fourth Tapestry: the unicorn is attacked
  • Fifth Tapestry: the unicorn is captured by the virgin
  • Sixth Tapestry: the unicorn is killed and brought to the castle

My only complaint about Stirling is that the tapestries are quite high on the chamber walls so it’s difficult to see the detail and the artistry that went into their creation. I’m therefore doubly grateful that I saw them close up, while the weavers were still at work.

More about Stirling’s Restoration

If you’d like to see something more of the restoration of the Royal Palace in Stirling Castle, click on the YouTube video below. I promise you that it is fascinating. And the images in it are better and clearer than mine though not all the tapestries were in place in the Queen’s Chamber when the video was shot. On the other hand, Historic Scotland managed to leave out the wandering tourists!


Forth Bridge #3 — the Queensferry Crossing

Forth bridge #3 the Queensferry Crossing

Forth Bridge #3 the Queensferry Crossing

A few days ago, on 4th September 2017 to be exact, the Queen opened the #3 crossing of the River Forth, at Queensferry. The date was chosen, I assume, because it was 53 years to the day since she had opened the #2 crossing, the original Forth Road Bridge, back in 1964 (shown below with the Queensferry Crossing beyond).

Forth Bridge #2 the Forth Road bridge

The Queen did not, of course, open the original Forth Bridge; that was done by her great-grandfather, the Prince of Wales (later Edward VII) in 1890. Continue reading

A Sideways Look at Regency Life — All At Sea!

figure contemplating slightly stormy sea

When we read fiction set in the Regency period, we often come across references to sea journeys but, usually, they’re over pretty quickly. On one page, we’re at Dover or Harwich or Falmouth. A paragraph or two later, we’ve arrived at our destination and the story continues. (Not in all fiction, of course. Who could forget Mary Challoner’s horrendous cross-Channel trip in Heyer’s Devil’s Cub? Still, at least Vidal proffered a basin at the vital moment.)

Nowadays, our ships have GPS and radar and even engines! 😉 So this modern figure, staring out over a slightly stormy sea, has little to fear from going on board. But what was it really like, making a sea voyage on one of the Regency’s relatively tiny and fragile sailing craft?

Let’s take an imaginary sea journey…

Continue reading

Regency gowns: clean, alter, mend the damage

Imagine a Regency lady with a beautiful evening gown, like this one in grey silk with pink trimmings and grey gauze oversleeves. But — oh, dear — she’s ripped it, or perhaps something has been spilled on it. Who will repair the damage or clean off the stain? The lady herself? Continue reading

Napoleon bares his breast — a cautionary editing tale


Napoleon Bares his Breast
~ or ~
The Editor Is [almost] Always Right

Two hundred and two years ago — on 7th March 1815, to be precise — Napoleon bared his breast to (what looked like) certain death and lived to fight one more great battle. (And if you’re wondering why we didn’t do this blog two years ago, on the bicentenary, we would plead that this website was a mere twinkle in the hively eye back then.)

A cautionary tale of author and editor

Once upon a time there was an author — let’s call her Joanna — who was writing a trilogy of love stories set in 1814-15, the end of the Napoleonic Wars. (He lost, by the way.) Continue reading

Regency evening gowns: delicious detail at bosom and ankle

White evening gown, 1800, Bath costume museum

Bath Costume Museum

Regency evening gown, replica, Bath costume museum

Bath Costume Museum

Detail does matter. The Regency lady going to dinner, or going to a ball, wanted every detail of her appearance to be perfect. Especially if her aim was to attract a potential husband. (She might, of course, have been a married lady looking for a little diversion with a new lover.)

Did the gentlemen in question notice these details? Possibly they did, because most of the details on these gorgeous gowns were around two areas of the female body that drew the masculine eye — the low-cut neckline exposing much of the lady’s bosom, and the naughty ankle, glimpsed as the lady walked or danced. Continue reading

Regency Gowns: Who Would be a Seamstress?

white gowns worn by Bennet sisters in BBC 1995 Pride & Prejudice

BBC’s 1995 version of Pride and Prejudice

Regency gowns are familiar to anyone who has ever watched a Jane Austen adaptation on TV or film. We expect to see ladies floating around in high-waisted dresses, probably made of fine white muslin. We expect to see large quantities of bosom on display. But from our modern perspective of mass-produced clothing and home sewing machines, we rarely think about how these supposedly simple Regency garments were made.

By female hand and eye. Every last cut and stitch.

Continue reading

dedicated to the one I love

Dedicating to the One You Love – or Are You?


Trumpets dedicating

Dedicating a book to someone is powerful. It’s an announcement with trumpets.

We’ve all read the thanks that go on for several pages. They embrace everyone from the author’s family, agent and editor, to anyone who gave them help with research or did the typing.

Justified? Probably. Sincere? Mostly. But a dedication? No. Continue reading

Female servants: overworked and underpaid?

female servant in Regency costume

A Regency housemaid

Most female servants had a pretty tough life over the centuries. They worked long hours at backbreaking menial tasks, they weren’t paid very much and they had little or no time off.

What’s more, they were often at the mercy of predatory men — employers or other servants. And if they fell pregnant as a result? It was their own fault, their own wickedness — of course! — and they would often end up in the gutter. Continue reading

Footmen: the Curse of Manly Calves in Silk Stockings

Male servants conveyed the right image

In the Georgian and Regency periods, higher social standing was demonstrated by having more and more male servants, like footmen. If they wore livery, so much the better. If they had little to do, employers did not care  Ostentation was all.

one of footmenIn 1777, Lord North (often called “the Prime Minister who lost America”) proposed to tax male servants at a guinea a man to help pay for the American wars. He reckoned that some 100,000 menservants were kept for purposes of “luxury and ostentation”. (The tax was increased in 1785 and not completely repealed until 1889. You can read more about it in an extensive article on The Regency Redingote.)

The cost of keeping bewigged footmen increased again in 1795 when the tax on powdered hair began to be enforced, at a guinea a head. Opponents of the then Prime Minister, William Pitt, stopped using powder themselves. They began to apply the term “guinea-pigs” to those gentlemen who still powdered their hair, and so paid the guinea in tax. Continue reading