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!


6 thoughts on “Stirling Castle & Mary Queen of Scots’ Dad!

  1. Elizabeth Hawksley

    I just loved your post on Stirling Castle. I passed it often as a child en route to the Highlands and looked up at it perched on its crag but I never imagined the glories within.

    1. Joanna Post author

      The glories are pretty new, Elizabeth. On my previous visit, twenty-odd years ago, it wasn’t like that at all. And, actually, the Royal Palace was rundown for a long time. When Robert Burns visited in 1787, it was being used as army barracks and he wrote:
      Here Stewarts once in glory reign’d,
      And laws for Scotland’s weal ordain’d;
      But now unroof’d their palace stands,
      Their sceptre fallen to other hands.

      So the restoration is doubly welcome. If you love the place, do visit. It’s amazing.

  2. Sue McCormick

    About the tapestries: The views at Stirling are how the tapestries would have been viewed in the times that tapestries like these are woven. I applaud the accuracy; and I do like the view.

    I also applaud the ability to recreate the old techniques.

    That being said, the display of the original tapestries at the Cloisters, focuses on the tapestries, and that is also important.

    Two ways of viewing historical works and both of importance.

    1. Joanna Post author

      Thanks for this, Sue. I haven’t ever seen the originals in New York but I do know that the colours for the Stirling recreations were taken from the back of the originals where they had faded much less. It’s discussed in the wiki article about the Unicorn Hunt that I linked to in my post. Whichever way one views them, they are stunning, I think.

Comments are closed.