Oban, and the Highlands I

We’re  off to tiny Oban for several reasons:

  • it’s in the Scottish Highlands
  • it’s a resort town on the ocean
  • it has a ceilidh house (pronounced KAY-lee, for you non-Scottish speakers) where they perform Highland music, song and dance (and they also teach visitors a basic ceilidh dance)
  • and, most important, it has a Scotch whiskey distillery to tour

If you remember from a previous post (Melrose Abbey, Scotland (and Greenknowe Tower), February 25, 2015), one of my goals on this tour of Scotland is to become knowledgeable of one of mankind’s more famous drinks, the single malt Scotch (Ginger gamely joins in, but is not a big fan).  Oban was on the whiskey map in that previous post (“Oban 14 yr old”); good enough reason to visit.  So off we go!

The southern end of Loch LomondThere are a number of different roads that go through the southern/central Highlands, heading northwest.  We choose the route that goes past Loch Lomond, the largest inland stretch of water in Great Britain and the centerpiece of Scotland’s Trossachs National Park.  You’ll recall that traditional Scottish song “Loch Lomond”:

By yon bonnie banks, and by yon bonnie braes,
Where the sun shines bright on Loch Lomond,
Me and my true love were ever wont to gae,
On the bonny, bonny banks of Loch Lomond.

Ye’ll tak’ the high road and I’ll tak the low road,
And I’ll be in Scotland afore ye,
But me and my true love will never meet again,
On the bonny, bonny banks of Loch Lomond.

It’s a familiar old song, but I never knew it’s history or meaning.  There are several slightly different interpretations, but most are connected to the Jacobite Uprising of 1745 in support of Bonnie Prince Charlie [discussed in the last post (Stirling Castle, August 4, 2015)].  Two Jacobite soldiers, captured by the English, have different fates: one is condemned to death while the other, his friend, will be set free.  The song by the condemned man is based on the old Celtic myth that the soul of a Scot who dies outside his homeland will find it’s way home by the spiritual, or “low” road.  Doesn’t that make the song so much sadder?

It’s a long lake, 24 miles, and there are many opportunities to take a picture.  It’s a cloudy

day (of course; this is Scotland) and the lake itself seems sad.  Soon we climb into more

rugged and wildly beautiful territory.  And it just gets better, as shown below.

The Highland country sceneMy favorite view of this part of the Highlands is the bucolic scene to the left, with looming mountains, a picturesque small lake, and busy, contented sheep.  Lucky sheep, with such a view!
Aren’t the Highlands beautiful?  Wait ’til you see more of them, in subsequent posts!
After all that stark beauty, the ocean town of Oban was disappointing.  It’s a small (and low key) resort with gravel beaches and a winding promenade lined by small hotels.  Here

Scotland’s train system meets the ferry system to the Hebrides Islands; Oban’s center is a harbor, with huge boats.  Still, it’s pleasant enough, and it does have some great seafood restaurants!  Oh my gosh, if I’d been able to get a picture of one of the restaurant’s seafood platters, you’d be booking a plane ticket now.  Below are some views of the harbor.

Oban really has no important sights (other than a distillery!), but a short walk away it does have the ruins of a small castle (Dunollie) on a commanding spot overlooking the harbor.

It was the home of kings (Clan Chiefs, really) in the kingdom of Lorn for a thousand years, and the seat of Clan MacDougall from the 12th century (the clan held 7 other castles and a fleet of galleys).  Dunollie Castle was captured by Cromwell, who garrisoned troops there; during the first Jacobite wars, it was besieged; and it was finally abandoned for good in 1746.  Today it just adds historic atmosphere – Wind-swept trees near Dunollie Castle something that Scotland (and England!) are very good at. And, speaking of atmosphere, there is an area near the castle called “The Witches” because it is forested with twisted old trees, some as old as 400 years, that show the effects of the high winds here.

OK!  Time for the whiskey tour!  The Oban distillery is a Yep, it's old!block off the harbor in the middle of town, which is very unusual; most distilleries are off in the country.  In this case, Oban itself grew up around the 200-year old distillery.  That’s a small problem for the distillery – it can’t easily expand!  The Oban Whiskey Distillery produces a West Highland malt scotch.  In the map of Scotland below, different colors denote regions of Scotland making distinctive flavors of Scotch – there Regions of distinctive Scotch single malt whiskeysare about 5 of them.  Oban is near the middle of the various flavor profiles, with a touch of peat, a touch of salt, and a touch of honey in taste.  They make 4,000 gallons of Scotch a week (a lot of which goes to the US).  The process for making a single malt Scotch is pretty much the same throughout Scotland, and quite interesting!  Single malt Scotch is made from barley, water and yeast.  Sometimes peat smoke.  That’s it.  The diversity of flavors comes from the locally sourced ingredients, the skill of the master distiller, and subtleties in the production process.  All true, but the real revelation to me was that the real flavor of Scotch whiskey comes from America!  Fascinating!  Don’t tell a Scotsman that, but you’ll see.  Alas, most distilleries seem to think they have secrets, and photos are not allowed!  So I’ll just give an overview of the process.  Water is added to the barley to start germination (starch release), and then the barley is dried by heating in a kiln (in some distilleries, with smoking peat).  This is “malting”.  The malted grain is milled to a defined mix of powder-to-piece, hot water is added in a big stainless steel (or wood) vat, and the starch is converted to sugar (the wort), a process called “mashing”.  The wort is cooled, yeast is added, and fermentation occurs for 2-4 days (the time has a big effect on flavor), producing the “wash” – approximating a strong beer.  The "Candy Kiss" shape of the copper stillsThe wash is then distilled in two sequential copper stills that look like those on the left side of this picture – they look something like Hershey Kisses, only about 15 or 20 feet high.  The size and shape of the stills have a big effect on taste due to the liquid interacting with copper – the more the interaction, the lighter the Scotch (the liquid extracts copper).  The final distillation “cut” is about 68% alcohol, and goes to oak barrels to age – a minimum of 3 years to call it “Scotch”, but usually for a decade or more.  And this is where America comes in!  Those oak barrels remove harsher tastes and add flavors; and where do those oak barrels and flavors come from?  Why, 1-year-old used American bourbon barrels!  By (American) law our bourbon has to go into new oak barrels, so what to do with those used bourbon barrels?  The Scots buy them, knock them down, ship ’em to Scotland, rebuild the barrels, and add their Scotch to take on those yummy tastes!

Finally, our visit to a ceilidh.  This is the tail end of the tourist season, and we’re at the last show of the year, with just one other small group in attendance.  It’s probably a tailored-down show, but fun nonetheless!  After the band (2 people) plays Highland tunes, a singer sings Highland songs, and a young lady does very graceful, ballet-like

Highland dances, the audience gets to participate – both in song and in something like a line dance.  Some in the audience seem to know the steps; we do not.  The brief instruction was a little helpful, and the ensuing chaos was a lot of fun.  Although it seemed touristy, apparently people in Scotland grow up doing the ceilidh, and locals enjoy going.

Next stop – the Highlands II, Glencoe Valley.






Bunratty Castle and Limerick

Our SW Ireland Tour with Small Potatoes is over (Southwest Ireland Tour and Traditional Roy Stein and Nancy TomeiIrish Music I”, June 20, 2015), but for the next 1½ days we get to hang out with our good friends Nancy Tomei and Roy Stein, who were also on the tour (and who introduced us to Small Potatoes in the first place).  We can’t go too far afield due to incipient plane flights, so we’ll visit the nearby Bunratty Castle and the city of Limerick.


Bunratty Castle was built in 1452, and like all places in Ireland it has a lot of history.  The Castle is operated as a tourist attraction, along with its adjacent “folk park”, an open-air museum of period buildings.

The castle itself is pretty darn imposing!  It sits on a strategically important site near the mouth of the Ralty River where it empties into the River Shannon (“Bunratty” is from the

Irish words for “end of the Ratty River”).  In the 1300’s the city Limerick, on the Shannon, was an important port for the English Crown, and the castle at Bunratty blocked river attacks by the pesky Irish.  Bunratty Castle is actually the 3rd stone castle built near this site (the 2nd stone castle was captured by the Irish soon after it was built).  Fifty years after it was built, the present Bunratty Castle ended up in the hands of the powerful O’Briens (and later Earls of Thomond) whom we met before (“Southwest Ireland Tour IV – Slea Head and Cliffs of Moher“, July 18, 2015).  The O’Briens expanded the site and eventually made it their chief seat, moving their base here from Ennis (“Start of our Ireland Tour“, June 16, 2015).  In 1646 the castle was in the hands of the British under the command of Rear Admiral Penn when it was put under siege by the Irish.  His infant son William Penn, founder of Pennsylvania, was in the castle; both were freed after the castle surrendered.  The present castle represents what it looked like around 1619.

The lower floors of the castle (some pictures shown below) were home to the guards and

staff.  The Great Hall is reasonably impressive, with old tapestries, wooden angels hovering from ceiling supports, and the remnants of very ornate plaster work that once

decorated the wall.  The absence of a fireplace is one of the more unusual features of the Great Hall; instead of a fireplace, there is a hexagonal area for a fire in the middle of the room – see top horizontal picture – with a shielded exit hole in the roof for the smoke.  Nothing like a good campfire in the main room of the castle!  Marshmallows, anyone?

There are a number of attractive tapestries from the 1600’s or earlier hanging in the great hall; although they’re quite faded, the workmanship is impressive.

Schematic drawing of Bunratty CastleThe design of the castle is interesting: as shown in this cut-away image, each of the 4 towers of the castle has its own stairwell with small rooms coming off of it on each level.  Each tower can be entered only from the Great Hall or the lower-level guard room/kitchen area.  There is no one way to tour the castle!

Just off one of the stairwells on the Great Hall level is a small, intimate, but quite impressive public chapel, with more remnants of the ornate plaster from the 1600’s on the wall, shown below.

Further up the stairway is a bedroom with a beautifully ornate 4-poster bed, on which a dress from the 1600’s is laid out, shown below;  pretty cool!

The Earl of Thomand had two towers (and connecting private apartment) all to himself.  The pictures below show his private apartment (with a real fireplace), bedroom, private chapel, and his own kitchen/pantry (!).

There is a lot of stained glass in the windows throughout the castle, and again it’s from the 1600’s or earlier, the really old stuff.  However, much of it is actually a hodge-podge of re-assembled pieces that no longer form a coherent picture, as shown in the latter two

images above.  Other windows, however, are very impressive – either old or gorgeous, as shown below.

The “folk park” adjacent to Bunratty Castle is family friendly, with goats and such to pet, restaurants, gift shops, yada yada tourist stuff, but also some old buildings that were brought here from other areas that offer glimpses of life from several hundred years ago.  We visited a couple of the buildings (pictures below).

We had an interesting conversation with the guy who was repairing a thatched roof – a skill that today is hard to come by.  This fellow was also a skilled stone mason, and

had done a bunch of restoration work on Bunratty Castle itself.  One thing that was interesting about the thatched roof was the story of the thatch itself.  The “good stuff” was available for harvesting by the wealthy; the poor got the leftovers or the less-desirable grasses.  As a result, roofs of the wealthy lasted for about 15 years before they need repair; those of the poor, about 4 years.  The deck is always stacked, isn’t it?  Capitalism or feudalism, those in power make the rules in their favor.


Limerick is nearby, a city known for (at least) two things, King John’s Castle and a type of poem that is believed to have originated with the Maigue Poets in County Limerick in the 18th century.  Although we saw none of the later in Limerick, I would certainly be remiss if I didn’t share the general form of a limerick poem:

The limerick’s an art form complex                                                                                                    Whose contents run chiefly to sex;                                                                                                      It’s famous for virgins                                                                                                                         And masculine urgins                                                                                                                         And vulgar erotic effects.

I could share more, but Ginger won’t let me.  So we’re off to King John’s Castle.  Lots of

history here to share with you.  The first exhibits in the castle deal with Ireland’s “golden age”, when medieval Ireland was a beacon of light in the dark ages; interestingly,

they defined this golden age from the 500’s to 1169 – that last date being the year when the Norman English intruded (does that suggest an anti-English attitude?).

The history of King John’s Castle goes back to when the Vikings built a stronghold at this site in 922 and used it as a base to raid the length of the River Shannon, pillaging ecclesiastical settlements.  The Vikings were eventually defeated and reduced to the level of a minor clan in the area’s endless power struggles.  In a later inter-clan clash, warlord Dermot MacMurrough abducted the wife of Tiernan O’Rourke.  The wife was eventually returned unharmed, but O’Rourke took revenge and forced MacMurrough to flee Ireland.  In England, MacMurrough made a pact with King Henry II, pledging fealty in return for help in recovering his kingdom.  With the help of Welsh and English knights (particularly Richard de Clare, alias “Strongbow”), MacMurrough won back his kingdom in 1167 – but now under the control of Henry II.  This opened a new chapter in Ireland’s history.  The English knights and nobles who aided MacMurrough were paid for their service with Irish land, and Strongbow married MacMurrough’s daughter.  Ten years later, with a strong desire to prevent Strongbow and the transplanted English nobles from usurping his authority – and with the Pope’s authorization to take possession of Ireland – Henry II staged a successful invasion.  He appointed his youngest son John Lackland (without land) to be “Lord of Ireland” (really that small region of Ireland).  In 1199, with the death of his brother King Richard I (“the Lionheart”), John became Lord of Ireland and King of England (this is the villain John in the tales of Robin Hood, and the forced signer of the Magna Carta).  In 1200 King John ordered a castle to be built in Limmerick with troops garrisoned there to King John's castleprotect the city from the Irish kingdoms to the west and from rebellious Norman lords to the east and south.  Limerick became so prosperous under the general peace imposed by Norman rule that King John set up a mint in the northwest corner of the castle.  Apparently the city was quite a sight.  According to a

1574 document:

“Limerick is stronger and more beautiful than all the other cities of Ireland, well walled with stout walls of hewn marble….  “

Or another in 1620,

“… it is built from one gate to the other in one form, like the colleges in Oxford, so magnificent that at my first entrance it did amaze me.”

The good times were not to last.  The Irish Rebellion of 1641 attempted to force concessions for Catholics living under English rule, and fleeing (English) Protestants took refuge in the castle but were put under siege.  Without artillery, the Irish forces dug tunnels to undermine the castle walls, severely damaging them.  The Protestants surrendered when the walls were about to fall.  Four more sieges of King John’s Castle would occur in the 1600’s, as England sent the ruthless Oliver Cromwell and his armies to subjugate the Irish Catholics, with massacres of civilians, a scorched-earth policy causing famine, land confiscation and forced relocations.  In the Cromwell army’s siege of Limerick in 1651, when the defenders expelled starving women and children from the city, the army whipped them back inside, erected gallows and hung some of them as an example.  When the walls were finally breached by artillery, 5000 inhabitants had died.  For all of Ireland during this time, nearly a third of the population died in the fighting or associated plague and famine.  When Catholic King James II came to power in England, Stone on which the ill-fated Treaty of Limerick was signedIreland was treated better, but when King James II was ousted by William of Orange, the Jacobite (or Williamite) War began.  Ultimately the Jacobites lost; their last stand was at Limerick, where they held firm, but their position was hopeless.  They negotiated the Treaty of Limerick in 1691 (signing it on that rock to the left), ending hostilities while giving Catholics religious freedom and secure lands.  The Treaty of Limerick became known as the “Broken Treaty”, as the English parliament subsequently passed laws discriminating against the Catholics and setting the stage for the Great Famine.  Hope this extensive history was interesting!

In spite of the damage to King John’s Castle with so many sieges, it is one of the best

preserved Norman castles in Europe (1200 is, after all, pretty old).  It incorporated the latest in castle design; the gatehouse was the first of its kind in Ireland, and round rather than square towers were used; curved walls offered better protection from attack.  From

within the keep, it’s small size is striking.  It is hard to imagine thousands of people living

within its confines during a siege.

We’re walking to St. Mary’s Cathedral, Limerick’s last pre-Norman building and the oldest building in Limerick still in daily use.  Below are some views along the way.

St. Mary’s Cathedral was founded in 1168 by Donal O’Brien, the King of Thomond, on the site of his palace.  Parts of the palace were likely incorporated into the cathedral, most prominently the great west door, which tradition claims was the original main entrance to

the royal palace.  The north and south transepts were added in the 1200’s, and the tower and a number of chapels were a later addition in the 1300’s.  The cathedral has some history!  According to tradition, during the many sieges of Limerick the defenders of the city used the stones around the west door to sharpen their swords and arrows, and the marks they made in the stonework can still be seen.  In 1651, after Cromwell’s forces captured Limerick, the cathedral was used as a stable by the parliamentary army.  In 1691 the cathedral suffered considerable damage during the Williamite Siege of Limerick (there are retrieved cannonballs in one of the chapels in the cathedral; King William granted £1,000 towards repairs).

The graveyard at the edge of the cathedral had some beautiful Irish crosses and carvings, shown below.

The Celtic detail on the crosses is very impressive – really it has a Moorish quality to it,

intricately geometric.

The cathedral interior is wonderful in it’s massive Romanesque style, contrasting with its

delicate stained glass windows.  Which are gorgeous.  Most are from the late 1800’s, most have names based on the donor’s funding, and many are in side chapels.  I’ll share a bunch

of them with you.  Pretty amazing, yes?  How about some more?

We’ll finish with one last window, which looks older and more crudely done, but beautiful nonetheless.

Well, I’ll show just a few more interesting tidbits.  Below, the large horizontal picture

shows the upper part of the O’Brien (Renaissance) monument.  At its base is displayed the sarcophagus lid of the Cathedral’s founder, Donal O’Brien, who died in 1194.  The last picture shows the “Leper’s Squint” built into the wall of the Cathedral.  In medieval times lepers were not allowed into churches but were able to see and hear mass (and receive communion!) through such narrow openings.

Well, my apologies for such a long post, hope it was worth the wade.  In the next post we return to bonny Scotland’s Lowlands.  Back in March we had introduced you to the fascinating and history-laden town of Stirling (“The City of Stirling, home of Stirling Castle“; post of March 4, 2015).  Our next post picks up from there with Stirling Castle: home of battles and refuge of kings and queens.





Stirling Castle

“He who holds Stirling, holds Scotland”.  The quote refers to Stirling Castle, which was the center of Scottish history for centuries.  The castle was all but impregnable, surrounded on 3 sides by nearly vertical rock cliffs with sweeping “I can see forever” views.  The castle’s importance, however, was due to those sweeping views overlooking a bridge over the River Forth, the primary passage between the Lowlands and Highlands.  Due to its strategic location and  invincible fortifications, it was both a focus for conquest and a safe refuge for royalty.  So much history occurred around this castle that I would be remiss not to mention some.  I promise a rather quick sketch.  In depth, the history reads like a trashy novel – victories, banishment, plotted returns, intrigues, murder, assassinations, a son waging war (and killing) a father, imprisonments, escapes, revolts, beheadings ….  The kings led interesting, if short, lives.  We won’t go there (much), though – just a bit of history of the castle.  This will be a long post, so feel free to skip to the pictures that follow!  However, I think the history provides very useful context.

Stirling Castle’s written history began in 843, when an historian noted that Kenneth MacAlpin, the first King of Scotland, besieged Stirling Castle during his successful fight to unite the Picts and Scots into the kingdom now known as Scotland.  At some point it became the home of Scottish royalty; in 1110 King Alexander I dedicated a royal chapel there, and his successor King David I made Stirling itself a royal city.  Skirmishes with England became common, and Stirling Castle was the football.  In 1174 the Scottish King William I invaded England but was captured at Alnwick (Alnwick Castle, February 14, 2015); to gain his freedom he ceded Stirling Castle to English King Henry II.  In 1189 he got it back when English King Richard I came to the throne.  Then came the Wars of Scottish Independence, which lasted for 60 years.  The outline below shows how the war centered around Stirling Castle.  Notice how the castle ping-pongs between the two countries!!

1296 – Stirling Castle was captured by English King Edward I.
1297 – The Scot William Wallace (a.k.a. Braveheart) defeated a superior English force at the Battle of Stirling Bridge (within sight of Stirling Castle) and later that year took back the castle following a siege.
1298 – William Wallace was defeated at the Battle of Falkirk, and the English reclaimed Stirling Castle.
1299 – The English surrendered the castle to the Scots following a siege.
Drawing of the siege1304 – English King Edward I waged war on Scotland for years; Stirling Castle was the last stronghold; it was besieged and bombarded by 17 siege engines for 4 months.  When a massive trebuchet was built (“War Wolf”) capable of hurling missiles weighing 300 lbs, the Scots surrendered and the English controlled it for 10 years.
1314 – King of Scotland Robert the Bruce (Robert I) retook the castle by beating the 3X larger English army of Edward II at the Battle of Bannockburn just outside the Stirling Castle walls.
1336 – Stirling Castle was captured by the English
1337 – A siege of Stirling Castle by the Scots was unsuccessful
1342 – The future Scottish King Robert Stewart (Robert II) retook Stirling Castle in a successful siege.  The castle remained Scottish until the end of the war in 1357.

Two of those battles, the victories of the plucky Scots under William Wallace in 1297 and Robert the Bruce in 1314, both against huge odds, remain a source of fierce pride in a Scotland that still questions its English union.

Before visiting the castle, a little more history (but 400 years worth!) is worthwhile.  The Stewart kings Robert II and III made Stirling Castle their primary residence.  It’s from Robert II’s time that the earliest surviving parts of the castle were built – the foundations of the North Gate, built in the 1380’s.  King James I ascended the throne (then was caught and imprisoned by the English, saw a beautiful lady from his tower prison, wrote a poem about her [The King’s Quair] that we all read in high school, married her [cousin to English King Henry IV], and was released), but was assassinated in 1437, whereupon his queen smuggled son James II into Stirling Castle for safekeeping.  James III was born in Stirling Castle and favored it as his “most pleasant residence” (he was killed in a revolt led by his son James IV).  During the reign of James IV and V, 1490 – 1560 (and beyond), the city entered its golden age; Stirling became the principal royal center.  Almost all the present buildings in the castle were constructed, in grand style, turning the castle into the showpiece of Scotland (i.e., one-upmanship over England).  With James IV’s death, James V was crowned in the royal chapel of Stirling Castle (at age 17 months).  He married the French noblewoman Mary of Guise and had a daughter Mary Queen of Scots.  When James V died, Mary of Guise became Regent of Scotland; with nobles scrambling for power, she brought her daughter Mary to Stirling Castle for safekeeping behind strong walls (she came with 2,500 cavalry, 1,000 infantry, and a baggage train a mile long).  Mary Queen of Scots was crowned (as an infant) in Stirling Castle and spent her early years there, subsequently going to France.  In the face of threats from England, French troops were brought in and the outer defenses of Stirling Castle were built.  Mary Queen of Scots returned to Stirling Castle, wed, and had a son there, James VI (responsible for the King James version of the Bible) in 1567.  The Catholic Mary’s estranged husband was mysteriously murdered, she remarried, there was an uprising, and she was abducted to England and held captive by Queen Elizabeth I.  With various factions plotting for power, Mary was forced to abdicate to James VI, who was crowned king at age 9 months, raised in the safety of Stirling Castle as Protestant, and turned against his Catholic mother.  Stirling Castle became the base for James supporters, Edinburgh for Mary’s.  Attacks were made against Stirling Castle, but failed.  Mary was eventually executed by Queen Elizabeth I.  When Queen Elizabeth died without an heir in 1603, King James VI of Scotland became King James I of a united Scotland and England.  He left for London, returning to Scotland only once, briefly, after 14 years.  With his absence, Stirling’s role as a royal residence declined, and Stirling Castle became principally a military center and a prison.  When James VI died in 1625, the son Charles I inherited a kingdom divided by religion and throne pretenders.  His efforts to impose English liturgy on Scotland led to war – and his beheading, with Scotland choosing son Charles II as their king, who lived in Sterling Castle in 1640, while England got Oliver Cromwell, who turned England into a Republic.  Charles II marched against Cromwell and was defeated; Cromwell’s forces successfully besieged Stirling Castle in 1651, inflicting still-visible shot marks within the Castle.  Charles II fled, but returned as King of England and Scotland a decade later when Cromwell died and the English monarchy was restored.  Religious tension grew, and Charles’ attempted to introduce religious freedom for Catholics was unsuccessful.  When Charles II died and his Catholic brother James VII (English James II) not only ascended the throne but subsequently produced a Catholic heir, war broke out; James, the last Catholic King of England and Scotland, was forced to flee in 1688 and Protestants (William and Mary) assumed the throne.  James continued to claim the thrones of England and Scotland from exile in France and encouraged revolts in his name (Jacobite Rebellions). His grandson the Bonnie Prince Charlie led an ultimately unsuccessful uprising in 1745; the Bonnie Prince bypassed Stirling and captured Edinburgh, but returning to Stirling in 1746 he was unable to capture Stirling Castle.  This was the last time that Stirling Castle was besieged.  The Bonnie Prince’s subsequent defeat ended any chance of Catholicism becoming re-established in England.

Wow!  A lot of history swirled around this castle.  Let’s take a look at it (finally, eh?).  This Depiction of Stirling Castle entrance, 1500picture is an artist’s impression of the grand entrance to James IV castle, based on a detail from a Scottish map done in the late 1500’s; the gate was among the most magnificent in the UK.  When it was constructed, it both strengthened the castle’s defenses and projected the greatness of James himself.  The gate was probably reached by wooden bridge over a moat.  This original gate was higher than the current one; it had 5-story towers capped with conical roofs, and was probably coated in gold limewash, with carved details painted and gilded.

Drawing of Stirling Castle, 1671The first detailed drawing of Stirling Castle comes courtesy of a military engineer in 1671, although the view is not from the gate.

Today the entrance to the castle – the old castle interior – looks like the illustration shown just below, with the buildings built by James IV and Entrance to the Stirling Castle royal buildingsV peeking above the wall.  Comparing this picture with that from the 1500’s above, the current gate is clearly less grand and more military-looking, reflecting its changed role after the departure of James VI (and the impact of siege bombardments!).

The main entrance to Stirling Castle now takes you into the Map of Stirling Castleextensive outer defenses, built by Protestant Queen Anne (daughter of deposed Catholic James VII) in 1708 after her half-brother contested the crown.  This map of the Stirling Castle fortress shown on the left is a good overview.  The original entrance to the castle, now called the “Forework”, is just below the center of the picture.  The current entrance to the outer defenses is at the bottom left.  That entrance is shown in the pictures below.  The entrance takes you to a

courtyard holding pen, with another gate that takes you to the front of the original castle, shown below.  Entrance to the original front of Stirling CastleTurning left after going through that second entrance (the map of Stirling Castle, above, provides a useful overview), one comes to a formal garden/green called the Queen Anne Garden, shown below, although it was already there in the 1400’s for the royal family to enjoy.  You can begin

to see the amazing vista that the castle provides, so let’s take a look around.  It’s

impressive, and many of the important battles of Scotland would have been visible from here.  You will also note, from the map of the Stirling Castle above, that there are a number of cannon that look out over this vista; those cannon were instrumental in blowing up siege towers in later years.

The original entrance to Stirling Castle, much changedOK, in we go through what used to be the grand entrance to the castle.  It definitely looks more military than grand!  The entrance takes us into the “Outer Close” – and mostly to a view of the back ends of the major buildings, the royal palace and the great hall, as well as going downhill to the “Great Kitchens” of the palace.

The Outer Close also had an interesting exhibit on the food of the late 1400’s – as you might imagine, it’s not too different from today.

The Inner Close was the core of Stirling Castle in the 1100’s and continued to be its center (the map of Stirling Castle is again useful).  In its golden age it was surrounded by the trappings of royalty, consisting of the King’s Old Building (private apartments of James IV, 1496), the Great Hall (used for banquets and business, 1503), Royal Palace (built by James V for greater luxury and privacy, 1540), and Chapel Royal (built by James VI for the baptism of his first son, 1594).  These buildings have been restored from their military conversions.

James V built the Royal Palace in grand style, on par with the finest French chateau, in order to impress and “proclaim the peace, prosperity and justice of his reign”.  Here’s what the outside looks like today, and what it would have looked like in 1540:

James V decorated the outside of the palace with over 250 sculptures, including classic gods and goddesses, designed to promote his authority and demonstrate his right to rule.  The statues have weathered (and suffered indignities) over the centuries, but they were clearly nicely done; examples below.  The last picture shows how they would have looked back in the day.

The Great Hall of 1503 was by far the largest banqueting hall ever built in medieval Scotland. Two high windows lit the dais on which the king and queen sat.  Five enormous fireplaces provided heating.  A hammerbeam roof soared above.  It was a grand setting for

the sumptuous banquets of the Renaissance kings, and in particular the two royal baptismal celebrations for the sons of Mary Queen of Scots and James VI.  In the latter, Depiction of the presentation of the fish dish in the Great Hallthe fish dish came on a model ship 15′ long and 36′ high, with a salvo of 36 brass guns.  As you can see from the picture of the Great Hall interior, above, to us the Great Hall really just looked like a big, empty building; it needed the pomp and glitter of tables and tapestry and roaring fires (and roaring cannon) to be impressive.

The Chapel Royal, one of the first Protestant churches built in Scotland, was built for that same baptism for the son of James VI (1594).  The painted frieze in the interior survives from Charles I’s coronation visit to Scotland in 1633.

The King’s Old Building, at the castle’s highest point, was built by James IV for his private residence; the turreted staircase went to his apartment, with spectacular views.  The building has endured 500 years of alterations; the right picture is an artist’s concept of what it might have looked like in the 1500’s.

Attached to this building is the Stirling Heads Gallery housing the (fabulous) original carved portraits in oak that decorated the King’s Presence Chamber (a meeting room for honored visitors) in the Royal Palace.  The carvings were taken down following a ceiling collapse in 1777, and of a possible 100 original heads, 38 survive.  They’re beautiful – and they’re not small, about 3 feet across.  They’re divided into themes: heads of royalty (and the right to rule), “worthies” – heroes from history and myth, heads from Roman emperors, courtiers and costume, and Hercules.  We’ll share a bunch, starting off

with Royalty.  The heads below show courtiers wearing the (carefully depicted) fashionable

clothes of the 1540’s.  A few “worthies” are shown below, and Hercules below that.

Finally, these heads were recovered with traces of paint on them.  It is thought the heads were vibrantly painted, as you’ll see in more detail when we show you their reproductions in the King’s Presence Chamber (shortly).  For now, let’s give you a flavor for what the heads really looked like!

To complete our visit to the Inner Close, we’ll tour the Royal Palace apartments.  To mark the arrival of his (2nd) French wife, Mary of Guise, James V built the Royal Palace to be as fine a residence as Mary would have known in the richer kingdom of France.  Both interior and the exterior were painted in bright colors with plenty of gilding to overwhelm with flamboyance.  The 6 rooms open to the public are the king’s and queen’s apartments.  Each had three spacious rooms – in ascending order of privacy: an Outer Hall‚ an Inner Hall and a Bedchamber.  Access to these rooms was restricted according to the importance of the visitor.  The rooms were on The King's Outer Hallthe same floor, arranged around a courtyard known as the Lion’s Den, and were used for a variety of purposes – taking meals, greeting important visitors, meetings on affairs of state, and dancing and entertainment.  The bedchambers were rarely used for sleeping; the king and queen slept in small private chambers known as closets.

We’ll start with the King’s Outer Hall, shown above.  With sufficient social standing, you would be admitted to this hall to wait for a possible audience with the king.  It was a great honor to be admitted to the King’s Inner Hall, or “Presence Chamber”, shown below.

The King's Outer HallYou only made it to the King’s Bedchamber (left picture) if you were really important, or a personal friend.  The king probably dressed, washed and prayed here.

The Queen’s Outer Hall (below) was also a waiting room, Queen's Outer Hall







and it was a similar honor to be invited to her Inner Hall, shown below.

The low stools in the first picture were for the Queen’s ladies in waiting.  The ceiling may also have been covered in carved heads.  Finally there is the Queen’s bedchamber, reserved The Queen's Bedchamberfor the queen and her most important visitors.  The bed was symbolic; she slept in a small room nearby.

Perhaps you noticed the tapestries in the Queen’s Inner Hall?  Like the one over the fireplace, above?  They’re gorgeous and vivid!  Tapestries were extremely expensive and were prized by the wealthy elites of the European Renaissance.  It is known that James V had two sets of tapestries featuring unicorns, and historians of James IV believe the royal collection included tapestries similar to the famous The Hunt of the Unicorn series from 1500.  Accordingly, to furnish the Queen’s Inner Hall as it would have looked in the 1500’s, Stirling Castle is re-creating the 7 tapestries that constitute The Hunt of the Unicorn using traditional hand-weaving techniques, the weaving being done at the castle.  Six of them are on the walls now, but before we show some of them to you, we need to show you how the 7th one is being (painstakingly!) made.

Getting to where the tapestry is being weaved takes us to the North Gate, the oldest part of the castle.  The road there provides a nice overview of the surrounding land as well as the

ancillary buildings of the castle (site of the weaving).  The gate itself does indeed look old;

it was part of a gatehouse built in 1381.  Looking back at the North Gate, below, it is not known how the upper Looking back at the North Gatepart originally looked; the upper regions were leveled in 1511 to provide kitchens for the Great Hall.

Walking into the tapestry weaving room, we were unprepared for the scale of the enterprise.  The tapestries are fabulous on the wall, but we didn’t think about the intricacies of their creation.  It was fascinating, and we hope you’re impressed by the pictures below.  There was only one weaver when we were there, but several are involved.  They wear noise-cancelling headphones, and you are not allowed to distract them.  A separate person is available to answer questions (and enforce the rules).

Now that you’ve seen the scale, back to the Queen’s Inner Hall and the finished tapestries!  The tapestry below is one of our all-time favorites that we’ve seen in books, and it was a delight to see it in real life – a copy for sure, but a copy that probably can not be surpassed.

Another one; we love the detail – look, for instance, at the waves in the water.

We’ll do one more.

Layout of the Great KitchensFinally we’ll tour the castle kitchen.  As shown in this schematic, it was divided into a cooking area, a prep area, and a baking area.  Almost all the kitchen staff were male, while women worked as “hen wives” or “alewives”.  Brewing ale (from barley) was usually the work of women, done within the castle, and ale was consumed with every meal – even by children, as it was safer to drink than water or milk.  It was also highly nutritious and an important part of the medieval diet.  Much of it had a low alcohol level.  A servant working for the royal family was given a daily allowance of about 2 quarts.

The pictures below show the kitchen in order, moving from the cooking area to the bread

ovens.  Those of the upper crust of Stirling Castle – and their servants – enjoyed fine white bread from wheat flour, sieved through woolen and linen cloth to remove the bran.  Most people had coarser flour from rye or barley, with darker and heavier loaves.

There was a decided (social) food train.  The king and queen were served all of the food first, the extra then passed on, in order, to the courtiers, various officials, their personal servants, and finally those who served the food to the tables.  The same system applied among the other servants.

Yep.  I know.  This was a loooong post, but Stirling Castle had a lot of meat on its bones!  The next posts will be (gorgeous) scenery, not history, so you get a break!  We’re off to the Highlands, to Oban on Scotland’s west coast.