Well, it is Tuesday September 25th, and with mixed emotions we began our last day in Scotland with one final Scottish breakfast at the Village Inn in Arrochar. The side table was laid out with breakfast rolls and fruit and we discreetly helped ourselves to a few of those “for later”.
There were two things we had on our consideration list for today – a boat ride on Loch Lomond, and a visit to Stirling Castle. The boat ride was subject to weather, and unbeknownst to me, Mary snapped this picture of me at breakfast checking the local weather and looking at travel times and distances. There is no question that technology has changed the way one can travel, and we have taken full advantage of it over the past 4-5 years, especially Google Maps, and the various different trip-planning sites; Trip-Advisor and Booking.com in particular. Even the pre-trip research I did has changed. When we traveled to London for a month in September of 2008, we bought at least four different books from Chapters, and I transcribed notes into a travel backgrounder. Yes, I used the Internet too, but there is so much more information online now versus then, and what I especially look for is travel blogs written and posted by people of various ages and interests, rather than just relying on travel writers.
Back to today, and while it looked we might have rain in the afternoon (and we did), the prediction of high winds made the idea of a boat ride a little less appealing. I suggested to Mary that we begin our trip by heading south towards the town of Balloch, about half an hour away, and that while she was driving, I would review other options in the area for a last day visit.
Before leaving, we took a couple of last pictures of our Hotel (the Village Inn), and the low-tide view across Loch Long.
By the time we reached Balloch, I had identified Dumbarton Castle as a point-of-interest, and it was just a short 15-minute drive further south, back down to the banks of the River Clyde.
Given the name “Fortress on the Rock” by locals, Dumbarton Castle sits high atop Dumbarton Rock, 240 feet and more than 350 steps above the surrounding area, and offering amazing views in all directions.
It has the longest recorded history of any stronghold in Scotland, with written records dating back to the late 5th century, including a letter from Saint Patrick (the patron saint of Ireland) to King Ceretic (King of the area now kwown as Dumbarton). The letter refers to “Alt Clut”, which means Rock of the Clyde, and it is from this point forward that Dumbarton Castle’s storied history unfolded.
In the middle ages, it was an important royal castle. The elderly Robert the Bruce, died nearby in 1329, and the young sovereigns David ll (1333-34), and Mary Queen of Scots (in 1548), both sheltered there until ships could take them to France and safety during Scotland’s struggles with England. Thereafter, it became a garrison fortress, with gun defenses aimed in all directions. It last saw military action as recently as the Second World War.
As we began our climb to the visitor center, a sign at the entrance told us that nothing from the Dark-Age fortress survives, and precious little from the medieval castle too – just the Portcullis Arch, Guard House, and the bottom storey of Wallace Tower. What we were about to see dates mostly from the refortification of the Rock carried out in the wake of the 1715 Jacobite Rising.
The guns in the picture above are at “King George’s Battery”. As you can see, it overlooks the Rivers Clyde and Leven and was built in 1735 to offer protection for the Governor’s House which sits directly behind it. The Governor’s House now serves as the Visitor Centre and it is from there that our wanderings really began.
I should note that it was incredibly windy, and the young woman in the visitor centre told us to be extra careful as the winds were bordering on the level in which they often shut things down for reasons of safety.
Between the early 13th and early 17th century, the main castle buildings were built on level ground between two crags, or as Mary referred to it “mountain cleavage”. She is standing on the pathway leading to the “French Prison” built in 1790, and it sits on the foundation of one of the earlier buildings.
In order to get to this level, we first had to climb up 145 steps (I counted them), past the Guard House (circa 1580), and through the Portculis Arch, both of which offered protection to those living in the castle grounds above.
Once through these defenses, we found ourselves in the area in which Mary was standing in the earlier picture. Little remains of the structures on this level from any previous time, but at the western end of the divide, there is the French Prison, the remains of the Wallace Tower (it was originally four storeys high), and the Duke of York’s Battery.
The prison was used to house prisoners from the Napoleonic Wars, hence its name, but prior to that it had been a state prison housing among others, men who helped Bonnie Prince Charlie during the Jacobite Rebellion.
This level was less than half the distance to the top however, and Mary and I chose to split up, climbing opposite sides of the crags. I am usually the “more adventurous one of the two of us” as Mary is quick to point out, but on this day, she chose the steeper, windier climb – the side known as the White Tower Crag.
In the larger of the three pictures above, you can just make out Mary standing in the middle of her climb to the top (I took these pictures from the top of my climb). I then zoomed in on her and you can see the zig-zag stair case behind her, a 215 step-climb from that mid-level of the castle to the top. The last picture (bottom right of the above montage), has her atop the White Tower Crag, named for the medieval tower that once stood on this spot.
Looking left and sweeping right, Mary took these pictures looking west up the River Clyde; across the Clyde at the village of Langbank; east up the river toward the Port of Glasgow; and, southeast across the River Leven at the town of Dumbarton itself.
The next picture shows her vantage point as she made her way back down the winding staircase to mid-level, and that is me, standing beside the path across the way.
As for my journey, I climbed up the north side of the divide, on the crag known as “the Beak”. It was nowhere near as high as Mary’s climb, but every bit as steep, and it was different in that were more recently built (in relative terms) structures on my side.
The first one I encountered was called the Duke of Argyll’s Battery, built in 1795. The picture below shows the heavy cannons on the perch looking out to the southeast.
The next battery on the climb was the Prince of Wale’s Battery, also built in 1795, and it’s guns were pointed directly south. The picture on the right (below), is taken from my highest vantage point (the Magazine), looking back down on the cannons and across the River Leven.
From this vantage point, I also had a bird’s-eye view of Dumbarton Football Stadium, known by it’s suppporters as “the Rock” due to it’s location right below Dumbarton Rock. As you can see, it is a relatively small stadium, with seats for just 2,000 on one side of the pitch. Dumbarton FC are a “second-tier” Scottish league club, and are the fourth oldest team in the country.
As noted, I had climbed to the top of “the Beak”, where the Powder Magazine is located. It was built in 1748 to hold 150 barrels of gunpowder. Reputed to be “bomb-proof”, it could be easily accessed by soldiers manning the gun batteries at the various different levels of the fort.
We really enjoyed visiting this spot. It was unlike anything else we’d been to, it wasn’t busy, and the views it afforded us were pretty darn spectacular.
It hadn’t started raining yet, but we could feel it in the air as we set off for Stirling Castle, about an hour to the east of Dumbarton, and as we made our way there, we drove through several squalls of rain.
We purposely chose a “back route” so as to avoid the weekday motor traffic on and around the M80, and we were rewarded with a very picturesque drive through mostly agricultural and rural communities.
I knew Stirling Castle was “big”, but didn’t realize until we got there just how big, and how popular it was. There was a long “controlled” line-up snaking up the hill to the castle just to park, and they only let in one car at a time (as one exited), so as to avoid congestion in the lots. Extremely well-organized! It took us about 10 minutes to get our hand-signal, and we were most fortunate to get a spot super-close to the entrance, as we could have been in for a very long walk given the size of the facility.
I have written how Mary and I try to avoid crowds, so you can imagine our apprehension when we saw the volume of cars and people as we arrived at Stirling Castle. However, the sheer size and magnitude of it meant that there was so much to see and explore, we never once felt overwhelmed, and we were able to take our time moving about.
Stirling Castle is one of the largest and most important castles in the U.K., both historically and architecturally. It sits atop Castle Hill, a rather intrusive crag, and the castle is surrounded on three sides by steep cliffs, giving it a strong defensive position.
Most of the principal buildings of the castle date from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. A few structures of the fourteenth century remain, while the outer defenses fronting the town, date from the early eighteenth century.
Before the union with England, Stirling Castle was also one of the most used of the many Scottish royal residences, very much a palace as well as a fortress. Several Scottish Kings and Queens have been crowned at Stirling including Mary, Queen of Scots, in 1542, and others were born or died there. It is James V, who reigned from 1513-1542 who is responsible for much of the splendor that we saw as we toured the castle today.
Mary (not the Queen of Scots) is standing on the approach to the castle in the picture below and behind her you can see a defense wall that was built to protect the castle grounds. At this point, we’ve already passed through one outer wall.
Off to either side of the walkway where she is standing, there is a dry ditch (see below) separating the first wall we passed through, and the main entrance to the castle grounds.
Once through the secondary defense wall (the Forework), we found ourselves in the smaller of two principal courtyards – the Outer Close. This is the lower and more public of the courtyards and in medieval times was largely the service area, with kitchens, the main well, and other storage facilities supporting the core royal life in the Inner Close.
As we moved inside, to our left was a space called the Queen Anne Garden (pictured below). It was created in the mid-1500’s as a “spot of tranquility” within the castle grounds, and there are Beech trees in the garden that are more than 200 years old. Above it is a terraced walk, and since we saw people on it, we reckoned at some point on our tour, we’d find our way up there. You can also see the first of the many sculptures that adorn the outer walls of the castle. James V had them commissioned as a sign of his wealth and power and they were all originally brightly painted.
We then moved through the Forework entrance to the Inner Close, considered to be the “summit of prestige”, where starting in the 1500’s successive Stuart kings created buildings to “reflect the magnificence of their power”.
The building in the picture above is James V’s palace. It was built to present James V as he wished to be seen – a king on par if not greater than all the other rulers of Europe. Our guidebook noted that the inside of the palace has been brought back to life in recent years by the recreation of the royal apartments which we would see once inside. It is very impressive in its architecture and was designed to allow for large windows and life-sized statues to be presented in an alternating fashion. The picture below shows the life-sized sculpture of James V which is located on the far left side of the picture above.
James V had the statue done in such a way that he would always be looking down on his visitors, and he placed himself directly beside statues of the classical gods Saturn and Venus.
At the far right he placed a statue of the goddess Abundance, so as tell of the prosperity that his rule would bring to Scotland.
Moving inside the palace, we began our tour in the King’s Inner Hall, whose ceiling is decorated with painted replicas of the Stirling Heads (more on these later). This was the room where the King met with his audiences.
The original fireplace holds a place of honour in the centre of the room and the space above it is dominated by the royal arms of Scotland that are painted directly on to the wall.
Next, came the King’s bedchamber (below), another place where business was transacted, but in a more cheerful and intimate atmosphere. Only the most important visitors and personal friends met the king in this room. James V died in 1542, and never saw his palace fully completed. His rooms have been left relatively bare as they would likely have been at the time of his death.
In direct contrast with the empty spaces, the Queen’s lodgings have been lavishly recreated, as Mary of Guise (James V widow) lived here after her husband’s death, eventually assuming control of Scotland as regent. The Queen’s Bedchamber is right next to the King’s Bedchamber.
Mary of Guise had a personal altar (see below) created that stood right beside her bed, and the room was warmed by the presence of Persian rugs on the floors, wall tapestries, and thick hanging draperies.
You might notice in the right hand corner of the picture above, what looks to be couple of walking sticks leaning against a chair. They are in fact replicas of golf clubs that Mary of Guise and King James used and it is recorded that they wore both avid players (as was Mary, Queen of Scots). The ball is made from tightly wound pieces of leather and stuffed with duck feathers. No 300 yard bombs off the tee with a ball like that.
They also loved the sport of rugby, and Mary (not of Guise) is seen below, doing her best impression of Matthew Stafford.
We moved on to the Queen’s Inner Hall, where honoured guests would be granted a chance to meet the Queen. The real treasures in this room are the Unicorn tapestries hung around the top half of all the walls. They have been recreated based on a set of 16th-century tapestries that reside in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, and are thought to be representative of two Unicorn tapestries noted in a 1539 inventory of the castle’s valuables. The recreation is ongoing, as each one takes between 3 and 4 years to complete.
The last rooms on the main floor are the Outer Halls and the West Gallery. The Outer Halls were used as a holding area for those waiting to see either the King or the Queen, and for entertainments such as music and dancing.
Without a doubt, the star of the show at Stirling Castle is the Stirling Head Gallery, located on the top floor of the palace.
The Stirling Heads were commissioned in 1540 to adorn the ceiling in the King’s Inner Hall, so that he could sit on his chair and admire the “credentials of his estate”. They were carved by French craftsmen who were introduced to King James V, by his french wife, Mary of Guise.
The Stirling Heads are metre-wide oak medallions carved with images of kings, queens, nobles, Roman Emperors, and characters from both the bible and Classical mythology.
The gallery includes a mix of those carvings that survived the collapse of the ceiling in 1777, and recreations drawn from a book of illustrations depicting all of them shortly before the collapse occurred.
The carving below is a replica head of Margaret Tudor, mother of James V. The original is on loan to the National Museum of Scotland.
The carving on the left (below) is of an unidentified nobleman, while the carving on the right is of Madeleine of Valois, the first wife of King James V (she died in 1537).
The level of detail and intricacy of the work varies from one carving to the next, but when all together in one place, they are a spectacular collection of portraits illustrating the wealth and connections of King Jame’s V monarchy.
I’m not going to attempt to detail everything else we saw at Stirling Castle, but will leave you with a few highlights, starting with the Birdman of Stirling. Father John Damian was an Italian at the court of James IV. Damian’s interest and attempts at medicine, alchemy, and flying were encouraged by the king. The flying father famously declared that he would fly to France dressed in a chicken suit complete with feathers. On the appointed day in 1507, Damian put on his wings and leapt from the battlement in the picture below. He of course plummeted to the ground immediately, and miraculously survived with only a broken thigh, when his fall was “cushioned” by a muck heap below.
You may recall that earlier in this blog I pointed out the terraced walk above the Queen Anne Garden, and speculated that at some point we’d find our way out to it. Well we did, and as you can see from the picture below, the castle’s vantage point, high up on Castle Hill affords a magnificent view of the surrounding area as well as the grounds of the castle itself.
Back to the sculptures adorning the outer walls, there were some pretty strange ones above the terrace, not the least of which is the one pictured below. It is said to be a donkey or some type of goat-like animal that is wearing an embroidered collar. Huh?
The last picture (below) from Stirling is of the surrounding roads, taken from the “ladie’s lookout” at the castle.. Earlier in our adventure, we passed by the castle along these roads at least three times and on that occasion we couldn’t fit a visit into our schedule. I considered it entirely fitting then, that on our last day, we were close enough and had sufficient time to get to it. It was one of the best places we visited during our entire four-week journey!
It was now time for us to head to our final stop-over before the long trek home – the Courtyard Marriott in Paisley, right next to the Glasgow Airport.
We mostly managed to avoid rush hour madness, even though we had to stick-handle our way around the outskirts of Glasgow, and checked in just before 6 PM. We hauled all of our purchases, suitcases, and mementos up to our room, and after an excellent dinner in the very crowded and noisy restaurant, we proceeded to try and figure out how we could pack everything into two big suitcases, and two smaller carry-ons. When we left home, each of our bags weighed just over 40 pounds (against the 52 pound allowance), and that included the packing of an empty carry-on bag in each suitcase (advance planning!!). When I took our suitcases downstairs to weigh them in the hotel lobby, they were both just barely under the 52 pound allowance, and both carry-ons were “stuffed”. But, we got everything packed and knew that once we had checked them in, we wouldn’t have to deal with how heavy they were until we retrieved them at YVR. Phew!
One last sleep, and then a 6:15 wake-up to get us on our way to the first of four airports that we’ll see tomorrow.
It has been another amazing Stanger adventure, and for once, we are not “happy to be going home to our own beds”. This trip was so much fun, and we became so comfortable in Scotland, we are actually sad that it is over.
I guess that’s the mark of a great experience.