Spending an Afternoon at the Gateway to the Highlands
About an hour north of Edinburgh and Glasgow, on your way to the Highlands, is the historic town of Stirling. I knew very little about this city, other than it was the site of Stirling Bridge where William Wallace (aka Braveheart) defeated the English army then under the control of Edward I. Thanks Mel Gibson and Blind Hary (the writer of the historical and sometimes fictional poem The Wallace).
I wasn't sure of all I would find here, so I only planned an afternoon. I will say that you would be well served to plan a bit more time. There is more than a bridge here. In fact, you may find that Stirling Castle is sufficient to eat up an afternoon all on it's own.
But an afternoon is all I had, so here are some places to explore on your own trip to Stirling.
"Winding your way down on Baker Street..." As a Scotsman from outside Glasgow, I might have thought Gerry Rafferty was singing about this street in Stirling, but alas, no, he was singing about London. But this is defintely a street to go down, or up! It will lead you through the main stretch of town.
After spending the morning at Doune Castle 15 minutes down the road, I was ready to eat and had plotted out Baker Street, No. 2 as the pub / restaurant that I would use as my feeding ground (thanks to some really nice Trip Advisor and Google reviews. However, it was a Saturday and the place was absolutely packed. Apparently there was a festival in town and this was the hottest place to grab a drink.
Nicky Tams Bar and Bothy
Location: 29 Baker St, Stirling, Scotland
As luck would have it, down the road Nicky Tams did have some seating. They are a restaurant and pub that has two levels. I ordered Steak Pie and a Guinness and that combo of comfort food and drink left me warm and satisfied for the remainder of my day. The chopped steak was served in a heavy gravy a hearty serving of potatoes, along with peas and carrots (unseasoned) and a pastry. All in all, it was a just want my belly needed for that climb up to Stirling Castle.
Stirling Highland Hotel
Location: Spittal St, Stirling, Scotland
A real eye-catcher on the way up Baker Street and over to St. John Street is the Stirling Highland Hotel. This wonderful piece of Victorian-era architecture amazingly started out as a high school in 1854.
I didn't stay here (instead opting for a hotel in Dunblane) but it looks like a nice combination of attractive, historic, and affordable.
In case you get lost.
Parking / Train
Note that parking is limited at Stirling Castle and during busy times, it may be filled up. There is street parking with a few free spaces, but I was told by my car rental agency that you should always try to pay to park, or find a parking garage to avoid tickets. Look out for permit only parking around Stirling. Make sure the sign points you to a machine.
At Doune Castle, the attendant told me I'd be better of to park at the Thistle Town Centre. For 1£ an hour, you would know your car was in good hands. However, do know you will have a decent 12 minute climb up to Stirling Castle from there. And make sure you pay attention to when the parking area closes. I almost got there too late!
If you're arriving by train, Stirling Station is also down by the Thistle Town Centre.
Location: Jail Wynd, Stirling, Scotland
Built in 1703, the Tolbooth was a combination government building and town jail. Not only could you be put in the tower as a prisoner, but you could be stuck hanging outside! In the early 1800's the government of Scotland counted this as the most deplorable jail in all of Scotland. Not long after, a new jail was constructed across the street.
Today it serves a much more pleasant purpose these days as a performing arts theatre. Much nicer to go there willingly rather than being incarcerated!
Church of the Holy Rude and Old Town Cemetery
Visiting in mid-April, those April showers had already done their best to populate the grounds of Stirling Castle and the Old Town Cemetery. What you can't see is how cold it was. A bit of a Scandinavian front was making it's way through and the winds were bitter. The Church of the Holy Rude is the second oldest building in Stirling, dating back to the 15th Century. There was actually a church here as far back as 1129 during the rule of King David I but it burned in a fire around 1405.
The cemetery has grave stones as old as the 16th Century. In 1882 there was a strange incident where a gravedigger dug up Mary Stevenson, a woman he had buried just days before. He wanted to pass it to a friend to dissect the body. While arrested for the crime, he was not punished, which lead to a riot. There is a stone marking the body snatching on the grounds (unfortunately I only learned this story after having visited, so that gives you something to hunt down).
In castle architecture, the portcullis is the entryway that is fortified with an iron gate to keep intruders out. This particular Portcullis is actually inviting you in. It is a pub with lodgings in front of Stirling Castle. A bagpiper was serenading me as I walked by.
No trip to Stirling is complete without a few hours spent around Stirling Castle. Outside the big statue of Robert The Bruce welcomes you. At a distance to the East, from the hilltop you can see the William Wallace Monument. Once inside the castle, you get a real sense of 600 years of Scottish history.
The Mercat Cross
Location: Broad St, Stirling, Scotland
On the way back down from Stirling Castle stands The Mercat Cross. This ancient unicorn, known as "the Puggy" to the locals, marked the location of the area's traditional market, where proclamations were made and many a merry drinking celebration took place around a bonfire.
Wait until those English come rounding that corner!
Mote Hill: Beheading Stone
Location: Gowan Hill, Sterling, Scotland
Here is something you don't see everyday - a beheading stone. There are a couple of ways to get to the stone from the castle. The Back Walk starts from just below the Robert The Bruce statue on Upper Castlehill. Or you can walk through town like I did, down Broad Street and over to St. Marys Wynd / Upper Bridge Street to Lower Bridge Street. Get your walking shoes on. That way is a trek. Then you'll have a nice aggressive climb back up to where the stone resides, but the view is worth it!
When you reach the enclosed stone, you can still see the axe marks chipped into the stone.
Mote Hill: Facing Stirling Bridge
More canon, these facing Stirling Bridge. That bridge was to be my next destination.
From Old Stirling Bridge
Old Stirling Bridge is a masonry foot bridge that dates back to the late 1400's. It is a bit of a challenge to get to, if you're walking from the Beheading Stone. Watch out for traffic flying down Drip Road into the roundabout. This bridge was a replacement for many timber bridges, including the one William Wallace destroyed to help defeat the English army.
During the Jacobite uprising in 1745, the bridge was altered to stall Bonnie Prince Charlie's forces from making it to the castle. They actually removed one of the arches!
Location of Original Stirling Bridge
This is the spot where the timber Stirling Bridge of William Wallace's time was. Waiting until the English cavalry had sufficient men atop the bridge, he pulled the pins out and it collapsed. The Scots won in a route and demoralized the English. The depiction in the movie Braveheart is quite different and also incorrect. The events of 11 September 1297 became known as The Battle of Stirling Bridge.
William Wallace Monument
High atop Abbey Craig, the William Wallace Monument is probably something you'd prefer to drive to. Once you arrive, you will have a lot of stair climbing to do. There is ample parking and there are shuttle buses that run during regular business hours. I hear the view is incredible on a clear day, if you make your way up the 250 plus stairs inside the monument. My ACL does not like going down stairs, so I unfortunately had to pass.
Full Scottish Breakfast
Yes, this happened. But not in Stirling, instead in Dunblane at the Bed and Breakfast I stayed at. After a full day of exploring the Stirling area, I was ready for a sturdy breakfast. No trip to Scotland (unless you're a vegetarian) would be complete without this. By the way, that is black pudding you see in the front.
Next stop, Castle Campbell and then the whisky of the Highlands.