Castle Hill, on which Stirling Castle is built, forms part of the Stirling Sill, a formation of quartz-dolerite around 350 million years old, which was subsequently modified by glaciation to form a "crag and tail". It is likely that this natural feature was occupied at an early date, as a hill fort is located on Gowan Hill, immediately to the east.
The Romans bypassed Stirling, building a fort at Doune instead, but the rock may have been occupied by the Maeatae at this time. It may later have been a stronghold of the Manaw Gododdin, and has also been identified with a settlement recorded in the 7th and 8th centuries as Iudeu, where King Penda of Mercia besieged King Oswy of Bernicia in 655. The area came under Pictish control after the defeat of the Northumbrians at the Battle of Dun Nechtain thirty years later. However, there is no archaeological evidence for occupation of Castle Hill before the late medieval period.
Other legends have been associated with Stirling, or "Snowdoun" as it was more poetically known. The 16th-century historian Hector Boece claims in his Historia Gentis Scotorum that the Romans, under Agricola, fortified Stirling, and that Kenneth MacAlpin, traditionally the first King of Scotland, besieged a castle at Stirling during his takeover of the Pictish kingdom in the 9th century. Boece is, however, considered an unreliable historian.
Another chronicler, William Worcester, associated Stirling with the court of the legendary King Arthur. Tradition suggests that St Monenna founded a chapel here, as she is said to have done at Edinburgh Castle, although it is now thought that the legend of Monenna results from a later confusion of early Christian figures, including Modwenna and Moninne.
The first record of Stirling Castle dates from around 1110, when King Alexander I dedicated a chapel there. It appears to have been an established royal centre by this time, as Alexander died here in 1124. During the reign of his successor David I, Stirling became a royal burgh, and the castle an important administration centre. King William I formed a deer park to the south-west of the castle, but after his capture by the English in 1174, he was forced to surrender several castles, including Stirling and Edinburgh Castle, under the Treaty of Falaise. There is no evidence that the English actually occupied the castle, and it was formally handed back by Richard I of England in 1189. Stirling continued to be a favoured royal residence, with William himself dying there in 1214, and Alexander III laying out the New Park, for deer hunting, in the 1260s.
Wars of Independence
Stirling remained a centre of royal administration until the death of Alexander III in 1286. His passing triggered a succession crisis, with Edward I of England invited to arbitrate between competing claimants. Edward came north in 1291, demanding that Stirling, along with the other royal castles, be put under his control during the arbitration. Edward gave judgement in favour of John Balliol, hoping he would be a "puppet" ruler, but John refused to obey Edward's demands.
In 1296, Edward invaded Scotland, beginning the Wars of Scottish Independence, which would last for the next 60 years. The English found Stirling Castle abandoned and empty, and set about occupying this key site. They were dislodged the following year, after the victory of Andrew Moray and William Wallace at the Battle of Stirling Bridge. Many of the garrison were killed during the battle, after which the English commanders William FitzWarin and Marmaduke Thweng retreated into the castle. However, they were quickly starved into surrender by the Scots.
Next summer, the castle changed hands again, being abandoned by the Scots after the English victory at Falkirk. Edward strengthened the castle, but it was besieged in 1299 by forces including Robert Bruce. King Edward failed to relieve the garrison, who were forced to surrender.
By 1303, the English again held the upper hand, and Stirling was the last remaining castle in Scottish hands. Edward's army arrived in April 1304, with at least 17 siege engines. The Scots, under William Oliphant, surrendered on 20 July, but part of the garrison were ordered back into the castle by Edward, as he had not yet deployed his latest engine, "Warwolf". Warwolf is believed to have been a large trebuchet, which destroyed the castle's gatehouse. Although Edward's victory seemed complete, he was dead by 1307, and Robert Bruce was now King of Scots. By 1313, only Stirling, Roxburgh, Edinburgh and Berwick castles were held by the English. Edward Bruce, the king's brother, laid siege to Stirling, which was held by Sir Philip Mowbray. Mowbray proposed a bargain: that he would surrender the castle, if it were not relieved by 24 June 1314. Bruce agreed, and withdrew. The following summer, the English duly headed north, led by Edward II, to save the castle. On 23–24 June, King Robert's forces met the English at the Battle of Bannockburn, within sight of the castle walls. The resulting English defeat was decisive. King Edward attempted to take refuge in the castle, but Mowbray was determined to keep to his word, and the English were forced to flee. Mowbray handed over the castle, changing sides himself in the process. King Robert ordered the castle to be slighted; its defences destroyed to prevent reoccupation by the English.
The war was not over, however. The second War of Scottish Independence saw the English in control of Stirling Castle by 1336, when Thomas Rokeby was the commander, and extensive works were carried out, still largely in timber rather than stone. Andrew Murray attempted a siege in 1337, when guns may have been used for one of the first times in Scotland. Robert Stewart, the future King Robert II, retook Stirling in a siege during 1341–1342. Maurice Murray was appointed as its keeper, who in the words of Andrew of Wyntoun "inforsyt it grettumly, for riche he was and full mychty" (enforced it greatly, for rich he was and full mighty). In 1360, Robert de Forsyth was appointed governor of Stirling Castle, an office he passed on to his son John and grandson William, who was governor in 1399.
The north gate of the castle, at the lower left, is probably the oldest part of the castle, dating partly from the 1380s
Under the early Stewart kings Robert II (reigned 1371–1390) and Robert III (reigned 1390–1406), the earliest surviving parts of the castle were built. Robert Stewart, Earl of Menteith, Regent of Scotland as brother of Robert III, undertook works on the north and south gates. The present north gate is built on these foundations of the 1380s, the earliest surviving masonry in the castle. In 1424, Stirling Castle was part of the jointure (marriage settlement) given to James I's wife Joan Beaufort, establishing a tradition which later monarchs continued. After James' murder in 1437, Joan took shelter here with her son, the young James II. Fifteen years later, in 1452, it was at Stirling Castle that James stabbed and killed William, 8th Earl of Douglas, when the latter refused to end a potentially treasonous alliance with John of Islay, Earl of Ross and Alexander Lindsay, 4th Earl of Crawford. James III (reigned 1460–1488) was born here, and later undertook works to the gardens and the chapel royal. The manufacture of artillery in the castle is recorded in 1475. James' wife, Margaret of Denmark, died in Stirling Castle in 1486, and two years later James himself died at the Battle of Sauchieburn, fought over almost the same ground as the Battle of Bannockburn, just to the south of the castle.
Almost all the present buildings in the castle were constructed between 1490 and 1600, when Stirling was developed as a principal royal centre by the Stewart kings James IV, James V and James VI. The architecture of these new buildings shows an eclectic mix of English, French and German influences, reflecting the international ambitions of the Stewart dynasty.
James IV (reigned 1488–1513) kept a full Renaissance court, including alchemists, and sought to establish a palace of European standing at Stirling. He undertook building works at the royal residences of Edinburgh, Falkland and Linlithgow, but the grandest works were at Stirling, and include the King's Old Building, the Great Hall, and the Forework. He also renovated the chapel royal, one of two churches within the castle at this time, and in 1501 received approval from Pope Alexander VI for the establishment of a college of priests. The Forework, of which little now remains, was derived from French military architecture, although military details were added more for style than for defence. If a satirical account in two poems by the poet William Dunbar is based on facts, the castle walls may have been the site of an attempt at human-powered flight, c.1509, by the Italian alchemist and abbot of Tongland, John Damian. James also kept an alchemist called Caldwell maintaining a furnace for "quinta essencia", the mythical fifth element, at the castle.
The building works begun by James IV had not been completed at the time of his death at the Battle of Flodden. His successor, James V (reigned 1513–1542), was crowned in the chapel royal, and grew up in the castle under the guardianship of Lord Erskine. In 1515, the Regent Albany brought 7,000 men to Stirling to wrest control of the young king from his mother, Margaret Tudor. James V as monarch was said to have travelled in disguise under the name "Gudeman of Ballengeich", after the road running under the eastern wall of the castle. Ballengeich means "windy pass" in Gaelic. He continued and expanded his father's building programme, creating the centrepiece of the castle, the Royal Palace, built under the direction of Sir James Hamilton of Finnart and masons brought from France. James V also died young, leaving unfinished work to be completed by his widow, Mary of Guise. His infant daughter, Mary, Queen of Scots, was brought to Stirling Castle for safety, and crowned in the chapel royal on 9 September 1543. She too was brought up here, until she was sent to Inchmahome Priory, and then to France in 1548. In the 1550s, during the Regency of Mary of Guise, Anglo-French hostilities were fought out in Scotland. Artillery fortifications were added to the south approach of the castle including the 'French Spur', and these form the basis of the present Outer Defences. Guise employed an Italian military engineer called Lorenzo Pomarelli.
Queen Mary returned to Scotland in 1561, and visited Stirling Castle frequently. She nursed Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley, through an illness here in 1565, and the two were soon married. Their son, James VI, was baptised here the following year. The celebrations included fireworks, an assault on a mock castle, and a masque designed by Bastian Pagez. Darnley was already estranged from the Queen and did not attend although he was resident at the castle. James' guardian, the Earl of Mar, was made hereditary governor of the castle in 1566. Mary was travelling from Stirling when she was abducted by the Earl of Bothwell, beginning the chain of events that led to her forced abdication and her flight to England.
The young King James was crowned in the nearby Church of the Holy Rude, and grew up within the castle walls in the care of Annabell Murray, Countess of Mar and under the tutelage of the humanist scholar George Buchanan. Frequently used as a pawn in the struggles between his regents and the supporters of Mary, the young king was closely guarded. Stirling became the base for James' supporters, while those nobles who wished to see Queen Mary restored gathered at Edinburgh, under William Kirkcaldy of Grange. Grange led a raid on Stirling in 1571, attempting to round up the Queen's enemies, but failed to gain control of the castle or the King.
The keeper of the Castle, Alexander Erskine of Gogar was ejected by supporters of Regent Morton in April 1578, after his son was fatally wounded during a struggle at the gate. The rebellious Earls of Mar and Angus seized the castle in 1584, but surrendered and fled to England when the King arrived with an army. They returned the following year, forcing the King to surrender, although they proclaimed their loyalty to him.
In December 1593 Anne of Denmark decided to come to Stirling for the birth of her first child, and James ordered the palace which was in "ruin and decay" to be repaired. Prince Henry was born in the castle in 1594, and the present Chapel Royal was constructed for his baptism on 30 August. Probably built by William Schaw, the chapel completed the quadrangle of the Inner Close. Like his predecessors Henry spent his childhood here under the 2nd Earl of Mar, until the Union of the Crowns of 1603, when his father succeeded as King of England and the royal family left for London.
After their departure, Stirling's role as a royal residence declined, and it became principally a military centre. It was used as a prison for persons of rank during the 17th century, and saw few visits by the monarch. James VI & I returned to Scotland in 1617, staying in Stirling during July. From 1625, extensive preparations were made for the anticipated visit of the new king, Charles I, including works to the gardens and painting of the Chapel Royal. Charles did not come to Scotland until 1633, and only stayed in the castle briefly.
Following the execution of Charles I, the Scots crowned his son Charles II, and he became the last reigning monarch to stay here, living at the castle in 1650. The Royalist forces were defeated at Dunbar by those of Oliver Cromwell, and the King marched south to defeat at Worcester. General Monck laid siege to the castle on 6 August 1651, erecting gun platforms in the adjacent churchyard. After the garrison mutinied, Colonel William Conyngham was obliged to surrender on 14 August. Damage done during the siege can still be seen on the church and the Great Hall.
Stirling Castle, drawn by John Slezer
in 1693, and showing James IV's now-demolished Forework
After The Restoration of Charles II, the Earl of Mar was restored as governor, and the castle was frequently used as a prison, housing several Covenanters. James, Duke of Albany, later King James VII of Scotland and II of England, visited the castle in 1681. During this time, the castle's military role became increasingly important, a powder magazine being built in the castle gardens, and a formal garrison installed from 1685. At the accession of King George I in 1714, John Erskine, 6th Earl of Mar was deprived of the governorship, as well as the post of Scottish Secretary. In response, he raised the standard of James Stuart, the "Old Pretender", in the Jacobite rising of 1715. Government troops, under the Duke of Argyll, quickly moved to occupy the fortress, then advanced to Sheriffmuir to block Mar's way. The Battle of Sheriffmuir was inconclusive, but the rising was effectively over. The Jacobite rising of 1745 saw Charles Edward Stuart lead his army of Highlanders past Stirling on the way to Edinburgh. Following the Jacobites' retreat from England, they returned to Stirling in January 1746. The town soon surrendered, but the castle governor refused to capitulate. Artillery works were set up on Gowan Hill, but were quickly destroyed by the castle's guns. Despite victory at Falkirk, the Jacobites withdrew north on 1 February.
From 1800 the Castle was owned by the War Office and run as a barracks. Many alterations were made to the Great Hall, which became an accommodation block, to the Chapel Royal, which became a lecture theatre and dining hall, to the King's Old Building, which became an infirmary and to the Royal Palace, which became the Officer's Mess. A number of new buildings were also constructed, including the prison and powder magazine, at the Nether Bailey, in 1810. Queen Victoria visited in 1842, and the Prince of Wales in 1859.
In 1873 a system of recruiting areas based on counties was instituted under the Cardwell Reforms and the barracks became the depot for the 72nd (Highland) Regiment of Foot and the 91st (Argyllshire Highlanders) Regiment of Foot. Following the Childers Reforms, the 91st (Argyllshire Highlanders) Regiment of Foot and the 93rd (Sutherland Highlanders) Regiment of Foot amalgamated to form the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders with its depot in the barracks in 1881.
The restored fireplace in the King's Chamber
The Royal Lodgings have now been returned to something approaching their former glory. A major programme of research and re-presentation, lasting ten years and costing £12 million, was completed in summer 2011. Since January 2002, the Tapestry Studio at West Dean College has been working on a recreation of The Hunt of the Unicorn tapestries, four of which are now hanging in the restored Queen's Presence Chamber in the Royal Palace. Historians studying the reign of James V believe that a similar series of Unicorn tapestries were part of the royal collection.
The team of weavers visited The Cloisters, part of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City, to inspect the 15th-century originals, and researched medieval weaving techniques, colour palettes and materials. The weavers are working both at the College in West Sussex, and at a studio at Stirling Castle. The project was completed in 2015.
Stirling Castle remains the headquarters of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, although Balaclava Company, the sole surviving unit of the regiment, has been garrisoned at Redford Barracks since 2014. The regimental museum is also located within the castle.