I visited Stirling Castle at the weekend – the first time I’ve been there in about twenty years. In fact, it’s been so long that I hadn’t seen the refurbished Banqueting Hall, or the new Stirling Heads – a recreated series of carved wooden portraits of royals and other important people from the 16th century. I did remember the steep walk up to the castle, though, and the amazing views.
Stirling Castle is like Edinburgh Castle in many ways – both sit atop a sudden and dramatic rise in the landscape, making them ideal sites to fortify. And both surmount towns which retain many of their medieval and early modern streets and dwellings. But I prefer Stirling’s setting – looking out from the parade ground in front, you can see how the flat and fertile Carse of Gowrie marks the end of the Lowlands, and how the mountains rise up to the north. Standing on the ramparts, you feel that you are at the edge of civilisation, and all that lies before you is the lawless Highlands.
The castle also houses a weaving studio, where tapestries are woven in the traditional way. The weavers are creating a set off seven Unicorn tapestries to be hung in the castle. King James V had two sets of tapestries – a very expensive form of wall-covering, but perfect for the draughty interiors of Stirling. It was fascinating to see the weavers in action – one thing I hadn’t realised was that the tapestry is woven sideways (the left hand side to the floor) before it is finished and hung the right way up. The wool is hand-dyed with a delectable range of colours and the weavers follow an outline of the design but use their own judgement as to what colours should be used where. I enjoy needlework, and I’m very interested in historical examples – but it’s clear these must have been woven by professionals rather than the queen and her ladies in waiting.