Saturday, October 13, 2012

Sterling - Gateway to the Highlands

Stirling Castle
It has been some time since I have written a post that focuses on a particular site and so I shall now remedy that with a little bit on Sterling, Scotland. 

When I first moved to Scotland for graduate work several years ago, one of my first foray without the walls of St. Andrews was to Stirling, just a few miles to the west of Edinburgh. It was some time in early November, the hills having gone from green and heather-clad to gold and brown with a smattering of deep green. For those who like history, this is a place well worth the visit. 

Stirling has been a settlement since the Stone Age but really took on its strategic importance from the time of the first Roman incursions into the area in the late first century A.D. It was a part of the Antonine Wall, which predated Hadrian's Wall, and was Rome's first major frontier in Britannia. Indeed, Sterling was the closest crossing point of the River Forth near the mouth of the river. For the Romans, it also anchored the south western end of the Gask Ridge which consisted of a string of Roman forts that ran roughly Northeast of Sterling all the way to modern Perth which lay south of the legionary fortress of Inchtuthill. 

Wallace Monument with the Highlands beyond
For this post however, I wanted to look beyond the classical period to a couple sites that are tied more to the Medieval era. In popular culture the mention of Stirling conjures images of the movie Braveheart in which Mel Gibson's William Wallace smashes Edward I's armies until the Scot is eventually captured. Despite some historical inaccuracies in the film, it was still a fantastic retelling of the story. Always good to see an historical epic win the Oscar!

But Stirling was indeed a place of battle, as portrayed in the movie, due to its strategic importance as the gateway to the Highlands; whoever controlled Stirling's castle rock controlled the flow of traffic. If you visit, Stirling Castle should be your first destination. It is extremely well-preserved, the great hall having undergone a restoration shortly before I visited there myself. When standing upon the walls of Stirling Castle one really has a magnificent view of the entire region in all directions. One of the most stunning views is of the 19th century Wallace Monument with the backdrop of the Highlands behind. This Victorian era folly rises dramatically to pierce the sky and if you have the legs for its spiraling staircase, you will have the benefit of yet another magnificent view. If you are a Mel Gibson fan, you will have a chuckle at the statue of William Wallace bearing the actor's visage. Why not?

Robert the Bruce - Bannockburn
After you visit the castle and Wallace Monument you should definitely head to the museum and field of Bannockburn. Here you will be treated to a wonderful interpretive display where you can even try on a bit of armour before you head out onto a supposed part of the battlefield where Robert the Bruce led the Scots to victory against the English in the year 1314. There is a wonderfully dramatic equestrian statue of Robert the Bruce on the battle field which you can check out, battle axe and all. Actually, Bannockburn has been in the headlines lately due to new archaeological excavations that have been underway to determine the precise location of the fighting which may have ranged over a wide area. You can read more here.

Stirling Bridge is there as well, the place where Wallace fought one of his major battles in the first war of Scottish independence, on September 11, 1297. Though the current bridge is made of stone, the fourteenth century crossing would have been made of wood. The bridge was only wide enough to allow two horseman to cross abreast at a time and the English, on the day, made slow progress. When part of the English army had crossed, the Scots swept down from their high ground near the area of Wallace Monument and utterly crushed the English. It was a battle to send shock waves throughout both realms. 

Stirling Bridge
Modern Stirling has a current population of no more than ninety thousand people. However, this was a place where history was made, where kingdoms rose and where they fell. In one day, you can walk from the Stone Age to the Roman Empire, relive major battles of the medieval world, visit Renaissance palaces and gardens and top it off with a visit to a Victorian jail. If ever you do have the opportunity, a visit to Sterling is definitely worth the journey.    
Post a Comment