On Saturday we set off sans Wee White Dug along a wet and miserable M9 bound for Stirling. It felt odd hitting the road without our travel buddy.
It’s not often you’ll see me head to an urban landscape in my free time but Stirling is different – it’s heaven for history geeks. We’d also been invited to an evening wedding reception at the beautiful Hotel Colessio and having spent a wonderful night there early last year we were keen to return.
The Battle of Bannockburn
As the rain showed no sign of letting up we decided to stay warm and dry inside The Battle of Bannockburn Visitor Centre. The visitor centre opened in 2014 on the site of the battle and has proved to be very popular.
Having a National Trust for Scotland family membership means we can visit as many of their sites as we like for the bargain price of £7 per month.
The Battle of Bannockburn, which was fought in 1314 is a big deal for us Scots. You see we’re not exactly a nation of winners so we cling to rare victories for a very, very long time afterwards. We were however a dab hand at inventing useful things such as the telephone, television, tarmac and chloroform so I suppose you can’t have it all ways.
Anyway back to Bannockburn and the visitor centre. It’s a fantastic interactive experience which will appeal to all ages.
You can try out some medieval weapons and armour and take part in archery displays (weather permitting). I persuaded Mr G to rock the Medieval Knight look for a few photos. After several years of acting as a photo prop he’s used to my demands and never really protests. He did draw the line at donning chain-mail and a tabard though.
After trying out the weaponry it was time for the main event, a thrilling 90 minute interactive experience in 3D.
I’ll admit I wasn’t initially overly enamoured at the prospect of being captive for 90 minutes but those thoughts quickly vanished the second I stepped inside, 3D glasses on.
First we heard about the lead up to the battle from a Scottish perspective. Sir James Douglas or the Black Douglas appeared before our very eyes. Douglas played a pivotal role in the Wars of Scottish Independence and is a much-loved hero of the Scots. He was feared and hated by the English.
Next we heard the story from an English perspective. Isabella of France, wife of King Edward II of England appeared to share her version of events.
Both accounts were cleverly done and pitched at just the right level to give a good insight without an overload of heavy historical detail. I loved the almost puppet like 3D characters. They were surreal and strangely captivating.
After hearing the two versions of events we headed into a large, dark room with giant screens on each wall. We huddled in the centre of the room and found ourselves in woodland by the battlefield on the eve of the battle. Giant knights on horseback thundered around the room, while English longbowmen and archers took aim and fired at us. We watched as the Scots formed formidably powerful and mobile Schiltrons using long wooden spears – It was fantastic. I loved every second and stood transfixed.
Later we interacted with some life-size digital characters who told us how they’d ended up involved in the battle. The farmer looking to regain his land after having it seized for fighting alongside William Wallace. The mother complaining that times were hard and vowing that she’d do anything to rout the English. It really brought the history to life from a human perspective.
Our Bannockburn experience ended in the battle room, where before us on a round table was an interactive map of the battlefield. We were each allocated a numbered seat around the table and tasked with fighting the battle to see if we could do any better. Mr G and I were both scunnered (Scots for pretty disgusted) to find ourselves fighting in King Edward II’s English army. We discussed sabotaging our own team but if there’s one thing we both hate it’s losing. I decided that I was going to thump the Scots at Bannockburn that day.
I dubbed my team Dads Army as it consisted mainly of Dads with a couple of children thrown in for good measure. It seems Mums aren’t big fans of recreating medieval battles as most had decided to sit the battle out and watch from the viewing gallery instead.
The Scots army was mainly made up of children. Maternal instinct didn’t deter me one little bit from wanting to thrash them in battle – after all these were somebody else’s children not mine.
Within seconds of the battle commencing I was ordering everyone around like a mad woman – “Nooooooo don’t send in cavalry to attack a Schiltron, they’ll cut them to pieces. Take them out with longbows” I shouted trying not to let my exasperation show. “Advance, hooooooold, ATTACK, no, use longbows for schiltrons not foot soldiers and cavalry” I reminded them through gritted teeth, wondering of anyone in the room knew a damn thing about medieval warfare!
The Scots numbers dwindled then dwindled some more and Robert the Bruce was lucky to retreat off the battlefield by the skin of his teeth with a handful of men left. The English garrison at Stirling Castle remained in control and history was rewritten – only at Bannockburn it seems that the Scots never lose so even though it was confirmed that the English had technically won the battle it was declared a Scottish victory on account of the king surviving to fight another day!
I felt cheated and flounced off to the cafe for lunch.
Lunch was good and I quickly forgot I’d been cruelly robbed on the battlefield. Tomato & red pepper soup, a decent cup of coffee and cheese & red onion marmalade sandwiches – perfect comfort food for a rainy day.
After lunch we braved the drizzle outside to have a wander on the battlefield.
Next we visited Stirling Castle which looks uncannily like Edinburgh Castle from a distance. Both sit on top of craggy, volcanic rock. Inside they couldn’t be more different. The huge, thronging mob that shuffles slowly round Edinburgh Castle is nowhere to be seen in Stirling. It’s a castle that can be enjoyed in relative peace and quiet if you time your visit well.
My favourite part of the castle is the medieval kitchen which was built by James IV to supply food for banquets held in the Great Hall. For me it really brings to life the hustle and bustle of preparing for a medieval feast.
I also love the gruesome gargoyles and statues found on the Prince’s Walk. It’s likely that these funny faced critters would have originally been painted and possibly even gilded. You can’t help but smile at the weird expressions they pull.
Deep inside the atmospheric and crypt like basement of what was once the mighty Elphinstone Tower it’s easy to see how Stirling Castle could be linked to a host of ghosts including the infamous Blue Lady. If you ever meet her please don’t linger whatever you do as she’s known to be a harbinger of death.
My favourite story associated with Stirling Castle is that of Courtier and Alchemist John Damian or The Birdman of Stirling. In 1507 decked out in feathers he declared, straight faced that he was going to fly to France from the castle walls. A curious crowd gathered to watch as he flapped his ‘wings’ then plummeted like a stone onto a conveniently placed muck-heap below. Luckily for him it broke his fall and he survived with little more than a bruised ego and broken leg.
We finished our castle exploring for the day with a visit to the Royal Palace where we marvelled at the impressive wooden beamed ceiling of the Great Hall and the beautifully restored Stirling Heads.
It was now most definitely wine and beer o’clock or to be more specific The Botanist Gin and beer o’clock. I discovered The Botanist by Bruichladdich on a visit to the Hebridean gem that is the Isle of Islay and it was love at first sip.
Despite attending a lively Scottish wedding that evening and dancing late into the night we were up and out early next morning. We were rewarded for our admirable efforts with a lovely sunrise over the historic Church of the Holy Rude.
This weekend we’re looking forward to a trip to the World Heritage site at New Lanark village and a light show extravaganza at the Royal Botanical Gardens in Edinburgh.
Hooray for weekend adventures,
Until next time ……….