Marvellous maps: Stirling the brooch of Scotland and cradle of history

In the second of the new Marvellous Maps series to celebrate National Map Reading Week* professional guide, Andrew Baxter, takes us to the medieval stronghold of Stirling. In doing so he leads us away from the castle to explore how the area around the city shaped the history of Scotland

Map and photo of Stirling Castle
This Highland Cow obviously enjoys his view of Stirling Castle

He who holds Stirling holds Scotland

The River Forth snakes across the map of Stirling, in a series of large, wide and lazy loops. It winds its way below the volcanic crag with the castle perched above. Just a little further north the contours tighten as the higher ground forms a backdrop to the flat river plain below.

It’s easy to see why, since the Roman occupation of Britain castle rock has dominated the Forth Valley. An island sitting amidst a once vast area of marsh – difficult to cross and to navigate. A sentinel rock surveying approaches across the flat land for many miles around. A guard post for the easiest and safest river crossings below. A pivot point for all routes east to west and south to north.

No wonder that for many centuries it was stated that “he who holds Stirling, holds Scotland.” The map makes clear this is an area with significant strategic importance. It draws together different areas to become "the brooch of Scotland."

Map of Stirling
A One-inch Ordnance Survey map of Stirling

All roads lead to the castle

Approach the city in any direction today and you will see how the castle dominates the view from many miles away. It has an almost magnetic draw as you get closer and closer. And if you find yourself caught in the city centre one-way system you are relentlessly drawn uphill through the narrow medieval streets to the castle walls. There seems to be no escape from the castle.

No surprise then that it is one of the most popular visitor attractions in Scotland. I must admit that I am biased towards Stirling Castle. I would always choose a visit to this castle over its larger cousin in Edinburgh. Even in the height of summer, it doesn’t suffer the agoraphobia-inducing throngs experienced at Edinburgh Castle. It gets busy for sure but it never feels completely overcrowded.

Stirling Castle from below
Stirling Castle from the Knot Garden below

Take your time to explore the impressive Renaissance palace built by James IV and his Great Hall more recently reconstructed and restored but still grand in scale. Make sure to visit the Stirling Heads exhibition, so often missed by visitors. You would have seen the more modern versions of the heads in the palace, but the exhibition allows you to find out more and get close to the originals.

Explore beyond the castle

Before you go, stand on the ramparts and admire the views. In doing so, you will understand why the castle was fought over so fiercely. You will see where William Wallace defeated the English at the Battle of Stirling Bridge. Look beyond the southern suburbs to the farm fields. Here lie those that fell at the Battle of Bannockburn. On those fields, the English army far outnumbered the Scottish forces led by Robert the Bruce. Yet the Scots prevailed winning a decisive battle in the Wars of Independence. Head out of the town and you can visit the National Trust operated Bannockburn Visitor Centre immersing yourself at the centre of the action in the 3D battle experience.

Robert the Bruce statue with the Wallace Monument
A statue of Robert the Bruce dominates the view from the castle towards the Wallace Monument

Head a short distance from the castle and you see the Church of the Holy Rude. Another place so often missed by castle visitors. Yet it is inextricably linked with the royalty staying in the castle above. It was here that James VI was crowned following the forced abdication of his ill-fated mother Mary Queen of Scots. And you can explore further royal links by heading to Cambuskenneth Abbey on the banks of the Forth. So close to the city, yet so peacefully apart. Here Robert the Bruce held a parliament after his victory at nearby Bannockburn. And James III is buried alongside his queen, Margaret of Denmark.

So, if you plan to visit Stirling make sure that after the castle you have plenty of time to explore beyond.

*National Map Reading Week

Britain's national mapping agency, the Ordnance Survey, lead an annual National Map Reading week every October. Its aim is to encourage the awareness and use of maps, following a survey that revealed that many Brits couldn't place major cities such as London or Birmingham on a map of their own country.