Known throughout Scotland as the ‘Gateway to the Highlands’, Stirling is an historic city with a thoroughly modern eye on the world. Every year, visitors flock to the area to see its blend of ancient heritage and vibrant contemporary attractions for themselves. Though arguably best-known for its castle and historical monuments, Stirling offers something for just about everyone – whether your interest is in arts and culture, Scottish history, exploring, or even just a bit of retail therapy!
Dominating the city’s skyline on its ancient basalt crag is the commanding sight of Stirling Castle. One of Scotland’s largest and most historically significant castles, it is hugely popular with visitors every year. A royal residence since at least the 12thcentury, it became the administrative hub of Stirling when it was made a royal burgh by King David I. The castle played a significant role in the Scottish Wars of Independence, and was the royal seat of the Stuart dynasty, undergoing significant expansion under King James IV and James V. Today, the castle remains remarkably well-preserved, and guests can visit its courtyards, Great Hall, Chapel Royal, and the beautifully-restored Royal Palace. There is an exhibition dedicated to the restoration of the famous Stirling Heads – carved wooden portraits of Scottish nobility, originally created during the Renaissance – as well as the Regimental Museum of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, located in the King’s Old Building, which details the castle’s military past. Because of its authentic period architecture, Stirling Castle has been a popular filming location for films and TV series over the years, and its esplanade has served as an open-air concert venue for a variety of performances.
The ancient King’s Park was, as its name suggests, founded as a royal pleasure ground in the 12thcentury, when it was used for aristocratic pursuits such as jousting and hunting. Today, everyone can enjoy the park, and it is one of Stirling’s best-used recreational areas. Many activities take place there, including swings, trampolines, a tennis court, a wheelie park for bikes and skateboarding, and outdoor gym equipment. On the far side of Stirling Golf Club, just off Dumbarton Road, is the King’s Knot – a large sculpted earthwork which was once part of Stirling Castle’s formal gardens. Remodelled over the centuries, the King’s Knot rises to 3 metres at its highest point, and as well as making for a pleasant walk it also affords a striking view of the castle itself.
Opened in 1869 and designed by John Thomas Rochead to commemorate the life of Sir William Wallace, the Wallace Monument stands on the Abbey Craig overlooking Stirling and is one of the city’s most prominent landmarks. Standing 67 metres high and constructed in the Victorian Gothic style, the monument also contains a statue of Wallace on one of its corners which was created by sculptor David Watson Stevenson. The tower consists of four levels, each of which contains a separate hall housing different exhibits (including the famous “Hall of Heroes”), culminating in an observation level at the very top of the building which affords a stunning panoramic view of the city. Looking at Stirling and the surrounding area from the pinnacle of the Wallace Monument is one of the most impressive experiences in Scottish tourism.
The Stirling Smith is considered to be the largest exhibition space in all of Central Scotland, and is situated on Dumbarton Road near the city centre. Admission is free of charge. First opened to the public in 1874, the Stirling Smith has been at the centre of cultural life in Stirling ever since, and today houses a museum, an art gallery and the Cunninghame Graham Library as well as a lecture theatre and popular café. Their permanent exhibition, ‘The Stirling Story’, recounts the history of the city from Neolithic times through to the present day. The museum is also home to the world’s oldest football (c.1540), the world’s oldest curling stone (c.1511), and the famous Neish Pewter Collection. Additionally, the Stirling Smith is unusual amongst cultural institutions in that it has its own murder mystery novel, The Shadow in the Gallery, which is on sale in the museum shop in aid of the upkeep of the building. There are also many activities for younger visitors, including the beautiful Ailie’s Garden – a natural sensory space at the rear of the building.
Situated amidst stunning scenery, Stirling Old Bridge is a remarkable example of medieval stonemasonry. Built in either the 15thor 16thcentury, the bridge replaced a number of timber predecessors (including that which was involved in the 1297 Battle of Stirling Bridge) and is 82 metres long in total, comprising four arches. Famously, one of the arches of the bridge was removed during the Jacobite Rising of 1745 in order to impede Bonnie Prince Charlie’s army as it marched southwards.
One of Stirling’s most surprising secrets comes in the form of the Bastion, an historical exhibition based around a 16thcentury Scottish jail, which lies beneath the Thistles Shopping Centre. (Access to the Bastion is from the main shopping area above.) Free of charge to visit, this mini-museum was fully renovated in 2018 and is always worth a visit thanks to its focus on the macabre world of crime and punishment. This ‘Thieves’ Pot’ has a long history, dating from when it was part of the Stirling Burgh Wall. Why not come along and delve into its shadowy secrets?
Constructed by King David I in the 12thcentury, Cambuskenneth Abbey was founded to serve Stirling Castle and would later become the burial place of King James III and Queen Margaret of Denmark in the 15thcentury. While the ruins of the Abbey are worth visiting for their historical significance alone (the building was the site of King Robert the Bruce’s parliaments at various points in the 14thcentury), the jewel in its crown is the bell tower which still stands today. Open to visitors between April and September, views from the top of the bell tower are every bit as stunning as the building’s architecture.
Previously known as the Bannockburn Heritage Centre, the Battle of Bannockburn Visitor Centre is dedicated to bringing Scottish history alive. Containing an immersive 3D visitor experience and many interactive features, there is a focus not just on the famous Battle of Bannockburn but also the many historical figures who took part in it. The building also contains a gift shop and café area. The expansive grounds feature a medieval ‘physic garden’, a memorial cairn, and the famous Bruce Memorial Statue created by Pilkington Jackson.
A 17thcentury almshouse in the city’s Old Town, Cowane’s Hospital was founded in 1637 by prominent Stirling merchant John Cowane. The building was later converted into the Guildhall of the Merchant Guildry. With substantial gardens, Cowane’s Hospital has become an arts venue which is currently available to be hired for private events. It is a Category A listed building and considered one of the finest examples of its type in Scotland. The grounds contain one of Scotland’s oldest bowling greens, dating back to the 18thcentury. According to local legend, the building’s statue of John Cowane – affectionately known among Stirling residents as ‘Auld Staneybreeks’ – miraculously comes to life and dances in the building’s courtyard every Hogmanay.
Constructed in the 12thcentury by King David I as the parish church of Stirling, the Church (or ‘Kirk’) of the Holy Rude is the second-oldest building in the city after the castle. Its current structure was developed in the 15thcentury, with its chancel and distinctive tower later being added in the 16thcentury. Situated near the castle, several royal coronations and baptisms took place in the building (including the crowning of King James VI in 1567), and it remains an active place of worship even in the present day. As well as its many exquisite stained glass windows, the church also has a long and fascinating history of its own, including being bisected by an internal dividing wall from the 17thcentury until 1936 due to a congregational schism. The building also boasts an impressive fine oak beam roof. Entry to the church is free, and the dedicated welcome team have considerable knowledge of the building and its heritage.
One of the most historically significant cemeteries in all of Scotland, the Valley Cemetery lies adjacent to Stirling Castle and contains the final resting places of some of the country’s most noteworthy historical figures. The peaceful grounds include sights such as the famous Star Pyramid Memorial, commemorating the lives of the Drummond family, and the distinctive glass-domed Martyr’s Monument. The Valley Cemetery is arguably the most well-known of the five cemeteries which are situated in Stirling’s Old Town, and a walk through its grounds is considered one of the city’s most instructive journeys of exploration.
Open between July and September, the Old Town Jail is a living monument to law and order in historic Stirling. First opened in 1847 as a penitentiary before later becoming a museum, this painstakingly maintained jailhouse retains period features and is one of Stirling’s top-rated tourist attractions. The Old Town Jail has become renowned for its performance tours and tales of numerous characters from the city’s past including hangman Jock Rankin and legendary criminals from history. The building also features an observation tower which offers an impressive view of the Old Town and the lands beyond it.
Though Stirling’s Tolbooth has existed for centuries, the current building – which is situated on the city’s Broad Street – was constructed in the early 18thcentury and was extended numerous times, culminating in the addition of a courthouse and jail in 1811. Stirling town council met in the Tolbooth until 1875. In the present day, the Tolbooth has become one of the city’s most significant venues for the performing arts, including live music and dramatic productions. The building also houses a recording studio. Many different events run throughout the year, and the Tolbooth has also become a popular location for private and corporate events as well as wedding ceremonies.
Constructed in the 17thcentury in close proximity to the castle, Argyll’s Lodging is arguably Stirling’s most famous town house. The historic residence of the Earl of Stirling and, subsequently, the Earls of Argyll, the building was designed in the Renaissance style and is considered highly significant amongst architectural historians. Over the years it would become a military hospital, a youth hostel, and – from 1996 – a museum, with the house’s rooms being decorated and furnished in line with its historic past. This grand property, maintained by Historic Environment Scotland, is only open to the public at certain times of year, but even its meticulously-preserved exterior is worth a visit.
Built between the late 1890s and early 1910s as part of a military complex near the banks of the River Forth, the Engine Shed was used for the maintenance and repair of steam locomotives near the rapidly-expanding Stirling Railway Station. Subsequently falling into disrepair when the armed forces departed Forthside in 1990, the structure has since been extensively renovated and was reinvented in 2017 as Scotland’s Building Conservation Centre – a hub for building and conservation professionals, as well as the general public. The Engine Shed offers events, seminars, learning programmes, building advice, and a series of changing exhibitions.
The Beheading Stone is just a short, but steep, walk from the Old Bridge and is where the ultimate penalty was handed out back in the 15thcentury. Gruesome, but the view is worthwhile, and unlike some previous visitors, you should have the luxury of being able to enjoy it and remember it.