Stirling: magical land of unicorns

Kia Ora!

Easter weekend in Spring. A little weird, but I could certainly get used to it, especially when the sun emerges after a long, rainy winter plagued by pictures from friends and family depicting a stunning Kiwi summer! Glasgow certainly didn’t disappoint with four perfect days, when we rediscovered our t-shirts and remembered the sweet, sweet feeling of sun on the skin (followed by the not-so-sweet but equally satisfying feeling of sunburn of the skin).

Good Friday ice cream in Glasgow Botanic Gardens
Good Friday ice cream in Glasgow Botanic Gardens

We didn’t get up to a whole lot really, in the four-day weekend we only ventured from Glasgow on one of them, taking the short 20 minute train journey to Stirling. It’s a place I’d been wanting to visit since we got here, having looked into it quite extensively when trying to decide on a Scottish university. In the end the lure of the big city was too much, but there’s no doubt Stirling would have been an amazing place to study. It’s a very small town, most of it clearly visible from the walls of its famous Castle.

View from Stirling Castle
View from Stirling Castle

Stirling Castle is a place of huge significance to Scottish history and has been for a millennium.  It was a key factor in the Wars of Independence and exchanged hands between Scots and English an almost absurd number of times during the 13th and 14th centuries. From the Castle you can see the enormous monument to William Wallace and on your way in is the famous statue of those wars’ other celebrity, Robert the Bruce (though not for us – Rob was surrounded by scaffolding getting all spruced up for summer).

Wallace monument
Wallace monument

Like many a visitor to Stirling, aided by our free and comically oversized map, we more or less made a beeline for the castle. En route though we were able to get a taste of the postcard perfect shopping village. We drank coffee and ate carrot cake in the sun while listening to a local band play outside Europa Music, an incredibly decent record/CD/music shop. The aim was to promote an international day for the promotion and recognition of local music stores, an increasingly rare breed. One of my favourite things about Scotland, which probably goes for the whole UK, is its ability to maintain shops and local businesses that would never survive in New Zealand. Classic record shops, Yarn Cake, Disney shops, Lego shops, novelty kitchen shops etc.

Europa Music
Europa Music

Well we did then head to the Castle and were not at all disappointed. An excellent exhibition is the first stop, going though the Castle’s known history which provides the necessary background to appreciating the rest of what you see. There’s a shouty backdrop of a re-enactment of the Battle of Bannockburn, 700 years ago this year, and even a game of boiling oil and ladders (no joke!).

Siege game
Siege game

Outside the exhibition and into the glorious sun, you can wander around the Queen’s garden, where the world’s oldest football was found, and look out onto what remains of grand royal gardens – the King’s and Queen’s knots, (guess who’s is who’s).

Ancient royal gardens
Ancient royal gardens

From there you explore the rest of the castle, its grand halls, rooms where Mary Queen of Scots and all six King James’ s lived, the ancient chapel, former arsenals and massive mediaeval kitchens. At this point I should probably explain the misconception I had before coming here which I imagine (hope) is shared by others outside of Europe. When you hear ‘Castle’ it’s not necessarily one giant building with turrets and secret passageways and a moat and drawbridge. (Though any and all of these many be present). In Scotland at least you’re far more likely to find a sprawling complex, a mini-city of different buildings, some over a thousand years old, others with additions built within the last generation. They’re reminiscent of a Māori pā (fortified village) in their geographical location, and will be walled with streets running through them. Perhaps I’m the only one ignorant and disney-infused enough to have been initially surprised by this, but for the castle novice it can all be very intriguing.

Queen's garden
Queen’s garden
Recreated room complete with Jacobean servant
Recreated room complete with Jacobean servant
Great Hall
Great Hall

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One of the highlights for me was seeing the weaver give a talk about her tapestries. Now that would be an awesome job title. What do you do? I weave unicorns at a loom in a castle. Brilliant. These unicorn tapestries have been worked on since 2001 in an effort to restore one of the grand halls to its formal glory. It’s incredibly detailed and complicated work, each day with four weavers yielding a space about the size of your palm.

Tapestry studio
Tapestry studio

But why unicorns? There are unicorns everywhere you look in Stirling, more so than the rest of Scotland as far as I can tell. The unicorn is the national animal of Scotland which is brilliant to begin with. It must be one of the few nations on earth with a fictional national animal. Though on a sombre note, I suppose as a country which itself is fictional through being stateless, especially in the parliament-less days between 1707 and 1999, that does make sense. (Besides, who am I to criticise, my own is a flightless bird most people never see in the wild because of its shyness). Fictional or not, I reckon unicorn is a pretty fabulous national animal anyway.

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These unicorns on the tapestries tell the story of a unicorn who sacrifices itself for love. It’s a story that came to represent the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ. A fitting piece of art to see on our Easter sojourn.

completed tapestries in situ
completed tapestries in situ

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Most of our day was spent at the Castle, but we also checked out some of Stirling’s other highlights, including the ancient church of the Holy Rude where James VI and I was crowned as a very young king – the sermon taken by John Knox in an all-star double billing of Reformation Scotland.

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And there we discovered that Presbyterians are the same the world over, and probably have been since the birth of that faith…

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We walked down to the village where we found that nothing is too edible to make a statement:

Ye Olde Sweet Shoppe, Stirling
Ye Olde Sweet Shoppe, Stirling

…that NZ is too fiddly to make it onto novelty whisky bottles:

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And that Australian theme pubs are probably best avoided…

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They didn’t stock any Speights (it was a long shot), but they did have some Kiwi cider, so we indulged in one of those to round off the day, before hopping on our train home to Glasgow.

For more information about the history of Stirling Castle and the Wars of Independence, please, whatever you do, do not watch Braveheart. :p

Much love,

Sarah and Bernie

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