The History of Stirling
It seems apt that at the very heart of Scotland, a place so pivotal in her tempestuous and oft-magical history, that there should be a town with a name that translates as ‘Place of Strife’. Yet, driving through this picturesque, somnambulant village in Scotland’s verdant Central Belt, there is little left of the strife. Stirling, as we know it now, is a town whose economy is swollen by tourists, all smitten by the post- Braveheart Scottishness that is abound. It was in Stirling that William Wallace repelled the English in the First Wars Of Scottish Independence, back in 1297. Not only the stuff of Scottish folklore, but thanks to an Australian by way of Hollywood, the Battle Of Stirling Bridge is now cinematic legend, too. But Stirling, situated at the River Firth’s lowest crossing, as been of huge importance since its inception. In contemporary parlance, the town is both a pleasant place to live and consecrated land for Scottish Nationalism, identity and so forth. It’s Tolkien -esque vistas have seen it all. Before the Anglo-Scottish hostilities opened in earnest, and King Edward I can take great credit in cutting the ribbon on that bloody chapter in history, Stirling had existed as a Royal Burgh. It was an important town for traders, granted Royal Burgh status in 1130 by King David I.
Stirling has been inhabited since the Stone Age. Through the first few centuries of Roman occupation, its strategic significance grew. Conquer Stirling, and Scotland as a whole opens up. And it is true. Sitting by the Ochil Hills , Stirling is on the border of Highland and Lowland Scotland. Not only that, but it had the geological trump card in the volcanic crag of Castle Hill. Like Edinburgh , Stirling built its town around a fortress on high. Stirling Castle would cut an indomitable profile through the centuries. It needed to, for it was slap-bang in the middle of all that territorial jousting between Scotland and England. But before all that, Stirling was just a modest town, its principal industries textiles. The River Firth made trading easy. Stirling was a Royal residence that was yet to fall into chaos. Even the Romans past it by, fortifying Doune in the Flavian era.
It was when King Alexander III died that things became heated between Scotland and England. A succession crisis to King Edward I of England was like blood in the water to a shark. He cordially invited himself to intervene, to ensure a king favourable to England would sit on the Scottish throne. Indeed, his man, John Balliol – who history paints as a notoriously weak individual, would have to swear fealty to the Edward. Robert Bruce 5th Lord of Annandale and grandfather to the future king, was the other contender. With civil war brewing, a typically desperate Scottish nobility made a complete mess of things. Edward was involved. Scotland was still divided between Balliol and Bruce’s supporters. In 1291, Balliol was crowned at Scone. Months later he was swearing fealty to Edward in Newcastle. Scotland, the vassal state, had been emasculated by its monarch and Edward swooped to conquer.
Scotland was not about to send troops to help the English fight in France. Edward, displeased at Balliol’s about-turn, prepared to invade. With the English war machine advancing unfettered, Balliol abdicated his throne in July 1296. Scotland was going under. The Stone Of Destiny had been looted by the English. But a Renfrewshire man whose name will forever be associated with Stirling, would come to her rescue. William Wallace, with Andrew de Moray, led a resistance movement that reversed the tide, and their first victory was at Stirling Bridge.
The bridge itself was narrow, two riders at a push could jostle their way across it. Wallace and De Moray was well aware of this. It mattered not the size of the English army, which hugely outnumbered the Scots. Wallace and De Moray lay in weight for the John de Warenne, 7th Earl Of Surrey, and his men. The English cavalry was taken down and routed by the Scottish spearmen, arranged in hedgehog-esque schiltrons. English commander Hugh de Cressingham was killed at the scene and skinned as a trophy. Stirling had etched itself into the Scottish psyche: no matter how outnumbered her army would be, there was always hope.
Stirling Castle was under English control and under seige from the Scots in 1314. King Robert The Bruce’s brother Edward Bruce besieged Sir Philip Mowbray’s men. Mowbray swore he’d relent if his king did not relieve him by summer, but he reneged, given hope that King Edward II ’s army was marching north in great numbers. Edward saw an opportunity to relieve the castle and crush the Scots’ resistance. He did neither. Bruce led another outnumbered Scottish army to victory. The English were demoralised. Scotland could breathe again, the sovereignty once again emboldened by courage on a Stirling battlefield. With all this bloodshed, it was just as well the Church Of The Holy Rude (Holy Cross) had been standing since 1129, the second oldest building in Stirling dates back to David I’s reign. It was over two centuries later that King Robert II commissioned an altar to the Holy Rude from which the church took its name. Although ravished by fire in 1405, the church was rebuilt ten years later and withstood the Reformation’s tumult to witness the 1567 coronation of the infant King James VI . The firebrand reformist John Knox delivered the sermon.
Through the 17th Century Stirling’s influence waned; Edinburgh became Scotland’s powerbroker. The Industrial Revolution improved the town’s infrastructure but left it largely unchanged. Stirling was assured to remain a market town. Stirling wears its past well. Many of the town’s historical buildings are intact, so reassembling the town’s history is easy. The huge tower of the Wallace Monument , constructed in the 1860s to commemorate Scotland’s war hero, offers a panoramic view of not just stirling, but Ben Lomond and the Ochil Hills. Likewise, a walk through Stirling offers a panoramic view of Scotland’s history.