[These images may be used without permission for any scholarly or educational purpose without prior permission as long as you credit the Hathitrust Digital Archive and the Duke University Library and link to the the Victorian Web in a web document or cite it in a print one — George P. Landow ]

Outer Court of Stirling palace drawn by Robert William Billings (1814-1874) and engraved by J. H. Le Keux. Source: Edinburgh (1852). [Click on image to enlarge it.]

Commentary by the Artist

It were difficult to say which is calculated to give greater pleasure to the sight-seer — the view of Stirling Castle itself, from the plain below and the surrounding hills, or the panoramic prospect from the battlements, of which the edifice itself forms no part. Both possess in high perfection all the attributes which travellers seek in such scenes. The buildings rise from a perpendicular rock; they are ancient, varied in outline, and not only picturesque but highly ornamental. The whole scene is not so massive, perhaps, nor so impressive as Edinburgh; but the architecture is of a higher cast, and while in the Scottish capital a vast town of varied character lies spread below the rock, an object certainly grand and interesting in itself, the smaller town of Stirling, clinging as it were to the edges of the castle rock, down which it decreases in irregular terraces, forms an harmonious cluster, of which precipices and towers form a predominant feature, with which the venerable and picturesque buildings on the slope harmoniously combine.

The architecture of Edinburgh Castle is rude, large, and simple; in some places it is deformed by modern incongruities. But in Stirling the palace and fortalice combined, are rich in architectural ornaments, which remind one of the statues, the mouldings, and the decorated archways of majestic Heidelberg. The various stages of the approach do not disappoint the estimate which the eye may have formed from some distant eminence. From whatever point the stranger proceeds, he passes here and there a steep crag or wooded eminence. Near the town, an ancient bridge, renowned in history, spans the Forth, accompanied by a more commodious but less picturesque companion, in the building of which the ancient ribbed arches with their steep narrow gangway were judiciously allowed to remain as very ornamental and somewhat useful. The town is full of old houses, with paved courts and arched entrances, from which pleasant gardens, wherein we may notice the antiquity of the fruit trees, stretch down on either side of the descent crowned by the castle, and exhibit in considerable vitality the economy of the old Scottish towns, where the houses were huddled together on an eminence, while all round them the gardens of the citizens stretched fan-like to the sun and the pure air. Ascending the main street, steep and rough, the edifices on either side, generally of venerable character, become more picturesque and baronial in their architecture, forming a gradation from the burgher's high-gavled dwelling to the imperial palace and fortalice. At the gate it rarely happens in the touring season that some obsequious Serjeant of the garrison is not ready to do the honours of the antiquities to the stranger, and in expectation of a coming reward, interrupt his ramble with historical information not to be found in Robertson or Tytler. The central object is now reached, and the surrounding landscape may be viewed. Where the sun rises he shines over undulating woody ground and rich fields — stately mansions with their pleasure grounds — the winding Forth gradually widening into a marine lake — with towns and villages occurring at intervals, till the landscape is darkened by the distant smoke of Edinburgh. The bounding line of the horizon becomes more close and craggy as we turn northwards, and the glories of a summer sunset throw forward the deep purple outlines of the Grampian range, sharply and distinctly marked against the golden sky. The principal battle grounds of Scotland lie around; near the town was fought the battle of Stirling, and Wallace made his celebrated defence of the old bridge. Farther off are the sites of the later conflicts of Dunblane and Falkirk. But most illustrious of ail these scenes is that of the great national battle of Bannockburn — a spot that requires only to be named to bring with it the whole history of a great epoch.

Though it is one of the few old Scottish strongholds that have been kept up since the Union, with all the formalities of a fortress, the Castle has evidently more to recommend it to the notice of the antiquary than of the modern military engineer; and, indeed, its capabilities of defence are but too distinctly tested by the circumstance of its being an object of complaint, that each discharge of cannon on occasions of rejoicing shakes the walls and rock to the extent of drying up the springs. The buildings are varied; next the south-west is the oldest, part, a rough simple square tower, with bastions overhanging the precipice. On the other side the gavils rise in large steps or gradations like those of the old houses in Belgium. The edifice, the edge of which projects forward in the accompanying plate, shewing between the windows niches supported on airy pilasters, or mouldings, is the Parliament house. We may attribute its design to that architectural taste which contributed to bring James III. to his tragic end. It is now, with its great hall, 120 feet in length, devoted to the mess rooms and other apartments of the garrison, and though not allowed to go to decay, its state of keeping must necessarily have degenerated to the level of its humble use. In this group of buildings is the chapel royal, built by James VI. to supersede another of earlier date. Part of it is occupied by the armoury, and the remainder was but a short time ago restored to its legitimate use as a garrison church. But the most remarkable and beautiful edifice is the Palace, forming a quadrangle, of which the side next the exterior court is represented in the engraving. The inner area is called the Lion's Den, and is traditionally believed to be the place where the monarch kept a certain number of these royal beasts. The original plan of the Palace, like that of the Parliament house, is attributed to James III., but it was not completed until the reign of James V. One apartment of the quadrangle was called "the King's room", or "the presence." The ceiling was of massive oak, arranged in deep, richly moulded compartments, each of which served as a frame for a piece of oaken sculpture, generally a head, raised in cameo. The great weight of this mass of wood occasioned the fall of a portion of it in 1777, when, unfortunately, instead of being repaired, the whole was removed as a more economical arrangement../p>

The oaken carvings, each of which had formerly occupied a centre of one of the square compartments into which this roof had been divided, were on this occasion divided among a variety of individuals. Some of these fumosa imagines had even found their way into the common jail of Stirling, where the taste of the prisoners found means thoroughly to disguise them, by means of white lead and vermilion complexions, yellow hair, and gaudy uniforms; and it is most probable that every trace of their original destination would in a short time have been lost, but for the fortunate accident which drew to them the attention of a lady, well qualified by her knowledge of art, to appreciate the true value of these neglected relics. [Essay on the Stirling Heads]

These venerable works of art have been the cause of much critical discussion, in which efforts were made to identify them as portraits of Scottish monarchs, but without much success. That works exhibiting such mastery of art should have been the production of native genius is unfortunately very improbable, and it is necessarily inferred that they were the work of some eminent continental carver in wood. Some of the "Stirling heads" now ornament the walls of men well able to appreciate their excellence, and casts in plaster, coloured to resemble old oak, may frequently be met with.

Court Yard of Argyle’s House Stirling palace drawn by Robert William Billings (1814-1874) and engraved by J. H. Le Keux. Source: Edinburgh (1852). [Click on image to enlarge it.]

The exterior of the Palace, the architectural character of which may be estimated from the accompanying plate, is profusely decorated with statuary, in some respects of a very peculiar kind. On the other side of the edifice, reached by rounding the corner to the left, there is a row of sculptural efforts, the fruits of an imagination luxuriant but revolting, and indicating abominations that can be but indistinctly traced through the effects of injuries which appear to have been inflicted more from disgust than a love of mischief. It is rather when contemplating these obscene groups, than when looking on the symmetrical architecture or the smiling landscape, that one remembers how this fair scene has been stained with blood. Johnston, who wrote epigrams on the various Scottish towns, says of Stirling, —

Heu quoties procerum sanguine tinxit humum.

It is signalised not only by the blood of fair war, naturally attending it as the principal fortress of Scotland — but by that of treacherous murder. It was here that James II. stabbed the Earl of Douglas — and a room is shewn as that in which the deed was perpetrated, which is, or lately was, fitted up as an inner drawing room, with all the attributes of modern comfort and elegance, added to not a few relics of ancient magnificence. The tragedy, which one does not readily associate with so pleasant a chamber, occurred in 1451. The King had asked Douglas to visit him at Stirling, for the purpose of holding an amicable conference on those many outrages of the powerful noble, of which condign punishment rather than an amicable conference would have been the conclusion, had the Crown possessed power enough openly to crush him. There is no doubt that Douglas attended under the strongest assurances of safety — given, it is hoped for the honour of human nature, without any presentiment of the coming tragedy. The King took him aside from the great chamber of audience, into the small room, and strongly urged him to break the "band" or private confederacy, which he had formed with the Lords Ross and Crawford. The surly noble, conscious of a power to cope with royalty, stoutly asserted that he would not break with his best friends to humour the caprice of a sovereign. The King, stung to fury, stabbed him with his dagger, crying, "False traitor, if thou wilt not break the bond this shall." The attendant Lords brought dishonour on their order by finishing the bloody work, and casting the body from the window.

In the newspapers of the 14th October, 1797, there is this paragraph. "On Thursday se'[sic] night, as some masons were digging a foundation in Stirling Castle, in a garden adjacent to the magazine, they struck upon a human skeleton, about eight yards from the window where the Earl of Douglas was thrown over after he was stabbed by King James II. It is thought, and there is little doubt but what it is his remains, as it is certain that he was buried in that garden, and but a little distance from the closet window."

Front of Mars Lodging drawn by Robert William Billings (1814-1874) and engraved by J. H. Le Keux. Source: Edinburgh (1852). [Click on image to enlarge it.]

Within the space at our command it is impossible to notice even the more important events connected with the history of Stirling Castle. They run through the whole history of the wars and civil politics of Scotland. It would be difficult to decide when it was first used as a place of defence. It is unnecessary to adopt the assertion of Hector Boece, that it was defended by Agricola, or his other statement, that, being a strong fort, the mint of Osbret of Northumbria was held within its walls, whence came the use of the term "Stirling money" in England. It is mentioned as a fortified place in the twelfth century. William the Lion having in 1174 been taken prisoner in an unsuccessful expedition across the border, was soon afterwards released, on paying ransom money, and delivering into the hands of the King of England, as a sort of security to keep the peace, the four principal fortresses of his country, Stirling, Edinburgh, Roxburgh and Berwick. The restoration of the pledges and the remission of the ransom were among the chivalrous generosities of Richard I. In 1296 this fortress fell into the hands of the invading army of England. It was subsequently retaken by Wallace, and became the centre of his most romantic deeds of heroism. When Wallace retreated before the great army of Edward, he left the fortress in flames behind him. It was immediately rebuilt, and in the subsequent wars served more than any other place to mark by it captures and recaptures the oscillation of victory between Scotland and England. The last effectual siege incurred by the Castle was by Monk, who, in 1651, by means of batteries raised in the burying ground of the church, compelled it to surrender, and carried off the Scottish records deposited within its walls. It was ineffectually besieged by the Highlanders in 1746.*

R. W. B.

[Author’s note: “For historical accounts of Stirling Castle, see Nimmo's Stirlingshire; Grose's Antiquities, II, 236 ; Jamieson's Royal Residences, 143; New Statistical Account (Stirlingshire), p. 398 ; Tytler's History of Scotland passim.


The Baronial and Ecclesiastical Antiquities of Scotland illustrated by Robert William Billings, architect, in four volumes.. Edinburgh and London: William Blackwood and Son, 1852. Hathitrust Digital Archive version of a copy in the Duke University Library. Web. 10 October 2018.

Last modified 17 October 2018