10/03/2020
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Motorhome travel: A weekend in Stirling

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Words & Photography: Felicity Martin

The top of the Wallace Monument is an awe-inspiring spot that feels as if it is suspended in mid-air by the vaulted stonework that encircles the uppermost storey in a stone crown. The landscape spread below verifies the traditional saying: “He who holds Stirling, holds Scotland”.

The River Forth winds in lazy loops below my eyrie, broadening to the east as it meanders into the Firth of Forth.

To the west lies the boggy blanket of Flanders Moss. Both watery places impeded travel for centuries.

Until construction of the Forth (Rail) Bridge in 1890, the only bridge linking the Highlands and Lowlands was over the river here. All armies had to cross at this strategically important point.

As a result, major battles in Scotland’s struggle for independence were fought at Stirling and it is where the country’s famous heroes won victories against the odds.

William Wallace’s greatest victory, the Battle of Stirling Bridge in 1297, took place just below my vantage point.

Beyond Stirling Castle, which is perched above the city on an outcrop of volcanic rock, lies the site of Robert the Bruce’s victory in 1314 at the Battle of Bannockburn.

Robert the Bruce's statue at the Battle of Bannockburn site

Tickets for The National Wallace Monument are sold in the shop and tea room beside the car park, which includes large bays for motorhomes. From here you can choose to take the minibus shuttle service or make your own way up a snaking path with wooden sculptures that illustrate the history of the place.

The summit of Abbey Craig offers a super view, but the tower lifts you way above the trees for a 360-degree panorama. A narrow stone spiral staircase is the route of ascent and descent, so you have to be quite chummy with the people you meet coming the other way!

Stopping to browse exhibitions on three storeys breaks up the climb. The first room tells the story of Wallace’s life – and gruesome end – and the Battle of Stirling Bridge. The second is a hall of Scotland’s heroes and the final level explains why and how the monument was built, some five centuries after Wallace’s death.

The Battle of Bannockburn Visitor Centre occupies a very modern building. I see a couple of motorhomes in the coach parking bay, but National Trust for Scotland staff advise me to use the ordinary car park.

Booking for the 3D ‘immersive experience’ is recommended – in a large space with screens on three sides, the action starts with a demonstration of the power of longbows. We can’t help flinching as arrows seem to whizz past our heads and rain down on soldiers behind us.

Then we face a cavalry charge, the horses appearing to stampede off the screen into our midst. The battle continues with hand-to-hand fighting, with men being speared to death seemingly right among us. The experience is not considered suitable for children aged under seven!

After that drama, we’re encouraged to engage individually with various 3D characters around the room who tell us their stories and drop clues to the strategic moves taken by each side. These clues are key to the next stage, where we enter the battle room and are each assigned a role in one of the armies. It’s then up to us to replay the battle, deciding where and when to move our cavalry, archers and foot soldiers.

I am on the Scots' side; it is obvious that we are faced with overwhelming English forces. We end up losing the battle – as we’re told usually happens – and it gives us a real sense of just how well Robert the Bruce played the field to defeat the English and cement his position as king of Scotland.

Afterwards, I wander up to a flagpole erected in 1870 to mark the battlefield site.

Beside it is a cairn inscribed with the words Robert the Bruce spoke to inspire his army, “We fight not for glory nor for wealth nor for honour but only and alone we fight for freedom which no good man surrenders but with his life.”

A rotunda encircles these memorials, with Kathleen Jamie’s poem Here Lies Our Land inscribed into the ring beam.

Nearby is a splendid statue of Robert the Bruce, erected to mark the six-hundred-and-fiftieth anniversary of the battle.

I am staying the weekend at Witches Craig Caravan and Camping Park, set in green fields below the impressive escarpment of the Ochil Hills, yet close enough to cycle, walk or catch the bus to Stirling’s attractions. Our hardstanding pitch faces a field of Highland cattle, part of the site owner's farm.

Great views from Witches Craig Caravan and Camping Park

Swallows skim low between cows and their calves, which look as cuddly as teddy bears.

The woods strung along the foot of the hills wear young green, patterned with white splashes of wild cherry and blackthorn blossom.

Veda, who runs the site, has warned me by email that local roads will be closed to motor vehicles the next day for a marathon, so I’ve come prepared with my bike. It’s a joy to ride into the city on empty, silent roads.

I cross the medieval Stirling Old Bridge, which superseded a much older wooden bridge, said to be of Roman origin. William Wallace’s tactic was to collapse that bridge under the English army and trap them in one of the big loops of the River Forth. With only 8,000 men against 20,000, he managed to defeat Edward I’s forces and save Scotland from conquest by England.

At Stirling Castle I enjoy coffee and cake in the Unicorn Café before joining an introductory tour. Andrew, our guide, is easy to follow as he describes a colourful history and points out the main buildings, which we can then choose to visit in our own time.

It’s clear that, with sheer cliffs on three sides, the castle could be defended against any amount of force. It did, however, change hands between the Scots and the English multiple times, usually when the garrison surrendered to the winning army.

The castle’s second purpose after defence was as a royal residence. In 1538, James V started to build a grand Renaissance Palace to impress his European neighbours. Sadly, he died just before its completion. His second wife, Mary of Guise, brought up their infant daughter, Mary Queen of Scots, here, secure from the rival interests who wanted to eliminate her.

Wonderful stone carvings decorate the outside of the palace. Inside, it has two contrasting halves. The never-occupied king’s chambers are bare, but the queen’s chambers are lavishly furnished.

A costumed guide brings alive a room of tapestries featuring a unicorn, the symbol of purity and resilience found throughout the castle and on Scotland’s coat of arms.

Andrew explains that, on these walls, it represents the death and resurrection of Christ (in dramatic and often bloody scenes). In the next room I have an interesting discussion about sixteenth century underwear – or lack of it – with two ladies in grand dress.

Returning by a different route, I visit Cambuskenneth Abbey, founded in 1140 by King David I.

All that stands now are some ruined walls and the old bell tower, which survived the Reformation as it provided a good lookout over the flat flood plain. Entry is free, but only the ground floor is open to visitors.

My last mile is through Stirling University’s campus in the grounds of Airthrey Castle, where ducks shatter the mirrored surface of a glassy loch.

Stunning scenes in Stirling

Monday morning dawns with blue sky and a hint of mist over the river. I rise early for a walk up the local hill, Dumyat, before checking out of the campsite.

Rising above Blairlogie, it is the nearest and most prominent summit at the western end of the Ochil Hills, although at 1,375ft (419m) by no means their highest point. From the summit I enjoy a splendid panorama, south over the Forth valley and north to a skyline of mountain peaks.

On the way back I take a path along the airy edge of Witches Craig – the cliff above the campsite – before zigzagging down to historic Logie Kirk.

In the eighteenth century the minister here was much troubled by sightings of the devil, cavorting with his followers on the crag above.

On this short break I seem to have spent as much time in green spaces as in the built environment. Stirling lends itself to that as the countryside crowds in on all sides.

My exploration of Stirling’s significant sites has given me a much stronger sense of Scotland’s history and has come through experiencing the places for myself rather than browsing museum exhibits.

I could easily stay for a week and visit neighbouring attractions, such as Blair Drummond Safari Park, Doune Castle and Dunblane Cathedral.

The campsite would make a good base for even longer holidays, with Edinburgh, Glasgow and Perth all only about an hour away by train and there is also Loch Lomond and The Trossachs National Park on the doorstep…

 

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