Stirling Castle and the Philosoher’s Stone - (and his subsequent plummet to earth).
One Sunset, Many Sunsets
Stirling Castle merits a visit any day. We’ll talk more about the castle itself in another blogpost, here we just want to tell you about what you can see from the castle’s outer walls.
We love a castle visit at this time of year. If you go when there’s a nip in the air, you'll be sharing it with fewer visitors - and feeling alone within the shadowy chambers, watchtowers and imposing walls is an essential part of the experience, as your imagination can more easily transport you back to the castle’s medieval past.
Wrap up warmly and you’ll want to spend dusk on the ramparts, watch the sunset by gazing across the remarkable landscape. You can't help but wonder to what extent the views from the castle's walls have changed over time.
Stirling Castle overlooks the city of Stirling and surrounding carse (a low, fertile strip of land along a river). Around 8000 years ago this valley was under the sea as the River Forth was then a long inlet which almost bisected Scotland in two (a fossilised 72 foot blue whale skeleton was found where the University of Stirling is sited now).
The valley, and the plug of hard volcanic rock where the castle sits were themselves scraped out by the movement of glaciers flowing East from the Highlands during the Ice Age. The resulting carse is so flat that its river meanders across it in generous oxbow loops: becoming a silvery ribbon in low light.
Look up. The Carse of Stirling is winter home to migrating greylag and pink-footed geese. At dusk, thousands of them settle along the wide mudflats of the Forth. Despite being inland, Stirling lies where the North Sea mixes with the river Forth, making it brackish around Stirling and increasingly salty and tidal further East, where wide mud flats get revealed when the sea tides are low in the river and providing rich feeding ground for geese and seabirds.
The Western part of the Carse of Stirling is one of the last remnants of the great bogs that once covered much of Scotland. Flanders Moss NNR (National Nature Reserve), is one of the largest lowland raised bogs in Britain and one of the most intact raised bogs in Europe. Remarkably, it has remained in near-natural state since the carse drained 8000 years ago. It provides vital habitat for many endangered species - and another taste of timelessness for visitors.
If you look down, directly below the castle you can see the King’s Park’s historic earthworks, which have been excavated and (re)formed into their original, geometric shapes. Known as the king’s Knot and Ladies Knot, they are where monarchs once partook in jousting, hawking and hunting, and their surrounding gardens once supplied castle dwellers.
As night takes over the earth, look over our contemporary version of the still recognisably medieval townscape and the surrounding arable farmland: this land concealed generations of advancing armies, whose blood poured into its ground. Witness the daily tableau of car and street lights twinkling on.
Look West, and enjoy the pink-tinged sky as the sun sets over snow-capped Trossachs mountains Ben More and Ben Ledi, the sun’s final rays will slide over the castle walls, before the chill of the night quickly sets in.
Look North East and you’ll see the Wallace Monument (commemorating battle hero William Wallace) light up.
One of the principal royal strongholds of the Kingdom of Scotland, Stirling was once a royal burgh and capital of Scotland. Many battles from the War of Independence occurred around the Carse of Stirling, most notably the Battle of Stirling Bridge. Stirling Castle was already in English hands when William Wallace led an attack on the invading English at Stirling Bridge. The Scots were outnumbered, but by attacking at the crossing point of the river, the English could not make full use of their cavalry or archers.
The English forces were ambushed after a sizeable (but beatable) portion of the army had crossed the bridge. Those who crossed over struggled to retreat, whilst oncoming soldiers still tried to pile forwards, creating bottleneck of vulnerable invaders, who were slain on a huge scale. Fearing the massacre had rendered them outnumbered, the English commander ordered the immediate destruction of the bridge, leaving all remaining soldiers on the far side to be slain (or drowned as they struggled, heavily armoured into the Forth to escape). Scottish casualties were not recorded. The English lost 6000 men.
The victory at Stirling Bridge led to the ascent of William Wallace and he was named Guardian of Scotland. The castle itself, was in Scottish control once more, but only briefly. It went on to change hands many times again.
Look closely at the walls you are leaning on, and you can see scraggy plants growing impossibly from the ancient stonework: bright little buttons of yellow which seem unreasonably optimistic against the craggy rock face.
It is from these walls that the king’s alchemist, John Damian, once flew.
King James IV was an intelligent monarch with an interest in medicine and even had a working knowledge of surgery. Like most nobles of his time, he was excited by the potential of alchemy and the possibilities of alchemical research. To this end, in around 1500 he brought an Italian alchemist to his court at Stirling Castle, whom he hoped would provide him with the most coveted treasure of the time: the Philosopher's Stone. Huge amounts of money (and copious amounts of whisky) were to fuel a variety of diverse scientific experiments by the alchemist.
By 1507 Damian had become obsessed with the notion of mechanical flight. Damian fashioned a pair of wings like those of a bird. To test them out, on 27 September 1507, Damian threw himself from the top of Stirling Castle.
Damian fell downwards, and by landing in a dunghill, broke only his thigh bone.
He is recorded to have blamed the hen feathers in his wings instead of the eagle plumage that he had ordered (it was his opinion that the hen feathers were attracted to the ground and not to the sky, like those of the eagle).
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