A tour guide’s all-time favourite UK places.
This autumn, Visit Britain, the marketing arm of the British tourist industry, is launching its ‘Great British Staycation Campaign’ to encourage people to holiday in the UK.
Soul City Wanderer (aka Frank Molloy) is one of the UK’s most accredited and experienced tour guides. Over three decades he has visited nearly every part of the country, touring many of the places that Great Britain and Ireland has to offer.
In a new blog series, he will list his all-time favourite five places by area (spiralling out from London*). These are personal choices, some obvious, some obscure.
This week, the Scottish Lowlands & Midlands, including Borders, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Stirling and St Andrews.
The M9 motorway from Edinburgh to Stirling is like a thread through Scottish history. The ruins on the left around two miles after Junction 3 are of Linlithgow Castle. There’s plenty of history to mull over here. In 1298, Edward I’s army camped here on the way to meet the Scottish rebel forces at Falkirk. He briefly made it his capital. In 1513, James IV left from here to face Catherine of Aragon’s forces at Flodden. He never returned. In 1542, Mary Queen of Scots was born here. Between Junctions 6 and 7 you can see the famous ‘Kelpie’ horse sculptures on your left, acting as a welcoming gateway to the town of Falkirk. At Junction 9 is Bannockburn, scene of the great battle of 1314, where Robert the Bruce routed ‘proud Edward’s army, and sent him homewards to think again!’
For the most scenic driving route to Stirling Castle, leave the M9 via Junction 10 and take the A84. Go straight on at the first and second roundabouts. At the third roundabout at the base of Stirling hill, take the second exit, then turn immediate left (Ballengeich Road). This leads you up to the castle. There is a car park on the approach to the castle entrance or there is alternative parking on Ballengeich Road.
Stirling Castle is arguably more strategically important than Edinburgh. It is the first point upstream where the river Forth is crossable, 34 miles in. Whoever controlled Stirling controlled the country. No other place so steeped in Scottish history: Alexander II, William Wallace, Robert the Bruce, Mary Queen of Scots and James VI all have connections.
Alexander I originally constructed the first castle on this rocky outcrop in 1115. He died here in 1124. William the Lion also died here in 1214. In 1291, Edward I stayed here while demanding fealty from Scottish kings. Four years later, it was taken by the Earl of Surrey. This led to the Battle of Stirling Bridge in 1297 after which the castle surrendered to William Wallace’s and Andrew Murray’s forces. In 1304, it was retaken by Lord Lovell using 17 siege machines including the fearsome trebuchet known as the Warwolf. This was the biggest siege engine ever built. The 30-odd defenders of the castle surrendered as soon as they saw it, but Edward I ordered they stay put until it was tried out. Stands were built for onlookers. A single shot of ballistic napalm destroyed the gatehouse.
At the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314, Edward II was forced to advance from Edinburgh to relieve the siege of Stirling Castle by Robert the Bruce’s brother Edward. Robert defeated Edward II’s forces at the Bannock river south-west of the castle walls, and went onto successfully attack Stirling Castle which was left in ruins.
During the 1380s, the Stuart dynasty took over Stirling. Between 1496-1503, James IV rebuilt it. In 1517: James V was crowned in the Chapel Royal. Later in 1540, he built a Royal Palace extension for his French queen Mary of Guise. Mary Queen of Scots was crowned here in 1543. In 1567, her infant son was baptized and proclaimed king James VI in the Great Hall he was then brought up and educated here. His son Henry was subsequently baptised here.
And on and on it goes, with sieges of Stirling acting as a catalyst for other battles. During the Civil War the castle was taken after a General Monck siege in 1651. In 1715, the defence of Stirling by the Duke of Argyll’s forces led to the Battle of Sherriffmuir. In 1746, a Jacobite retreat after a siege of Stirling led to the Battle of Culloden.
Highlights to look out for include the King’s House (1496), which is the highest point, the Royal Palace (1540), the Chapel Royal (1594) and the Great Hall (1503), which is the largest in Scotland and is painted with a garish yellow limewash based on historic evidence. Indeed, the whole castle may have looked like this at one time.
If you can, go on one of the official tours. The guides at Stirling Castle are exemplary and a credit to their profession. Ask them about the medieval Italian sorcerer Damian who tried to fly to France from here!
The Wallace Monument is dedicated to Scotland’s medieval ‘Braveheart’. It was built between 1861-69 with public funds. It stands 200ft high on a hill called the Abbey Craig which in itself is 300ft high. Therefore, the monument can be seen from all around. Certainly, from Stirling Castle you can see it clearly in the distance. To get there by car from the castle, return by Ballengeich Road to the roundabout on the A84. Then take the take third exit, Back ‘o’ Hill Rd, signed ‘City Centre’. Take the bridge across the River Forth. The original Stirling Bridge is on your left as you cross. (It’s worth a brief stop just to have a look at the scene of the famous battle). At the roundabout take the A9. At the next roundabout (A9 junction with A907), go straight on (Logie Rd) and follow the road up the hill to the monument visitor centre. If you have the energy, you can make the 20-minute walk up Abbey Craig. Otherwise, a minibus runs every 20 minutes. From the top you get magnificent views back to Stirling Castle. You can also get an idea of how the battle of Stirling Bridge was won, with Wallace’s forces sweeping down to cut off half of the Earl of Surrey’s men as they crossed the bridge (it may be noted that this clever and dramatic tactic, a cinematographer’s dream, was inexplicably left out of the film Braveheart). There are often regular talks on the story of William Wallace here.
Stirling: the key to historic Scotland.
Note: All sites mentioned were operating pre-lockdown. Please check relevant websites before embarking on any potential visit. Another recommendation will appear tomorrow.
For the very best in guided private tours of the UK visit www.yourlondontours.com
*Operators in the UK tour industry often separate the areas of the country according to what touring can be achieved in a region in one day. As a London-based operator, my ‘map’ spirals outwards from the capital and is separated thus:
- Northern Home Counties (Beds/Herts/Cambs)
- Eastern Home Counties (Essex/Suffolk)
- Southern Home Counties (Kent, Surrey, Sussex)
- Western Home Counties (Ox/Berks/Bucks)
- South coast (Hants/Dorset)
- Western England (Somerset/Gloucs/Wilts)
- South West England (Devon & Cornwall)
- Wales (north & south)
- Welsh Borders (Worcestershire/Herefordshire/Shropshire/Cheshire)
- Western Midlands (Brum/Warks/Staffs)
- Eastern Midlands (Northants/Leics/Rutland)
- Northern Midlands (Notts/Derbys)
- East coast (Norfolk/Lincs)
- Yorks (all ridings)
- North West (Manchester/Merseyside/Lancs/Lakes/Cumbria)
- North East (Durham/Tyne & Wear/Northumberland)
- Southern Scotland (Lowlands/Midlands)
- Northern Scotland (Highlands/Islands)
- Ireland (Northern/Southern)