Heading down south to Stirling, we fall slowly out of the Scottish Highlands. It’s a shift in time and space, in terms of both physical and spiritual reorientation. On each journey there is the first step of the journey home. This is it. Thus, we find the most appropriate point of departure at the portal offered by Cava Cairns. This Bronze Age burial complex is a few miles east of the city. Perched above the river Nairn, the site nestles in a homely pastoral landscape. Timeless, in its own sweet way, but hosting the weird construct of ancient days.
It was here that Clare (Catriona Balfe) passed back in time from postwar Britain to revolutionary Jacobite Scotland in Diane Gabaldon’s Outlander. The stones will take you a lot further back than that. Four thousand years at least. It looks quite different from the telly, mind. Claire isn’t there in her nightdress, which is a pity, if not a surprise. The absence of any televisual drama is more than compensated by the presence of … What, I can’t be sure. But Presence it is. Stark, beautiful and quite moving.
Nearby is the field of Culloden, where Stuart hopes were dashed in a final, fatal confrontation with the Hanoverians in 1746. At least, that’s how it stands in this universe.
There are other worlds to inhabit. Ringed by mad mountains, stalked by sentient woodland, permeated by a migrating fog of fantastical beings. Southbound again, the road rises intermittently yet falls consistently towards the centre.
The Cairngorms dream under a blanket of clouds away to the east. The road snakes its way to Blair Atholl. The House of Bruar offers a break for coffee and shopping. Here we bag our proud deer trophy. Flatback wood if you must know, but handsome nonetheless. A short hike will take you to a renowned beauty spot of Blair Falls. Macbeth’s vision of doom, Birnam Wood is further on. Bubble, bubble, toil and trouble. Nothing is ever quite what it seems, is it?
Stirling straddles that notional focus of Highland and Lowland Scotland. Near the mouth of the River Forth, it enjoys a commanding location in matters of war and trade. The approaches are suitably epic. The William Wallace Monument is a gothic tower on a volcanic crag east of the town. It is located overlooking the site of the Battle of Stirling Bridge, where Wallace helped kickstart the cause of Scottish nationalism. More breathtaking still, Stirling Castle crowns a granite crag rising precipitously from flat marshland. The city of Stirling, with a population of nearly fifty thousand, flows down from this spectacle.
The higher part of the town is medieval and known as, logically enough, the Top o’ the Town. Here the streets are cobbled, steep and sinuous, houses piled one on the other to the giddy environs of the Castle. We put into the Stirling Highland Hotel, a converted schoolhouse of the Victorian era. There’s an astronomical observatory on the roof, so there must have been something of a Hogwarts thing going on back in the day.
Drop down to the bustling town centre for refreshment before our assault on the Castle. We have Panini on the sidewalk near where yobos loudly play. The large shopping centre takes an unsympathetic lump out of town. Still, pleasant environs heading back up the hill with pink gable front houses in that atmospheric Scots Gothic style.
Haul ourselves onward to the Castle. Just outside is the Church of the Holy Rude, site of Christenings and coronations. Founded in the twelfth century, the present structure dates from the fifteenth. Wander through the tombs and trees, floating through time and above vast panorama of central Scotland. Talking of ancient things, for the first time I find myself characterised as such. Over sixties get discount on entry here. Hey, I’ll do it! We take the guided tour which is a good way of putting structure on the castle complex, and to assimilate the wealth of history and personality encompassed there.
The fortress dates back to the days of Alexander I, Scotland’s royal founder in the early twelfth century. Its oldest buildings date from the fourteenth century. It was destined to develop way beyond the parameters of the typical Norman fortress. James IV (1473 – 1513) determined to establish Scotland on a par with Europe’s leading kingdoms. Stirling Castle became the leading showhouse for the project. Influenced by German and French design, the castle was reimagined as a Renaissance palace. James enlisted artists and scientists for the prestige of his court. Alchemists toiled to unlock the secrets of the fifth element. The challenge of flight was addressed, unsuccessfully. An Italian alchemist, John Damian, threw himself from the ramparts, clad only in feathers and bare hubris. Plummeting, not unexpectedly, to the ground, his life, if not his blushes, was saved by a convenient copse of trees. Unabashed, he assured the king that failure was a result of using chicken feathers, not the best choice, being a flightless fowl. Quite.
In our wanderings we meet Mary Queen of Scots, who springs to life from a painted, stilted half-myth to something close to the spirited woman she was. We gaze at rich unicorn tapestries, mingle with kitchen waxworks, whisper assignations by the postern door.
Out on the battlements, alone in a turret, this is the eyrie of the world, atop its dizzy cliff, ringed by rank marshes, a further distant circle of blue peaks ringing the horizon. It’s the real gothic fantasy. You can stand sentinel on the parapet of Dredgemarsh, imagine all the Games of Thrones that haunt the stones here. It is the best castle ever.
Time to close our evening in more mundane pursuits. Stirling is lively at night, without much by way of airs and graces, but plenty of good places to eat and drink. All you can eat at Chung’s Chinese is enough by way of temptation – the one thing I can’t resist. Return to the Hotel for a quiet beer in the bar. High windows here as in room. Schoolhouse rules apply. The ambience is pleasant and in solitude we can savour all we’ve experienced on this Scottish tour. It seems like and age, and a wee spark of time. The last day dawns damp and grey. We finish as we started on our first in Glasgow, in Wetherspoons for the best Scottish breakfast in, well, in Scotland.