Although access was not without its problems, we are sad to be leaving this site on Kintyre with its lovely sea views, having not had the weather or opportunity to enjoy them. We travel the long way round Kintyre in order to avoid the twenty miles of single track road but it turns out that this might have been the lesser of two evils. Without warning there is a hairpin bend on a very steep uphill stretch. The road is wet, slippery and in need of resurfacing. You remember how no one round here seems to be able to reverse? Well, we are reversing quite nicely, the trouble is we are meant to be going forwards. The car wheels are spinning, the back of the caravan is in a hedge and there are some seriously scary moments before Chris somehow manages to change our angle of approach and get us going in the right direction.
There is some beautiful scenery on this side of Kintyre as we drive alongside Loch Fyne. This only gets better as we travel north of Inveraray through Glen Aray, beside Loch Awe. I had hoped to listen to the last of the Commonwealth Games on the car radio but it seems we are beyond any sort of useful radio coverage. Then eastwards through the northern edge of Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park to our site near Stirling. We had planned an afternoon visit but it is later than we hoped and we decide to reschedule and relax after getting our supplies. To do this we pass four major supermarkets before reaching the one of our choice and then we discover that fuel was cheaper at one of the others so end up going there too. Our media blackout continues as we are without television coverage for the next three days and internet availability is coming at a price but who needs media? We will cope. Ok, so one of the coping strategies was to pay for 24 hours’ internet access but nobody’s perfect.
We have booked ourselves a place to see a ‘Battle Show’ at the newly opened Bannockburn Battle Experience. This is another attraction that the National Trust for Scotland have clearly invested in heavily. So, as all around us are marking the 100th anniversary since the outbreak of the first world war, we are commemorating 700 years (on 24 June) since Robert the Bruce and the ‘Scottish Patriots’ routed Edward II. It is ironic that we are learning about a fight for Scottish independence in the run up to the referendum over the same issue. It is this area that has provided us with the first evidence of support for the yes campaign. Everyone we have spoken to up until now and the very few posters we have seen, have been in favour of union with England.
We don our 3-d glasses and are in the thick of the fighting. This is a little different from what we are used to in the seventeenth century and spears are not wielded in quite the same way as pikes. Here we have long-bows and cross-bows, the former were banned by Elizabeth I in favour of more modern ‘weapons of fire’; a very short-sighted move as the long bow is infinitely more accurate than the musket. In fourteenth century Scotland the fighting unit is the schiltron, rather than the pike block. After ‘conversing’ with some virtual characters of the time, we are called for our Battle Show. We learn how, despite being outnumbered 2:1, Robert the Bruce, aided by Sir James ‘Black’ Douglas, took advantage of the terrain to defeat the English troops.
Other visitors have booked to take part in a virtual Battle of Bannockburn war game, re-writing history. We are able to watch this from the viewing gallery. Participants take it in turns to move their allocated units and can attack if they wish. It is interesting that the women, of what ever age, tend to go for strategy and keeping out the way, whilst the men are much keener to engage with the enemy. One of the adult players clearly isn’t aware that this is a family show and each time it is his turn says, ‘attack the b****rs’. History is indeed re-written and the Battle of Stirling golf course (the players seemed to avoid putting their troops near the Bannock Burn) ends with a victory for Edward II.
We stop for a weapon handling session, interested in comparing the swords and helmets that we are used to with those of 400 years earlier. The whole experience is very well done and designed to attract today’s young people but I do have some reservations, as I do during some of our seventeenth century activities. It does seem to be making a game out of warfare and the players revel in ‘killing’ thousands of enemy troops. I just wish at some point someone would explain the horrors of war and that, even though it was 700 years ago, these were real people who suffered and died and it matters.
Next it is a short journey to Stirling Castle, not quite as short as it should have been owing to us paying attention to the sat nav but short none the less. Stirling seems to be a beautiful, serene city, with soft stone buildings, cobbled streets and a commanding position overlooking the River Forth. In the time of Robert the Bruce it was believed that the Forth completely bisected Scotland and that the only land route from lowlands to highlands was across Stirling Bridge, hence its strategic importance. When the English were defeated by Robert the Bruce many Scottish castles were destroyed, so the English could not attempt to regain them and use them as strongholds. This of course meant that the Scots couldn’t use them either, maybe they didn’t think of that.
Today for the first time we are aware of school holiday crowds; the castle is heaving and its car park is full. We are directed down a side street to get out of the way of a bus. It seems it is perfectly possible to park down this side street. Notwithstanding, cars are queuing for what is likely to be a very long time in order to get a space in the car park. Our chosen parking spot has not only saved us queuing but has also saved us £4. I know I have mentioned it before but we really have benefited from the savings that our National Trust membership has gained us and we are grateful for the reciprocal arrangement with National Trust Scotland. We walk up the steep hill to the castle and as we approach I remember that Stirling Castle is managed by Historic Scotland and is not a National Trust property. Instead for this we need our English Heritage card. The good news is that I have remembered to bring it. The bad news is that it is back at the bottom of the hill in the car. A member of our party is dispatched to fetch it.
It is a good job that we didn’t try to squeeze this visit in yesterday afternoon as there is a great deal to see. We start in the Queen Anne Garden then move on to the ‘Access Gallery’ in the vaults. There are plenty of interactive opportunities, although a little less high-tech than Bannockburn. We can play medieval instruments, if we were smaller we could have dressed up and there are various things to touch and press. Stirling has been an important defensive site since the ninth century, if not before. The first evidence of its use as a royal castle is in 1110 under Alexander I. It played a role in William Wallace’s victory over the English at the battle of Stirling Bridge in 1297. Most of what is seen today is a result of James V’s ambitious and status seeking building campaign following his marriage to Mary of Guise in the early sixteenth century. In keeping with European Renaissance style, 250 sculptures were erected outside. These depicted classical figures, alongside James himself, making a statement about his rule. These would almost certainly have been painted although there is now no evidence of this and sadly many are now damaged, not least by acid rain. Local Devon lad General Monck laid siege to Stirling Castle in the English Civil War. The last siege at Stirling took place in 1745 when Charles Stuart, ‘Bonnie Prince Charlie’ failed to take Stirling for the Jacobites.
Costumed characters provide additional information. We learn about the series of tapestries depicting a unicorn hunt and its religious allegory. The castle is also famous for the Stirling Heads, a series of large circular woodcarvings that have now been replicated. Like the sculptures these are a combination of classical images and depictions of members of the Scottish royal family.
The lack of good drying weather this week has meant that we are running short of clothes so, on returning the van, we do a major wash and invest in a tumble dryer. I don’t know what was wrong with the machine but let’s just say it performed one of its two functions very well. Our laundry is superbly tumbled but not at all dry. We hang it out as best we can on our teeny tiny airer and hope that the showers will steer clear.