Where People Volontarily Jump off the Battlements


After a day in Loch Lomond, we decided to go somewhere else before Glencoe; we felt like we’d seen everything worth seeing where we were. So after a conversation with a great woman who seemed to know her history and geography of Scotland, we chose to go to Sterling, because she said that there was a fab castle there.

Turns out, you should always listen to the advice of strangers (except for…), because this was well and truly awesome. Sterling Castle is on a hill – most of them are – so it’s a bit of a hike to get up there, but it is well worth the effort.

There is so much to see there and even though it is touristy, it’s not really touristy in a bad way. It’s also gorgeous:

So after getting a hernia on the way up the hill (I’m not exactly sure about what hernias are, but I’m sure we had them, as we had our heavy backpacks on), we were greeted with:

Yes, fellow dudes, that is a castle. It’s a really cool castle. You can also tell at first glance that there is a reason why the king that held Sterling Castle and Edinburgh Castle held Scotland. This was also the home of a very important mint for the English pound – Sterling is why they call it ‘pounds sterling.’

This is the view from a tower back toward a balcony of some really strange statues (it’s to the left). There was even one of a devil with the usual horns and tail, but also with breasts – it’s supposed to be androgynous, some weird phase. You aren’t seeing a photo because it was cold and that statue was just too weird.

Whatever the case, this particular balcony was only meant for royalty, so because you know what the name ‘Sarah’ means and that I’m Scottish (in part, way back), I had full right to be there.

The balcony-gallery leads to a museum about the Sterling Heads. They aren’t real human heads, thank God (admit it, that was your first thought) but are instead wooden carved disks that have survived from the Middle Ages. They used to be on the ceiling of one of the king’s apartments; I think it was the king’s inner hall, but in any case, the king and queen each got a set of rooms: outer hall – inner hall – bedroom/receiving room. The king’s apartments in Sterling Castle weren’t furnished – with the exception of replica, full-color (garish) heads to replace the real ones, which are too frail to expose to tourists. The bareness of the kings rooms is due to the fact that the museum follows the story of Mary of Guise, King James the fifth, and Mary, Queen of Scots. King James died during the continued construction of the castle, so he never got to sleep in his apartments all that much.

For that matter, none of the three really lived fantastic lives. Mary of Guise was a widow from a powerful French family when she married James V, childless but with two children dead before their time. Then things were looking up: two boys were born, a year apart. The younger child died of an illness, and then his older brother followed soon after; Mary was able to go on, but James was brokenhearted (according to the audio guide we got – how do they know that?). They tried again – turns out that girls were luckier for them. They had Mary 2.0 a little over a year later, but James wasn’t around long enough to enjoy it: he died six days after.

Mary of Guise was left with a veritable graveyard of four children and two husbands, but she soldiered on, acting in her daughter’s name as regent. She ended up dying and passing on the unluckiness onto her daughter, now grown-up enough to eventually merit beheading by Queen Elizabeth due to her Catholic-ness and her plotting to escape confinement and regain her throne (the first Queen E. – the current one isn’t that old).

On a sidenote: Sterling Castle has a group of people replicating the Hunt of the Unicorn series of tapestries, in which a unicorn is killed – this is the last one, where the unicorn is magically back to life, though still in captivity. There are speculated Jesus references.

Mary, Queen of Scots (I really like Mary 2.0 better – why do they repeat names in adjoining generations?) managed to get married three times (one of which she may or may not have had murdered), so over the course of that time she had a son, James VI – who is also called James I, because he eventually ended up taking the English throne when Elizabeth I died, childless.

Congratulations! That’s something of a crash-course of Scottish history during the rule of the later Tudors. You made it. I’m sorry, but I have no medals for you.

In 1507 the court alchemist, John Damien, badgered for results, decided that it would be time to exhibit his skill and put on a show for the royal court – to ensure continued funding for his expensive experiments. We all know that this is not going to end well, so when I say that he declared that he would fly to France in a chicken suit and that he jumped off the battlements of Sterling Castle (pictured above), you’re expecting a crash landing. Fortunately for Damien, he survived with nothing more than a broken leg – however, this was because he landed into a manure pile. So while his exhibition was not a success, he continued as the court alchemist for many years – though perhaps taken less seriously than before.

This is the Great Hall – up at the other end there is the table for the king and queen, so the open area is where everyone else would be sitting. There are a couple interesting things about this place, too – for starters, there are fireplaces all along the gallery, so it wouldn’t just be the high and mighty kept warm at mealtimes. There’s also the ceiling, which is built without nails and is also the reason why this building is often associated with maritime nicknames, due to its resemblance to the hull of a ship. And speaking of boats: at one point there was supposed to have been a great feast here, with many important people in attendance. All of the courses were over the top, but they all seemed to pale in comparison with the fish course (of all things), which was served off of a platform with a scaled-down replica of a ship, complete with mermaids and other mystical creatures.

Up next: Glencoe – or maybe not…

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