Scotland’s Stirling Castle has been yielding Renaissance secrets. Gordon Ewart and Dennis Gallagher of Kirkdale Archaeology report on the fashionable grandeur in which the 16th century kings of the northern realm clothed their power.
Stirling Castle is one of Scotland’s most iconic sites. Perched on its great rock, it represents a sequence of fortification from obscure prehistoric origins to the late 20th century. This famous monument is a prominent landmark in the upper Forth valley and combines picturesque beauty with a rich historic heritage. The security of the castle combined with its symbolic grandeur made it an ideal residence of the Scottish kings, and the core of the palace today consists of the residential complex developed by the Stewarts in the early 16th century. After Historic Scotland completed the restoration of King James IV’s Great Hall in 1999, attention turned to the building mundanely known as the ‘palace block’: the splendid Renaissance palace of James V.
Revealing a Renaissance palace
Between 2003 and 2005, a programme of detailed investigation was carried out on the Royal Apartments of James V within Stirling Castle. The work combined excavation and standing building recording, augmented with a variety of specialist work, including historic accounts, timberwork, and interpretation of the complex statuary and oak roundels known as the ‘Stirling Heads’. The main purpose was to advise on the conservation and presentation of the palace block in due course. Kirkdale Archaeology was responsible for the archaeological programme, historical research, and allied specialist contributions. Glasgow University directed research into the details of the 16th century court along with the decoration and furnishing of the interiors. Historic Scotland teams worked on the structural survey of the buildings and conservation of its fabric, including paint and plaster analysis, and the detailed recording of the timber ceiling-roundels. Specialist teams were commissioned to weave copies of Late Medieval tapestries and carve replicas of the roundels for ultimate display.
The work, whether below ground or above, brought the complex story of this internationally renowned building to light in a uniquely comprehensive programme. The team were able to recognise the qualities of the native Scottish builders as the forms and ornamentation of the European Renaissance were added to an already rich tradition. The prevailing theme of continuity, seen through the reinvestment in Stirling Castle by the Stewarts throughout the 15th and 16th centuries, was realised through ingenious architectural, engineering, and artistic endeavour.
Gardens and gun platforms
Detailed recording and excavations within the footprint of the palace block and on the gun platform overlooking the west and south-west approaches to the castle, known as the Ladies Lookout, revealed how the ranges built by James V were converted from a variety of earlier buildings, most of them associated with his father, James IV.
The most significant of these was the discovery of a gallery, probably with external timberwork on its west side, linking the queen’s apartments along the south side of the castle with further royal apartments on one side of the Inner Close, near the natural summit of the castle rock. This range was later absorbed as the West Range of the palace of James V, and the earlier south range was fossilised within the service transe below the new queen’s apartments. The work has also shown how James V made use of these existing buildings on an irregular, steeply sloping site to create the impression of a symmetrical structure, its form and decoration inspired by French and Italianate architecture. Extensive evidence was also found of how the site was converted to use as a military barracks towards the end of the 17th century. Rich assemblages of Late Medieval and Post Medieval artefacts were retrieved from sub-floor levelling and earthworks for new gun batteries.
The full article can be found in Issue 253 of Current Archaeology