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A walk around... Stirling

Updated Wednesday, 19th November 2008

Neil Oliver takes a journey through Stirling, the historic heartland of Scotland, in the company of experts Richard Oram and Fiona Watson

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Today, Stirling is one of Scotland's smaller cities, but back in the middle ages all roads led there. William Wallace’s legendary triumph over the English took place nearby, as did the battles of Falkirk and Bannockburn.


Copyright The Open University


Neil Oliver: Welcome to a walk around the historic heartland of Scotland. Today, Stirling’s one of our smaller cities, but back in the Middle Ages all roads pretty much led here. And it’s no coincidence that William Wallace’s legendary triumph over the English took place nearby. As did the battles of Falkirk and Bannockburn, not to mention Robert Bruce’s first gathering of the Scottish Parliament after his own spectacular victory. We’ll be hearing all about this time in history and the formidable ever-battling personalities who shaped it as we take in the landmarks on our walk from here to Cambuskenneth across the river.

Before you set off, make sure you’ve got a copy of the map to hand.

Our first location, on the banks of the River Forth here, may seem pretty sleepy today but in the 12th and 13th Centuries this would have been a hive of activity and commerce. Richard Oram is Professor of History at nearby Stirling University and knows the area well.

Point 1: Picnic area

Richard Oram: This, in its heyday, was the nerve centre. This is the heart that gave Stirling its whole reason for being in the Middle Ages. This is the port. And now we’ve got a stretch of grass with picnic tables, but just think back to what this was like eight, nine hundred years ago. It’s a bustling, thriving, noisy, smelly port. Lots of goods coming and going, we’re at the highest tidal point of the river, so we can get international trading ships coming in here.

Neil: And come they do, from all over Europe. They want our wool, they want our leather, and to get that, they’re bringing in wine and fine cloth and spices and all the things you can’t get here. Stirling then would have been awash with wealth and ringing with the sounds of different languages.

Richard: Scotland is a frontier land. It’s a place where fortunes can be made, where you can rise from relatively low origins to be somebody actually quite great. And it’s a melting pot of people who are part-Gallic, part-French, German, you name it. People who could very, very comfortably move from the north of Scotland to Italy and move through a landscape that, you know, they could recognise all the key markers in it. They’re moving in a society that’s actually fairly uniform in its styles of clothing, its manners of behaviour. They would be able to walk into a French city and know where they were, be able to speak the language, perhaps, and a lot more comfortable than an awful lot of our modern British tourists.

Neil: It’s an economic boom time for the country. But that prosperity was about to be cut short by years of warfare, and not for the first time, it all centres on Scotland’s relationship with England.

When you’re ready, start walking to the bridge that’s at Point 2 on the map. While you walk, we’ll hear more about the simmering political situation that triggered all the dramatic events that were about to unfold.

In the 13th Century, as we’ve heard, things are going really well economically in Scotland, and relations with England are pretty good too. But the turning point comes in 1286 when Alexander III dies leaving no male heirs to the Scottish throne. So who should be the next king? There were two main competitors: Robert Bruce of Annandale, an old man, who’s the grandfather of the future king, Robert Bruce, and John Balliol, Lord of Galloway.

Now, as brother-in-law of the dead king and Scotland’s nearest and most powerful neighbour, England’s Edward I manoeuvres himself into a position where he gets to decide. Whoever was chosen must already have accepted the English King as overlord in order to enter the competition. Most people think Balliol has the best claim and Edward eventually agrees. But within a few years King John and his nobility realise that to have any real independence, they will have to fight Edward. So they do the very thing Edward was afraid of. They ally with France.

Edward comes north and eventually sets up a new parliament in Berwick saying, “Okay, I’ll rule Scotland myself. And not only that, but I’ll also tax its considerable wealth to help fund my war against France. Oh, and I’ll be able to send its citizens to war to fight for me, too.” This is provocative treatment, to say the least, and although their own king and many of his nobles are locked up in English prisons, they rebel. And so begin the wars of independence.

At first, it’s a case of local flash points and skirmishes around the country, but in 1297 one of the biggest and most famous battles takes place very near where we’re heading next. So keep walking until you’re on the near end of the footbridge across the river at Point 2.

Point 2: Footbridge

View from the bridge Copyrighted  image Icon Copyright: Production team From here, on the south end of the bridge, we can get our bearings and see all the key features around here.

Depending on the time of year, you can probably spot Stirling Castle through the trees to the south, and to the north we get our first glimpse of the Wallace monument. And, most importantly, right beneath you, you’ve got the River Forth again - the main reason why Stirling occupied such a key position.

Richard: The bridge that we’re coming across now, this is a modern footbridge, but the fact there’s no other bridge in sight from where we are at the moment really brings home just how isolated and strategically important a bridge that links northern and southern Scotland would have been in the minds of the medieval people. And here we are at the point where, really, it’s the thread that ties two halves of the kingdom together.

Neil: In fact, there’s an old English map that depicts Scotland north of the Forth almost as an island, linked to the rest of the country by just one single bridge, because if you wanted to travel through Scotland, this is where you’d have to cross.

Now, back to Edward I. As we heard, he’s installed himself as ruler of Scotland. He’s brought in taxation and possible military service, and the people are in revolt. By late summer, 1297, two rebellions are in full swing. One of the leaders is a nobleman called Andrew Murray from the Black Isle near Inverness and the other, rather better known, is William Wallace. You probably know his story from Braveheart, but historian and writer, Fiona Watson, says we need to be cautious about any representations of him, not just Hollywood’s.

Fiona Watson: Wallace himself is a bit of an enigma. I know we all have Mel Gibson’s face in our minds. But the point about Wallace is that in the 15th Century, this poem was written about him, Blind Harry’s Wallace, and that was a piece of outright overt propaganda designed to bolster up the claims of those who were against the king at the time, James III. And there is obviously a lot of the folk tales that grew up about Wallace in that, in that piece, but really Wallace becomes everyman, every superman of that period, and a lot of things that are attributed to him actually may well have happened but it wasn’t Wallace that was involved.

Neil: It’s said that the sum total of real knowledge about Wallace would probably fit on one piece of paper. He certainly wasn’t a nobleman like Murray, but he had the backing of the Church, and this was important because the Church in those days was, amongst other things, a very powerful network of landowners with men and money.

Fiona: Churchmen are allowed to go about probably easier than an armed knight. So they are linking, keeping Scotland together. But you’ve also got to imagine, you know, village halls and pubs throughout Scotland, people going, “This is outrageous! And what are we going to do about it?” People who don’t make it into the history books - that’s what I really like about this period is that you get a little tentative hint of what they’re about and what they feel.

Neil: At some point in August 1297, Wallace and Murray joined their armies together, probably near Perth. Edward’s lieutenant, the Earl of Surrey, hasn’t taken them seriously, preferring to stay south of the border. But his treasurer, Hugh De Cressingham, has been nagging for months that something needs to be done.

At last, an English army led by Surrey marches north from Berwick to meet Murray and Wallace coming south.

The English army is larger with perhaps about two hundred cavalry and ten thousand on foot. The Scots are mostly on foot, about 8,000 of them. In theory, the English should have demolished the Scots but for two factors. One was the terrain, and we’re back to the importance of geography. The area around here is built up now but its natural state is marshland.

Fiona: Although we’ve got houses everywhere, all around us, this is the Carse of Stirling, and it's a boggy mess.

Richard: Infantry can get through this. But it’s got to be fairly disciplined infantry. But remember, we’re talking about big heavy warhorses with knights in full armour - that weighs a lot. So on fairly unstable ground, if we think about you walking across even a park nowadays, when it’s squelching up around your feet, well, think about ground that’s naturally like that. Also, to cut through lots of little water channels and pools and things, so you can’t charge, you can’t deploy a great front of cavalry and charge across this because you’ll be breaking your horses’ legs, throwing men, the whole front would break up.

Neil: The other key factor was that bridge. The original Stirling Bridge was about a mile upstream from here, and the English had to cross it to confront the Scots. But because only two or three cavalry men could ride abreast at a time, this created a huge bottleneck, and Wallace and Murray made the most of it.

Fiona: The English expected to be allowed to come over the bridge and line up. The rulebook of medieval warfare was written for these huge cavalry armies, the ones with the superior numbers who were beating up other countries all across Europe, and the Scots were saying hang on a minute, no, we’re not going to play ball because we’re going to lose.

Richard: This is a new style of warfare for Europe at the time. Here, at Stirling Bridge, it’s a combination of using the site to your advantage and also using a new type of fighting, if you like, which is the pike man using long-shafted spears known as pikes, and these are being formed into large bodies that we know as schiltroms, so that what you’re presenting to the world is almost like a hedgehog appearance of long shafts with spikes on the end of them. And the horses don’t like it. So, you know, they’re shying clear of it. The knights can’t get to close to fight. They don’t like it. You know, they get really frustrated because the “blasted Scots” don’t do the honourable thing.

Neil: What’s more, there was confusion in the chain of command on the English side. On the day of the battle, the Earl of Surrey sleeps in and Edward’s treasurer, the despised Cressingham who’s been wringing all these taxes out of the Scots, is champing at the bit.

Fiona: He is down at the bridge while Surrey’s still asleep in the castle, and he sends the men over. No, so he’s still not back. Waits a while, sends them over again. But finally Surrey gets up, comes staggering down and has to do a bit of knighting, as you do, because this is going to be a glorious English victory, of course. In the intervening period, a Scottish knight in the English army who knows the area says, “Look, just give me 500 horsemen, I’ll go upstream to the ford at Drip, come behind the Scots, so we can have a two-pronged attack.” Because he thinks these guys are not going to let us line up and do the battle thing. But Cressingham says, “Look, we’ve wasted enough time. We’re just going straight over.” And it’s Cressingham who leads that army and then finally, the third time, they go across.

Richard: And, of course, this is manna from heaven for the Scots because here’s this hated figure dead.

Neil: The scene must have been horrific. Over 1,000 men probably die that day.

Richard: It is a massacre. You’ve got all these Englishmen on the south side seeing compatriots, friends, people that they’d had breakfast with, getting hacked to death on the north side. And you’re getting people in full armour trying to escape by driving themselves into the river. And, of course, the weight of the armour, you can see how deep this river is by looking across on either side of the bridge here, and these people had been pulled down and drowning.

So you’ve got a choice, you know, drown or get impaled on a pike on the other side. And the Scots really are, you know, once the impetus is behind them, there’s really no doubt about how this battle is going to go. You’ve divided the English army. You’re not allowing them to bring their superior weight of numbers to bear. They can’t charge you because their horses are going to bog down. They’re floundering around in mud. And when the blood starts flowing and the horses begin to panic, the whole of the English line begins to break up, and the Scots are able to encircle them and pick them off more or less at leisure.

Neil: The Battle of Stirling Bridge, bloody and horrendous as it was, was a glorious victory for the Scots.

When you’re ready, continue over the bridge and along South Street towards Point 3 on the map. We’ll hear what happened next as we go.

Wallace’s victory at Stirling Bridge made him a hero. It would have done the same for Andrew Murray, but he died shortly after of wounds he’d sustained in the battle. From our next stopping point, you can see the monument that was later built in Wallace’s honour. But less than a year later Edward was back and the Scots were defeated at the Battle of Falkirk. Wallace, with his ordinary background, and therefore no support from the nobles, left for the Continent to fight Scotland’s cause in the courts of Europe.

Fiona: The Scottish nobility make use of Wallace, but they don’t understand him, and when he’s outlived his usefulness, they discard him. He’s an embarrassment to them. And I think you have that same, doesn’t compute with Edward and the English, he just doesn’t fit in. And he is the only one in the Submission Agreements that right from the beginning Edward says, “He has to come and kneel before me and I make no promises” because everyone else has given life and limb. They might have to go into exile but, "Wallace, no, I want you…” They’re two of a kind.

Richard: Yes, probably, in no compromise at the end of the day.

Fiona: Yes.

Neil: The plot now thickens. Balliol is still in exile and unlikely to return. Wallace is overseas, Murray is dead, and two new characters appear on the scene: John Comyn of Badenoch, Balliol’s nephew, and the young Robert Bruce, the Earl of Carrick. They’re both appointed as guardians to run Scotland in the name of King John and, in theory, are united against Edward. But it’s not that simple because Robert Bruce almost certainly has an ulterior motive - to make good his family’s claim to the Scottish throne.

Fiona: What you see developing, 1297 onwards, is almost two parties, the Bruce party and the Balliol party, and you have these two young men with a very uneasy alliance. Because these two young men do not get on at all, and there are fisticuffs and punch-ups. You know, very unseemly, here’s Scotland trying to prosecute this war against England and the main leaders are seizing each other by the throat.

Richard Oram: But this is another thing, you know. Historians are actually very guilty for this themselves, it’s tending to forget that we’re actually dealing with young men in their early twenties, and we know what young men in their early twenties can be like. And, you know, it’s all testosterone and bravado and a lot of drink-fuelled aggravation going on. So some of the scenes that you have, you can just, you can visualise it, they’re getting themselves wound up. And these are the people who are meant to be actually putting together a united front, but they’re also still trying to outmanoeuvre the other.

Fiona: But, nonetheless, Scotland manages to maintain an equilibrium and to govern itself with Edward pushing year after year to recover the ground he lost to Wallace and, of course, Stirling Castle again playing a crucial role. Edward takes Stirling immediately after the Battle of Falkirk, just down the road, but in the next year the Scots come back at Stirling Castle and by 1300 Stirling is back in Scottish hands. And that’s the problem for Stirling. I mean the whole point about it is that it’s in the middle of the country, but that makes it very difficult for the English to supply it.

Neil Oliver: Continue walking until the street we’re on meets Ladysneuk Road and stand on the corner. That’s Point 3 on your map.

Point 3: Junction of South Street and Ladysneuk Road

Fiona: We’re now on the corner with Cambuskenneth Abbey off to our right, and if you look down to your left you get a splendid view of the Wallace monument sitting proudly on the Abbey Craig. That’s the great gothic building that was constructed by public subscription in the late 19th Century. And that brings us to kind of the end of Wallace’s life because in 1303 to 1304, the Scots, having had Edward come across with his army into the north of Scotland and John Comyn of Badenoch, who’s still the guardian, he decides that it’s time to submit. King John Balliol is not coming home, and there really is only so long that Scotland can go on without its king or the prospect of its king.

So the Scots all submit, except for Wallace and the garrison of Stirling Castle, and Wallace is declared an outlaw. And once the Scots have all submitted and Edward is fairly magnanimous. For him, you know, he’s actually quite nice, for him, up to a point, but he wants to make sure that the Scots are all on their best behaviour, and he says, “That all these men who fought with Wallace, they should now hunt him down.”

Richard: There’s a tendency to forget that in many ways actually, after 1298, Wallace has been pretty marginal to the whole conduct of the resistance to Edward. And really you can almost say in retrospect that it’s a miscalculation on Edward’s part to dispose of Wallace in this way because, you know, Wallace, all right, he had the iconic status of having defeated the English army at Stirling Bridge, but he has ceased to be the primary leader of the resistance, and all you do by disposing of him in such a bloody way is that you set him back up on this pedestal. But, you know, he then becomes such a symbol of the resistance to tyranny, effectively, and he’s going to go on. That’s what the monument up there really is all about is the creation of this great freedom fighter, this liberator figure, and there’s as much of 19th Century views of freedom and liberty in the Wallace monument as there is a recognition of the medieval man, William Wallace.

Neil: The Scots, led by Comyn, submitted en masse to Edward in 1304, and that’s when Wallace was forced on the run. Robert Bruce, however, had submitted much earlier, in 1302, having failed to persuade most Scots to accept his leadership over Balliol’s. With Comyn back on Edward’s side as well now, the English king had little use for Robert Bruce who was a far less powerful man in Scotland, and Bruce knew it.

And our next stop is where he took decisive steps to take his fate and that of Scotland into his own hands. So now walk into the grounds of Cambuskenneth Abbey, which is Point 4 on your map.

Point 4: Cambuskenneth Abbey

Richard: We’re now inside the church or the ruins, rather, of the church at Cambuskenneth Abbey. Most of what you can see around you now is a fairly low stretch of the wall, and it may be quite hard to visualise what this place would have been like but this was one of the great churches of medieval Scotland. And the one surviving major piece of masonry is the detached bell tower. This is actually quite a rare thing to have in Scotland is a free-standing tower for the belfry. But it gives you a sense of the quality, the richness of this building, the amount of money. Remember we were talking earlier about the wealth that had been pouring into Scotland through the 12th and 13th Century, and a lot of that wealth has been spent on grand building schemes.

Abbey bell tower Copyrighted  image Icon Copyright: Production team So here we’ve got, in the 13th Century, the whole of the abbey complex has been rebuilt, using a lot of that wealth that’s come into them from the sales of all their wool and things like that. And so what you’ve got is a long abbey church which had an aisle down one side of it. There’s just some foundations left of the pillars that supported the arches of that aisle. Out, behind us, away from the castle direction, you’ve got the business end of the church, if you like, where the Augustinian cannons who were based here had their choir stalls, the high altar, and that’s where, later on, in 1488, King James III is going to be buried.

Neil: If you take a wander around, you’ll see plaques and an information board that’ll help you navigate the layout of the Abbey. And if you take a walk out to the back, through the gate, you can see in the distance to the right the remains of more buildings, including what’s thought to have been the Abbot’s house.

In its day, this was one of the most important monasteries in Scotland. But during the Wars of Independence it had another use while Stirling Castle was under siege.

Fiona: So we’re here in the spring of 1304, and the engineers are busy doing their bit of besieging at Stirling Castle, and the nobility, who have nothing to do because it’s a siege, they are sitting here or in their tents around here. They’re a bit bored and probably doing a lot of drinking and card playing. But in all of that, there’s Robert Bruce sidling from tent to tent, and we certainly know going into the tent and talking to William Lamberton, who is Scotland’s pre-eminent bishop, the Bishop of St Andrews, and makes this extraordinary strange pact with him which is basically, “If I decide at some point in the future to do something unspecified, will you support me in that unspecified thing?” And clearly, of course, this is him trying to build support for a bid for the throne.

Richard: So in many ways, if you like, what Robert’s done is bank promises. These are guarantees, or what he hopes are going to be guarantees, for the future. He’s not giving a commitment as to exactly what he’s going to do or when he’s going to do it, but he’s sounded out the likely level of support. And he probably felt that he had got the support of the people who mattered most.

Fiona: But then it all goes horribly wrong.

Richard: Yes, an unfortunate moment at Dumfries.

Fiona: And it’s back to John Comyn again. And I mean we haven’t really got to the bottom of this either. This is an extremely dubious event. But we do know that for some reason these two young men, who still hate each other, arrange to meet in the Greyfriars Kirk, which is important in itself because clearly they didn’t trust each other, and they both had to take their swords off. But for some reason they forgot to take their daggers off. And they have angry words as usual and Bruce, in the heat of the moment, because this is a really stupid move, stabs Comyn on the high altar.

And that is, we know, for absolute fact that Bruce did not mean this to happen. Of course this is catastrophic. He is advised by the Bishop of Glasgow that he has only one choice now, or he’s a dead man. He knows that. The Comyns will be coming for him with everything they’ve got. He must make himself king because only then does he have some slight authority to bring people out on his behalf. So he goes to Scone and is inaugurated as King of Scots on 25th March 1306. But really with very few people there, very few people. I mean we cannot stress enough that Bruce really was not, in most people’s minds, meant to be king at this point.

But he, after a very, very bad start, is starting to make his comeback. But then, most importantly, Edward I dies, and Edward II is much more interested in his own coronation and takes his eye off the ball about what’s happening in Scotland, doesn’t really give enough support to the people who will fight for him in Scotland, and Bruce can smash his enemies. And there is a civil war, you know, a really horrible, horrible thing where Bruce goes after the implacable enemies, the Comyns and their supporters, with a meld fist. And it’s blood, it’s the fiery cross, there’s no quarter given.

Neil: By 1313, Bruce is firmly in power. He’s wiped out Comyn’s supporters. He’s raiding the north of England for cattle and revenue, and now he tells all the Scottish nobles that if they don’t support him within a year, they’re going to lose their lands. His propaganda machine is up and running in Europe, and what he does in 1314 wins him fame forever in Scotland. He defeats the English at Bannockburn. The battle is instigated by the English, now with Edward II at the helm, but Bruce gets wind of their plans and prepares his troops.

Richard: Now the battle itself, like so many of the things we’ve been talking about today, is focused here on Stirling. So let’s see the scene. You’ve got an English army advancing up through Lothian. It’s coming out along the old roadway through Linlithgow past Falkirk and heading from where we’re sitting in the Abbey Church. Out to the west of us you’ve got Stirling. So coming in from the east, along that roadway towards Stirling Castle, is the great English army. Now, just to the south of Stirling Castle, you’ve got the Scottish army waiting for them. And then just to the east of Stirling, you’ve got the field of conflict, and it’s over two days.

And the first day, which is when an English flying column tries to get to the castle so that they’ve technically relieved it, the Scots intercept this and the victory on that day goes to the Scots. The following day dawns and, really, this is where things almost immediately begin to go wrong for the English. They have one good success which is they manage to get their archers out onto a flank where they’re beginning to threaten the Scottish army. This could really turn the battle. And then you get a remarkable event which is the Scottish cavalry plays a significant positive role in a Scottish battle. They begin to harass the archers, break them up, prevent them from really threatening the Scottish flank, and that is the end of that threat.

And after that it really begins to turn into chaos. The Scots, who have been well drilled by Robert, and they’re pushing forward, pushing forward, pushing forward, driving the English back into smaller and smaller space. They’re also having the good fortune to pick off a whole series of the English key commanders in this. So there’s a breakdown in the command structure of the English army. You’ve got units banging into each other. They’re losing discipline. The folk at the back don't know what’s going on so you can sense there’s mounting panic in the English army. And the whole thing just suddenly reaches a climax when out of the corner of their eye, they can see what appears to be a fresh Scottish force arriving.

These, traditionally, are known as the Small Folk, but you’re probably talking about men who had come along at the last minute to join Robert Bruce. They’d not been involved in the training, so he didn’t want them in his army, his well disciplined army. But, by God, they just came at the right time. Because you’ve been fighting all day, you’re exhausted, you’re at the point of breaking, and it looks like a whole new Scottish army’s arrived on the scene. Disintegration, the English army falls apart. The Scots mop up what’s left. Edward just escapes, dragged from the battle by some of his own commanders.

Neil: And there, Robert Bruce has his crowning glory. He’s defeated one of the greatest armies ever to come north. He’s captured a huge number of key prisoners he can use as bargaining chips, and he’s got the loot of the English baggage train. In every way, this is the God-given seal of approval for the Bruce coup in Scotland. Later that year, he holds a parliament here at Cambuskenneth where he receives the homage of many who had previously rejected him as king. He rules Scotland until his death in 1329, and all Scottish rulers thereafter are descended from him. The grave of one of these, James III, is right here. It’s the railinged enclosure you can see at the back of the Abbey grounds.

When you’re ready, make your way there for the final part of the story. It’s Point 5 on the map.

Point 5: James III’s grave

This is the monument Queen Victoria erected to contain the remains of her distant ancestor, James III. He was descended from Robert the Bruce, and he was very much inspired by his ancestor. It was Robert the Bruce’s sword he was clutching as he rode to his death.

Richard: It’s the great talisman. You know, this sword will give him victory. It identifies him with the founder of his family successes. And, in the end, we’ve come right back to the absolute end of what this whole thing’s been about here, is by the end of the wars with Robert Bruce, Scotland has got an identity, a security and stability that’s going to allow it to survive knocks, major threats in the future, and it will come through it as a vibrant, dynamic, independent kingdom.

Neil: This audio walk was made in collaboration with the Open University. Further information and other walks can be found at

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