Innovative Learn Week: Part II

Two words.

Medieval. History.

Yesterday was a fantastic day full of travel, history, and lots of walking.  I traveled to Stirling with two EUMC friends, Sarah and Gregor, to see the Castle, Wallace Monument, and the Battlefield of Stirling Bridge. (I’ve included some Wikipedia links just for some quick info if you might not be familiar.)


The day started early with a quick coffee run around 8 AM and it was to Waverley Station to catch the train to Stirling.  Waverly Station is a prime example of a Victorian train station.  It was really neat, the US really doesn’t use the train system as much as the UK so it was fun to try a different way to travel.

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We arrived in Stirling and walked through the town to get to the Castle.  Stirling is a pretty small town but it has a really rich history.  During medieval Scotland it was the stronghold of the Kingdom of Scotland and was considered to be the ‘Gateway between Highland and Lowland Scotland.’  Edinburgh was often subject to English rule/closer to the Borders and was often influenced by early Medieval kingdoms like Northumbria after the fall of Old North Kingdoms, especially the Gododdin.

A map by Matthew Paris made in 1250 that show Stirling to be the dividing line connecting almost two separate land masses together. The upper part of Scotland is even labeled Scotia Ultra Marina which is Latin for Scotland Above the Sea.  Just a wee orientation to the map, the two walls are the Antonine (Upper) and Hadrian’s (lower).  Edinburgh on the far right by the Antonine Wall.


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The castle is build on a standard crag and tail formation, similar to Edinburgh, which just means a big flat rock with a sloped esplanade.  These are pretty standard for Scotland and were created when volcanoes were erupting all over the place in that crazy time period before the archaeological record.  As far as a castle goes, it makes the perfect fortified spot.


(zoomed view) from castle rock.  the battle field of stirling bridge is in the foreground and the wallace monument is in the background. 

Now for the castle.  There is evidence of fortification from the 13c onward but most of what remains was build by King James V, father of Mary, Queen of Scots.  There is a Great Hall, Palace, Chapel, and standard armories, kitchens, courtyards, etc.

We started at the front gate where there was an inner courtyard and then another gate, then another line of walls and then the final gate.  There was evidence of damage to the final gate that appeared to be from siege.  Roundish indentions into the stone round towers. Neato.

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Stirling Castle was especially neat that in many of the buildings they refurbished parts to how they would have looked using original materials and methods.  It was really well done and gave a true sense to the history of the place.  I think most people tend to forget that the ruins they are looking at used to be hopping centres of war, trade, and partying.

The Great Hall was a prime example of this.  They even re-did the outside of the building in the standard yellowish gold plaster (called King’s Gold) In fact, the 250 (yes 250) statues that James V commissioned for his palace were also once painted.  Really gives it more of a Disney feel than a Game of Thrones vibe, but more historically correct.

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The next stop was the Palace.  It also had been redone on the inside and offered a great look into how James V, Mary of Guise, and young Mary, Queen of Scots would have lived.

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A cool feature here were the Unicorn Tapestries.  The ones hanging in the Palace were remakes from a project that finished up a few years ago, but they had all been made in the original style using original techniques.  They were copies of the originals that are currently housed, surprisingly in the Cloisters at the Met in New York.  I’m sure you’ve all seen images of the Unicorn Tapestries, the most famous being the unicorn in the fence.  They are honestly really beautiful and some of my favourite pieces.

From there we explored the outer part of the Castle.  The weather was really fantastic and sunny.

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Once we finished up at the Castle we started the walk to the Wallace Monument and lunch.  We walked along the ‘New’ Stirling Bridge (built in the 1500s) that was next to the site of the battle.  It was honestly jarring walking next to the battlefield.  It looked like just a normal grassy lawn in the middle of the city, but in 1297 it was so much more.  It was the site where William Wallace AND Andrew Moray fought against a much larger English army. And call me a sucker for the underdog, but what the Scots were able to accomplish at the battle by outflanking the English and pinning then into them ox-bow of the river was quite a feat.


the battle field of stirling bridge. 


We stopped for a quick lunch and then headed up to the Wallace Monument.  The Wallace Monument honestly looked like something out of Tangled.  It’s a huge Victorian stone tower on top of a hill overlooking the city of Stirling.  It was quite a climb to the top but it had some great views.  We also reached the top before the small rain showers hit.


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The tower also has a small museum inside that houses bae’s actual sword.  It’s taller than me and I don’t understand how anyone could lift it let alone fight with it.  Granted it’s a two handed great sword but it’s still very impressive.  I’m also probably a sucker for military history, but warfare was a HUGE part of how people in the past lived.  It determined everything from who owned what land to whom the queen or king was.  Honestly, up until the Battle of Bosworth in 1485, with the defeat of Richard III and crowning of Henry VII a kingship was equal parts martial and political leadership.

I’ve learned it is also is one of the few ways to look back into driving mindset of the common-man.  Every able-man was often required to fight for their monarch, and sure a lot of them were conscripted but a lot of them believed in the causes they were fighting and dying for.  It also shows the unity of a historical kingdom  in that it’s common people were willing to fight for a cause much, much, bigger than themselves.  Stirling Bridge is a prime example of this idea.

From there we headed back to the train station to catch a train back to Edinburgh.  We had off peak tickets so we had to wait a bit.  Stopping in at Tesco’s we bought some donuts to eat at the station.  I’m so glad the UK has Krispy Kreme.


It was an absolutely fantastic day full of a shit ton of history.  I got to see so much, it’s amazing to finally be here after 18 years of just looking at things in books.  I think it gives a really gravitas to the site.  It’s something that I’ve studied and now being here can understand it better.

And, I glad to have had this week off.  I finished my Archaeology essay this morning and just need to go back and edit it.  I like to finish things a bit early so I can shove it away for a day and come back when I’m not so bogged down in writing.

So anyway, that’s my weekly geek out.






A Break from Studying

One of the many blessings of studying archaeology in Scotland… is, well, being in Scotland.

Today, I decided to take a break from my Archaeology revisions and go out and visit a real archaeological site.  And, not just any site… a 14th century castle.


Normally, back home if I wanted to look at a medieval castle I would have go online or look at pictures in books… this morning I walked 2.5 miles from my dorm room and was at the foot of Cragmillar Castle, a castle with its foundations in the 14th century but had been built on until the 17th.

I met up with two friends from Mountaineering, Gregor and Felix, at the entrance to Holyrood Park around 11 AM this morning.  From there we walked the 2.5 miles bike path that lead from the park to the castle (you know because Mountaineers don’t need the bus).  It was a really nice morning as well, and quite unusually warm for December.




This was one of the best castles I have ever seen.  It was so well preserved and we basically had the entire place to ourselves.  There were a few other people around but only toward the end of our visit.  And also, this castle was basically completely open.  You could go everywhere, up stairs, down stairs, on the parapet, through tunnels, into rooms… barely anything was blocked off.  I cried on everything.


The castle was build in three layers, the innermost Tower House was built in the 14th century, the first layer of walls was 15-16th, and the outermost walls were 17th.  The castle has a long history, Mary Queen of Scots was even rumored to have stayed there!  It was also surprising navigable.  Many of the room connected into one another and because of the openness of the site, you really got a good feeling as to how people would have moved around the castle during their day to day life.


on da roof.

We started outside and worked our way around and then inside.  Everything was there… chamber rooms, fireplaces, a great hall, TOWERS!! even a dungeon en-suite prison cell (more on that later).

(click through the slideshow to see more pictures)

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in the dungeon prison cell contemplating my escape on the ensuite toilet. #theusual

The castle was bought by the Preston family in the 1600s and they decided they wanted to buliding a pool in the shape of a ‘P.’ You know, what else do you do with your extortionate amount of money… build a name pool right next to your castle!


the infamous p pool

Parts of the castle even showed evidence of being two or three stories.  You can tell this from the post-holes of the sides of the walls where the wood floor boards would have been or when three fireplaces line up along the wall… often times the chimneys would be connected over a few different floors.  This would have made the middle levels quite toasty during the Scottish winters.

(Also, geeky side note on the fireplaces… you could still see the smoke and soot staining in a lot of them.  I recognized it because the marks were really similar to the fire marks I saw in Knossos in Crete this March.)

Just so you can see how close the castle is to the center of Edinburgh… you can see Edinburgh castle in the middle of this photo taken from the top of Cragmillar. The university is right below.  My dorm is just below the Crags on the far right.



party on the parapet.

After the castle, we stopped by Black Medicine Coffee (which fun fact is owned by JK Rowling’s brother in-law) for a late lunch and coffee. A few more friends stopped by, everyone is sorting out plans for next week.  A lot of my friends are leaving in the next few days, but there are a few that are sticking around as long as I am.  They are looking to go out and see a bit more of Scotland.  I have four days after my last exam, so I’ll see what sort of other ruins I can find.

It was truly a fantastic day.  And it made me realise just how lucky I am to go to University here.  If I had chosen to stay in the states visiting an archaeological site, let alone a castle, would have never been possible.  It really adds a new element to my studies, just the other day I was reading about medieval castles for my exam and today I went out and actually got to visit one (read: cry all over).

Okay, I’m back to studying for my archaeology exam but I will leave you with this picture of me failing at cartwheels in front of the castle.