Stirling Castle must have presented would-be invaders with a formidable challenge. Its impregnability is most daunting when you approach the town from the west, from where the sheer 250ft drop down the side of the crag is most obvious. The rock was first fortified during the Iron Age, though what you see now dates largely from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Built on many levels, the main buildings are interspersed with delightful gardens and patches of lawn, while endless battlements, cannon ports, hidden staircases and other nooks and crannies make it thoroughly explorable and absorbing. Free guided tours begin by the well in the Lower Square.
Central to the castle is the magnificently restored Great Hall, which dates from 1501–03 and was used as a barracks by the British army until 1964. The building stands out across Stirling for its controversially bright, creamy yellow cladding, added after the discovery during renovations of a stretch of the original sixteenth-century limewash. Inside, the hall has been restored to its original state as the finest medieval secular building in Scotland, complete with five gaping fireplaces and an impressive hammerbeam ceiling of rough-hewn wood. A major restoration of the Palace, with specially commissioned tapestries and furniture, has returned the rooms to their appearance in the mid sixteenth century.
On the sloping upper courtyard of the castle, the Chapel Royal was built in 1594 by James VI for the baptism of his son, to replace an earlier chapel that was deemed insufficiently impressive. The interior is charming, with a seventeenth-century fresco of elaborate scrolls and patterns. Go through a narrow passageway beyond the Chapel Royal to get to the Douglas Gardens, reputedly the place where the eighth Earl of Douglas, suspected of treachery, was thrown to his death by James II in 1452. It’s a lovely, quiet corner of the castle, with mature trees and battlements over which there are splendid views of the rising Highlands beyond, as well as a bird’s-eye view down to the King’s Knot, a series of grassed octagonal mounds which, in the seventeenth century, were planted with box trees and ornamental hedges.