Royalty and Restoration: Scotland’s Palace Architecture

Over the past several months, I have had the good fortune to visit three palaces from the Scottish monarchy’s heyday in the 15th and 16th centuries. These palaces are Linlithgow, Falkland, and Stirling, the last of which is visited only yesterday. Although all these buildings were used as royal residences, their precise functions and their wider role in Scottish history are wonderfully diverse. These differences also extend into how these buildings have survived into our own era and been presented as heritage, and make an interesting showcase of when, and how, modern restoration can improve upon such impressive monuments.

I’ll start with Linlithgow, a palace situated alongside a small loch some 10 miles or so from Edinburgh. Although the Scottish King David I created a royal residence on the site as early as the 12th century, the beginning of the current building dates back to 1424, when a fire necessitated new construction. As it stands today, the palace is a massive shell of stone, and is the most ruined of the three palaces.

Even just fitting all of the front side of Linlithgow Palace into the frame was difficult.

Without defensive walls or a well-fortified position, Linlithgow was a pleasure palace and retreat, designed to comfortably hold a royal retinue out for enjoyment. One of its most impressive features is the fountain in the courtyard, from which the true scale of which can be appreciated.

The elaborate carved fountain, discretely restored in places, with the high ranks of interior windows behind.

Looking down on the courtyard from one of Linlithgow's tower-tops.

With its four wings arranged around this courtyard and an innumerable number of staircases, side corridors, and archways, Linlithgow is a wonderful place for scrambling around. Its size and grandeur are easily apparent, even though its ruined state creates strange, fantastical vistas.

A row of fireplaces, impossibly suspended due to the now-vanished floor. As you can see, moss and damp have created discolouration on the stone.

While Linlithgow is undeniably an enjoyable experience, and one which impresses any visitor with the wealth of the Scottish kings, its hard to imagine the palace as a living space, with people, furniture, and ceremonies. Its rooms are just a little too empty to bring the lavish style of the court fully into focus.

Moving from the mid-Lothian area to the county of Fife, we come to Falkland Palace, also a pleasure retreat and hunting residence. Largely completed in the 1540s, the palace was also a favourite of the Stewart kings, but is in a very different state today than Linlithgow.

A view of Falkland Palace, with its modern gardens, on a grey, wet day in Fife.

Having been held under the keepership of the Crichton family since the 19th century, the Palace was largely restored to a Victorian sense of mediaeval artistic tastes, including heavy wood panelling and painted ceilings. Also furnished with a range of pieces–some from the 16th century–the palace is a curio cabinet of genuine interiors and later accretions. (Unfortunately, visitors are not allowed to take photos inside, but you can see an online gallery from inside and outside the palace here.)

Even considering the range of items one encounters inside, Falkland Palace communicates a sense of the royal lifestyle of the Scottish kings and queens especially in the Tapestry Gallery and the Chapel Royal. The latter, a survival from the 16th century, helps to fill in the bare stone of Linlithgow.

Lying somewhere in between the emptiness of Linlithgow and the jumble of features, 16th century and Victorian, to be found in Falkland, is Stirling Castle. A royal site since at least 843, Stirling sits on a high rock outcrop overlooking Stirling Bridge, an important battle-ground during Scotland’s wars of independence. Although constructed to be comfortable, therefore, Stirling also has formidable natural defences and has been refortified over the years to reflect changes to warfare throughout the castle’s long life.

The low round towers that guard the entrance to Stirling Castle, from the Queen Anne Gardens.

As an active military castle as well as royal residence, Stirling has had a turbulent history, falling to siege and changing hands. Thus, although many of its interior buildings were completed early in the 16th century (under James V, father to Mary Queen of Scots), their appearance was significantly altered after 1790, as it became a barracks for soldiers.

An artist's reconstruction of the entryway as it stood originally, before the defences were modified for artillery.

To return a sense of the palace’s original functions and interior, then, Historic Scotland embarked on an ambitious restoration project, researching and hand-crafting suitable furnishings, frescoes, and replicas to populate the royal rooms. Their efforts were aided by modern scientific techniques, which allow tiny fragments of original paint to tell us about the colours used in the palace, but also relied on plain old historical research. As a result, it is now possible to step into the royal rooms at Stirling with a real sense of the original courtly vision in mind.

The reconstructed decorative scheme of the audience chamber, Stirling Castle. The heraldic motifs are taken from historical sources from the reign of James V.

Coat of Arms, with the Scottish lion rampant and a border of thistles. The figure in the pendant beneath is St Andrew, patron of Scotland.

The difference in image we get considering the rooms at Stirling and those at Linlithgow is striking. Below, I have attempted to give you parallel sets of photos from both sites to illustrate how different Linlithgow would have looked in its heyday.

Reconstructed decoration in the King's bedroom, Stirling. The unicorn mural stands above the fireplace.

The wall and fireplace of the king's chamber in Linlithgow. It's hard to mentally transform the stone shell of masonry here into the bright, opulent scheme represented at Stirling.

Royal dais in the Great Hall in Stirling.

Looking down the Great Hall. The 'hammerbeam' ceiling above is a modern reconstruction of a 16th century ceiling like the one originally put on the building. It was replaced with a flat roof during the Hall's conversion to a barracks.

The massive three-chambered fireplace that dominates one wall of Linlithgow's main hall.

The chapel in Stirling, built for the baptism of James V. Its tromp l'oeil murals were retouched in the early 20th century based on the faded survival of the decorative scheme.

The roofless chapel space in Linlithgow.

These delicate surviving statues, of angels playing music, attest to the once decorated original state of the Linlithgow chapel.

Thus, although it might be impossible to restore Linlithgow to its original glory, the work done at Stirling palace can shift our perceptions of life in the royal palaces of Scotland during the 15th and 16th centuries. Although relying on monumental stonework, they also used soft furnishings and bright colours to showcase the wealth and power of the monarchy and create recreational spaces. Together, Linlithgow, Falkland, and Stirling illustrate not only the royal lifestyle, but also the power of heritage management to reinvest historical sites with meaning even two, three, or five centuries after the palaces themselves were completed.


Historic Scotland manages both Linlithgow and Stirling Castle, whereas Falkland Palace is managed by National Trust Scotland.


8 thoughts on “Royalty and Restoration: Scotland’s Palace Architecture

    • Thanks so much! 🙂 There’s more coming from Stirling too, which had these absolutely amazing carved portraits for one of the palace ceilings, so keep your eyes pealed.

  1. Nice juxtaposition of photos there! It’s maybe closest to being possible to imagine the `proper’ state of Linlithgow with the chapel comparison, but they’re all worth comparing, not least because the accommodations in Linlithgow seem to have been more impressive than Stirling, however much they may not seem it now… Thankyou for posting these.

    • You’re welcome! I do think that Stirling lent itself very well to this kind of reconstruction because structurally it was far more sound, and because we know more about the building programme that gave birth to it. Linlithgow, with a slightly more complex evolution as a building, probably was a bit less unified in terms of interior design (although that’s just a guess). You’re definitely right that the scale of the apartments in Linlithgow seemed larger, and given the less-fortified nature of it as a palace, probably would have been more comfortable. According to one of the guides at Stirling, James V didn’t even have much time to furnish his palace before he died…

  2. Oh to be back in Scotland. My wife and I went to the UK for our honeymoon two years ago and loved the castle and palace in Edinburgh but didn’t have enough time to explore further castles beyond driving or sailing past them. Looking forward to being rich enough to go back and spend more time on parapets and palisades.

  3. Pingback: Friday Photo: Spamalot | mediaevalmusings

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