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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.