Backpacking solo through England and Scotland these past weeks has been a revelation. Although I have loved so much of my time this past year on the road, the pace of my travels really changed once I started traveling through the UK. I wandered through the Lake District and reveled in seeing the scenery that inspired some of the greatest prose to come out of England. And now it’s time to embrace my love for movies as I visit Stirling, Scotland, home to the William Wallace Monument.
I am one of those people, the ones who can parrot movie quotes and slip movie references into almost any conversation. So when I arrived at my hostel in Stirling, it was all I could do to tone down the Mel Gibson impressions from Braveheart. And although the William Wallace Monument, which honors his historic battles that took place throughout history right in this region, there were a number of other enjoyable things to do in Stirling to pass the time. I could have explored Stirling as a day trip from Edinburgh, and that was my initial plan, but accommodation during the August high season forced me to juggle things and I decided to spend three days in Stirling—which is plenty! You can absolutely see all of Stirling’s highlights in a long weekend.
A Brief History of Stirling, Scotland
The large river that runs through Stirling was historically a key part of William Wallace’s strategy for defeating the British during the battles of the Wars of Scottish Independence, even though his men were greatly outnumbered. Added to that, as you can see when you arrive, the countryside is wide, rolling, and moderately flat—this surely gave the Scots a bit of an advantage in the battles, too.
Once the capital of Scotland, Stirling was pivotal in every way to not only the country’s national identity, but to its fight agains the British across time. William Wallace may have fought one of the more famous battles in Stirling, but in 1314 Robert the Bruce also triumphed over the English on this land at nearby Bannockburn.
The flat countryside belies the truth, that Stirling—both then and now—was the most pivotal “Gateway To The Highlands,” as it is known. Located on an extinct volcanic crag, Stirling proved itself an impregnable position and a true gatekeeper to the Scottish highlands.
Today, it’s evident in every way that this city has deep history. It feels old. The buildings are just precisely and exactly what you would expect from a city that has seen countless battles, destruction, and overthrows. Mottled gray stone rises up from the Old Town city center and gives way to Stirling Castle. Meanwhile, cobbled paths connect the small, winding streets of Old Town.
Things to Do in Stirling: Old Town
The newer portion of Stirling lacks charm. And although this was where I found space at a local hostel (since I sadly waited to book my August trip until the last minute), I hoofed it up the hill to Old Town whenever possible so I could get lost in the history.
- Church of the Holy Rude: Dating to the 1400s, this is the second oldest building in Stirling and it’s just beautiful. Entrance into the church is free, but one of my favorite parts was exploring the beautiful graveyard.
- Old Town Jail: The staff here are just lovely and delight in sharing the history and highlights, which date back to 1847. It also offers great views of the city.
- Darnley Coffee House: Not far from the castle, this place is just wonderful and reliably serves great vegetarian/vegan food, as well as many other things! Perfect and highly recommended lunch spot.
- The Smithy: Great Scottish pub-style food if that’s more your style than vegan soup and sandwiches. Closes by 4:30pm, so ideal for lunch as you walk down from the castle.
- Wander the streets! It’s a historic area and charming, you can window shop and relax as you soak in the vibe.
Touring the William Wallace Monument
The William Wallace Monument is visible from several places in the city, and it’s likely you haven’t missed it in the distance as you explored the city, or on your drive into town. It’s well worth the trip to the monument to explore it up close. Buses head to the monument for several pounds and it’s dead simple to grab one. In true backpacker style, however, I opted for the free transportation that my feet provided.
I hoofed it up to the monument and made it in just 25 minutes from the city-center. It was a relatively easy walk, but it completely parallels the trafficky roads and that was unpleasant—I had been hoping for a stroll through the pastures and surrounding land, but, still nothing to complain about since it was side-walked most of the way!
The ragged-peaked monument is huge and dominates the skyline as you approach. It’s perched on the top of a hill, Abbey Craig, and affords you full 360 views of the surrounding land, which I show off in the video below. The tower views alone are worth the trip out there!
The hill is rumored to have likely been the very spot where Wallace commanded his famous attack and defeat of the British in the late 1200’s because he could see for miles and miles around the hill, giving him a clear strategic advantage.
You have to pay to enter the monument and reach the top of the tower, but it’s affordable and gives you access to a number of small exhibits on the way up (as well as a free and relatively boring audio tour). There are no time limits, so you can also just relax at the top and enjoy the views across the green plains, admiring Stirling Castle from afar.
Visiting Stirling Castle
Stirling Castle has a long history in Scotland and it’s interesting that although there has long been a castle in this location, it was actually disassembled several times throughout history so that it could not be held by the enemy forces. Like the rest of Stirling, this castle played a pivotal role in Scottish history—Mary, Queen of Scots, was crowned here!
The steep, craggy cliffs on three sides of Castle Hill set the stage for what turned out to be my favorite castle visit in Scotland. Different aspects of the castle date to different time periods and it all spans from the 14th to the 18th centuries.
Although I didn’t take a formal guided tour, I eavesdropped on several and learned a lot of neat tidbits—if I ever return I would actually pay for a guide to share the rich history. One of the coolest features, and my favorite aspect of it all, was the hammer beam roof. This roof was reconstructed and doesn’t use a single nail, screw, glue, or other substance. Wooden pegs and expert craftsmanship hold the ceiling together. Pretty neat. :)
Video Tour of Stirling, Scotland
I tried to break up my three days in Stirling to occupy as much time as possible, but the highlights are easily accomplished in just a day or two. With more time, there are some lovely walks into the countryside, like the Darn Walk, which takes just an hour or two at a slow wander and you might just spot some of those iconic (and seriously cute) hairy cows!