Stirling stuff: welcome to 'Braveheart' country

Sir William Wallace once beat the English here. Now, with Thursday's referendum looming, history could repeat itself.

It Was just as well that the waiter in the hotel told me, as I was wrestling with the video controls, that Stirling did not feature in Braveheart, or I would have been sorely disappointed. Since the Battle of Stirling Bridge - with Mel Gibson as Sir William Wallace the Scottish national hero triumphing over the English - was a highlight of the film it had seemed a good idea to watch it on my arrival in Stirling. In fact, it was mostly shot in Ireland, but that hasn't stopped thousands of visitors coming to see the site of the battle.

For the last few months Stirling has been celebrating the 700th anniversary of the battle, which actually took place on 11 September 1297 (with good timing for Stirling, it is also the date of the Scottish devolution referendum) and next weekend visitors will be able to see a grand re-staging of the battle in, more or less, the right place. Another timely event is the discovery, after many attempts, of fragments of the original wooden bridge in the mud of the River Forth, soon to go on display.

The Wallace legend is being promoted by exhibitions, lectures, conferences, Highland Dance championships, even a Wallace Challenge Orienteering Event. But Braveheart, references, which crop up all round Stirling, is getting in on the act too with a Braveheart Convention, and the Braveheart Banquet and Ceilidh. It is, perhaps, only fair: it has after all been a great boost to the regeneration of Stirling as a tourist destination. "One darn film," says an estate agent's advert in the "Scotland's Liberator" exhibition at the Smith Gallery, "and everyone wants to live in Stirling."

Stirling has made the most of it. Twentieth Century Fox was persuaded to hold the European premiere of the film here in September 1995, in Stirling University's MacRobert Centre. This is, appropriately, located on the high ground from which Wallace watched the English army cross the River Forth before pouncing. The post-premiere party was, naturally, held in the castle. "You should have seen the road to the castle," said one resident, "lined with hundreds of people - like a royal procession. They all wanted to see Mel Gibson in a kilt." (A Buchanan tartan for those interested in detail). In the Portcullis Hotel, just below the castle, I met someone who had actually been invited to the party: his eyes lit up as he described the banquets, the blazing braziers, and the gallantry of Mel Gibson. Wallace had nothing on him.

Not that much is really known about Wallace. His two-handed broadsword can be seen in the Wallace Monument, alongside a battle tent with a "talking head" (the wonders of computer imaging) which gives a rather more measured account of the battle than Braveheart. Erected in 1869 on the outcrop of Abbey Craig after contributions by Scots all over the world, the monument has become even more popular. In the past year visitors have trebled. Some, it is true, are under the impression that Wallace lived here, or is buried here. Some are even looking for Mel Gibson.

He has, after all, done his bit for the town, along with the Stirling Initiative partnership which has invested pounds 65m in a range of projects. Buildings have been restored, streets recobbled, and interpretative plaques installed throughout the old town. The transformation was evident at every turn on a walk from the Stirling Highland Hotel (once the high school) up to the castle, its Great Hall encased in an outer shell as it is rescued from a long stretch as an Army barracks. I strolled past the youth hostel (formerly the Erskine Church), the Old Town Jail (recently a storehouse but rehabilitated as a museum) and the French chateau lookalike, Argyll's Lodging (which used to be the youth hostel).

The castle itself is undergoing a 20-year period of restoration, due to be finished by the end of the century. Standing on the battlements, with the Trossachs in the distance, ravens swooping on the sheer rocks beneath, it is easy to see why it was so sought after by the English. It is a military strategist's dream. I could see seven battlefield sites from here, including Bannockburn where Edward II's army was finally routed by Robert the Bruce in 1314.

It was also, later, a favoured Royal residence: Mary Queen of Scots was crowned and her son James VI baptised here. The exquisite Chapel Royal, intended by James IV in 1501 to be the chief place of royal worship in Scotland, also seems to have been fundamentally important in his daily life: "Before transacting any business he hears two masses. After mass he has a cantata sung during which he sometimes despatches very urgent business."

The magnitude of his bodily needs is indicated in the kitchens, with its waxworks of cooks, carcasses of animals, smells and sounds - 100 oysters eaten in a day was not unusual. There are recipes too, for dressed peacock, blackbirds in a pie, and trout pasties (made with ginger, cinnamon, sugar, butter and dates). Outside, there is a note: "Historic Scotland would like to reassure you that all the birds and animals used in this display either died by natural causes or through accident."

Tucked away round the back of the castle is a bed-and-breakfast, Castlecroft, where I found Bill Salmond, a fount of local knowledge. He was doing some gardening, but laid down his shears to regale me with the activities of the Earl of Stirling, Sir William Alexander, poet and failed entrepreneur. "He was granted the title to Nova Scotia and took to selling baronetcies. But by Scottish law, you couldn't acquire one unless you had your feet on the land. So he brought a barrel of Canadian earth over, laid it in the ground so that it was part of Nova Scotia and people would stand on that to receive the baronetcy. It was a great plan." The scheme collapsed but Sir William seems to have done well enough out of it. His house, Argyll's Lodging, opened this year after extensive restoration and the best example of a 17th- century townhouse in Scotland, is a riot of pinnacles, coronets and curlicues.

There are still some ruins: Mar's Wark, the home of the Earl of Mar, First Keeper of the Castle and Regent of Scotland, for example. All that remains is a flamboyant facade adorned with heraldic devices and sculptures - including one of a corpse in a shroud. Appropriately, this backs on to a complex of cemeteries, collectively known as The Valley. I spent a long time here in the spring sunshine, searching out the symbols on the tradesmen's tombstones - sheaves of wheat for a baker, tools for a stonemason. This is the 17th-century kirkyard of the Church of the Holy Rood, where James VI was crowned and where John Knox preached. It's a popular place - people were walking their dogs and pushing their prams among the draped urns and sentimental statues in the Victorian part. Ladies' Rock, from which ladies of the court watched jousting tournaments in the valley below, seems to be a favourite hangout of local teenagers engaged in their own form of apathetic jousting about who was going out with whom. There is even a landscaped sitting out area by a pool obscurely known as Pithy Mary, laid out by seedsman and evangelist William Drummond next to the curious "Star Pyramid" commemorating the Reformation and bursting with biblical quotations.

There are more Biblical sentiments in the Old Town Jail, with actors conducting visitors through a "living history" (effective from the moment the hangman bursts in). This was for a period a model and reforming institution, much to the displeasure of the Reverend Sydney Smith, whom I'd only known for the rather jolly quotes in my Dictionary of Quotations. Hung on the walls are his fierce opinions about the need for "a great deal of solitude, coarse food, a dress of shame, hard, incessant, irksome eternal labour, a planned and regulated and unrelenting exclusion of happiness and comfort". It was a surprisingly unforgiving side of someone who is of better known for his idea of heaven as "eating pate de foie gras to the sound of trumpets".

Back in the Stirling Highland Hotel, a small mystery was cleared up. I had wondered why there was a woman with a mobile phone sitting ramrod stiff outside a room along the corridor. As I was lounging around the lobby that evening, a procession of besuited men marched swiftly by and up the stairs. John Major was in town for a wash and brush-up. It was one of the last glimpses of him as Prime Minister. Another Englishman routed.

FACT FILE

The Battle of Stirling Bridge, 700th anniversary event: 8pm, 12 and 13 September, Stirling Castle Esplanade (Tel: 01786 473544). Tickets pounds 4-pounds 7. Scotland's Liberator, The Life and Legacy of William Wallace, at the Smith Art Gallery, Dumbarton Road, Stirling FK8 2RQ (Tel: 01786 471917). Open Tues-Sat 10.30am to 5pm, Sun 2-5pm. Exhibition runs to 14 December. Free. Bannockburn battlefield, Glasgow Road, Stirling. Battlefield open all year and free. Heritage Centre open 10am-5.30pm until end of October (11am to 3pm Nov-March). Tel: 01786 812664. Full details of events from the Tourist Office,Old Town Jail, St John Street, Stirling FK8 1EA (Tel: 01786 47130), or phone the Stirling 700 information line on 01786 401297.

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