Friday, 12 February 2010

Face to face with Scottish history

Stirling Castle's Great Hall at night

This seems to be the month for unrepeatable, unplannable, unique opportunities. Tonight, Historic Scotland offered its members an early view of an exciting restoration project in Stirling Castle. For several years, there has been ongoing major public investment in the restoration and re-creation of both outdoor and indoor parts of the castle. Anyone with an interest in Stirling, Scotland’s castles or the work of Historic Scotland will be aware of the amazing restoration of the Castle’s Great Hall and its controversial (but, to me, beautiful) repainting in its original “King’s Gold” colour.

A physically smaller but still highly exciting project is the ongoing restoration of the Castle’s Palace, and the subject of tonight’s viewing, the set of 34 carved oak roundels showing faces of kings, queens, courtiers and classical and mythical figures. The Palace was built from 1540 to 1542, mostly by French masons, for King James V and his queen, Mary of Guise (the parents of Mary, Queen of Scots) and it remains one of the finest Renaissance building in Scotland.

The Palace, Stirling Castle

The King’s “presence chamber” had a ceiling studded with over 100 large carved oak heads on roundels, known now as “The Stirling Heads”. Although many of these were pulled down and destroyed in 1777, enough survive to the present day to allow the present re-creation project (thanks to Craig Mair’s “Stirling. The Royal Burgh”, John Donald Publishers, Edinburgh: 1990). A master woodcarver born within sight of Stirling Castle, John Donaldson, has, over the course of five years, recreated 34 Stirling Heads in oak (the originals were in oak imported from Poland), taking approximately a month to carve each one. He said tonight that, as he had painstakingly had to copy the originals, this was a slow process and he thought that the original carvers could probably have carved one from scratch in a fortnight. All 34 of the new Stirling Heads have been laid out for viewing on the floor of the Great Hall in the pattern in which they will eventually be mounted on the ceiling of the Palace.

Yes, they do indeed remind me of large shortbread moulds

We viewed them tonight in their original unpainted state but they will be painted in the bright colours in which they were originally displayed in the Palace. The colours were identified from paint traces on the original roundels. It almost seems a crime to paint these beautiful wooden objects, but they were created with that intention and, while they do look stunning in wood when seen close up, I’m certain they will look equally stunning when brightly painted and set back in their original location when the Palace re-opens in 2011. Tonight was a one-off chance to see them all and see them close up although, from tomorrow, a detailed exhibition about the Stirling Heads project will open in the Castle.

Stirling Heads showing Hercules

There is a really useful set of information from Historic Scotland on the Stirling Heads, the master carver and the restoration project here. Meanwhile, here are some more photos from tonight’s viewing showing the new Stirling Heads.


  1. You lucky culture vulture nature boy!

  2. Looks fantastic. Roll on the opening......

    lovely pics of a fabulous subject.


  3. good post bro...great indeed its getting restored

  4. Gosh, I wish that we lived nearer as that is just up our street. Fabulous craftsmanship and history saved for the future. SUPERB.

    What are you like on Pictish symbolism? It's my starter for 10 . . .


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