Stirling days out
Days out in central Scotland offer memorable experiences for all ages and interests, but without the hassle of big city crowds, traffic jams and without the strain on the wallet. Dominating the skies for miles is Stirling Castle, standing high on rocky crags above the city. Once a favoured residence of Scotland’s royalty, the building has been restored to its former grandeur. In 1985 it hosted the star-studded premiere of Mel Gibson’s Braveheart, his homage to Scotland’s freedom fighter William Wallace.
In 2011 the Royal Palace, among the finest Renaissance buildings in Britain, reopened following a £12 million restoration. Now visitors can experience the sumptuous world of the Stuart royal family and the life of Mary Queen of Scots, who spent her early childhood here. Performers in meticulously-created costume bring the buildings to life, telling first-hand accounts of life within the walls.
The other attractions here are equally impressive, ranging from the restored kitchens to the cannons and rampart walks to the royal chapel and the magnificent Great Hall – the largest of its kind ever built in Scotland.
The castle is also the home of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders’ Museum, which tells its history including its involvement in many wars including its famous role as the Thin Red Line at the Battle of Balaklava in 1854.
In 2011 the Royal Palace, among the finest Renaissance buildings in Britain, reopened following a £12 million restoration. Now visitors can experience the sumptuous world of the Stuart royal family and the life of Mary Queen of Scots, who spent her early childhood here
A more modern construction has recently grown to rival the status of the castle as the area’s most famous visitor attraction. The Falkirk Wheel, which opened in 2002, is an extraordinary £85 million rotating boat lift, unique in the world, which connects the Union Canal to the Forth and Clyde Canal, sitting 35 metres lower. The two canals were previously linked by a staircase of 11 locks, but these were dismantled in 1933 which broke the link between the two canals.
The combination of extraordinary shape and design, awesome engineering, and the experience of being lifted in a boat from one level to the other, makes for an unforgettable visit. One option is to include a boat trip on the Union Canal, which includes the 334-metre Rough Castle Tunnel. There’s an excellent visitor centre and plenty of parking.
Not too far away, around 15 minutes by car, another engineering wonder dominates the landscape. The Kelpies are the world’s largest equine sculpture, with the two giant horse heads the work of Glasgow sculptor Andy Scott.
Standing 30 metres high over the Forth & Clyde Canal and weighing 300 tonnes each, the £5m artwork is also the centrepiece of The Helix, a parkland development between Falkirk and Grangemouth that attracts 850,000 people to the area each year. There are cycling and walking trails, nature habitats, places to picnic and an Adventure Zone and Splash Play. The stunning Kelpies present a wonderful photo opportunity, but visitors can also take a tour of the structures, and even venture inside.
The combination of extraordinary shape and design, awesome engineering, and the experience of being lifted in a boat from one level to the other, makes for an unforgettable visit
Animals from around the world
Another popular visitor attraction is the Blair Drummond Safari Park, just five miles from Stirling. On the 120-acre parkland site beside Blair Drummond Castle, take a slow drive to see animals from around the world including lions, tigers, wallabies, rhinos and lots more, even the always popular meerkats and otters.
Included in the ticket price there’s a boat trip round Chimp Island, entrance to the sea lion and birds of prey shows and other attractions such as a Flying Fox zipwire and pedal boats. There are also paid attractions such as a fun fair and face painting. The park is open from mid-March to late October.
Take a slow drive to see animals from around the world including lions, tigers, wallabies, rhinos and lots more, even the always popular meerkats and otters
If you’d prefer a driving tour, the area is famous for its outstanding castles. One option is to begin at Doune Castle, once the home of the earls of Moray, now considered the best unaltered medieval castle in Scotland and famous for its role in the film Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Here you can explore two great halls, climb spiral stairways and venture into dark cellars.
The castle, built around 1400, is open all year round and there is adequate parking. From Doune, head for Clackmannanshire and its tower house trail. Here you’ll find 15th-century Sauchie Tower and 14th-century Clackmannan Tower, once home to a branch of the Bruce family. Neither is open to the public, but both give an excellent idea of what a tower house was like.
In Alloa town centre you’ll find Alloa Tower, once the home of the Earls of Mar and Kellie and much altered by them over the centuries. Now run by the National Trust for Scotland, it’s open to visitors and offers a great idea of the castle through its various stages of development as a family residence, ending up with a panoramic view from the roof-top battlements.
Finish the tour at Castle Campbell, which overlooks the town of Dollar from a lofty hilltop site. This forbidding but awesome 15th-century tower house has parking, is open to the public and is well worth exploring. The views from the battlements alone are well worth the visit. The area is also, of course, the focus of Scotland’s Wars of Independence. For many, that means Braveheart country, so learn about the man himself at the National Wallace Monument at Stirling (good parking and a minibus to take you uphill to the monument itself).
The area is also, of course, the focus of Scotland’s Wars of Independence. For many, that means Braveheart country, so learn about the man himself at the National Wallace Monument at Stirling
Fun for the kids
Follow this with a visit to the Battle of Bannockburn Heritage Centre on the outskirts of Stirling, with its magnificent statue of King Robert the Bruce on his battle horse, standing on the spot where The Bruce raised his standard.
The Heritage Centre, re-opened in 2014 with state-of-the-art technology, is a unique experience. As well as learning about Scotland’s history, visitors can take part in a digitised game to re-enact the Scots’ famous victory of 1314 over the English. In the 3D room, they can even experience being right in the battle, complete with flying arrows and horsemen charging past.
For a more tranquil experience, visit the Scottish Railway Preservation Society’s centre at Bo’ness, a few miles beyond Falkirk. As well as workshops and a museum, it has a diverse collection of railway locomotives, carriages, wagons, equipment and artefacts. They also run daily trips on the Bo’ness and Kinneil Railway, including an optional stop to visit the interesting Birkhill Clay Mine. The centre is open daily from April to October.
There are also plenty of options for kids. Burn off some energy at Wonder World Soft Play in Falkirk, or the Xtreme Karting centre in Larbert. There’s the AMF ten-pin bowling centre in Stirling or ice-skating and swimming at The Peak at Stirling Sports Village. There’s also the Kidz World nursery and soft play in Alloa. Finally, if you ever wonder if we’re in the universe alone, try a visit to Bonnybridge. This is Scotland’s UFO-spotting capital, with more sightings of space ships and aliens than Roswell USA. If you do see ET, get the camera out before phoning home.
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