31 May 2009

Touching the sky at Stirling Castle

It’s been hot. The big blue sky god has thrown back his cloud coat and is flashing his full glory to the nation.

Everywhere I go Scottish women are out in their small t-shirts, airing out their cleavage which had been bundled in layers for the winter. Many are wearing their summer dresses, which makes the men giddy with gratitude. Teenage boys strut through the streets with their shirts off, their white skin gleaming. There really should be a phrase akin to snow blindness to describe the effect of looking at a shirtless Scotsman in the sun.

People are going to the parks to lie down on the cool green grass. They sit in the cafes with iced beverages or pack up picnics and head to the lochs and beaches.

But not me. All I could think of when presented with that cloudless backdrop was this:

I could see in my mind the way the pale yellow of Stirling Castle’s Great Hall would cut against the blue, a bulb atop the volcanic rock on which the castle sits. And I knew that inside the hall, the light would be streaming through the huge windows and medieval music would sound like it was falling from the ceiling, where the amalgamation of high rafters resembles the hull of a ship.
I love Stirling Castle and get an itch to visit at least once a year. While Edinburgh Castle is a monument to military history, Stirling Castle (despite now being home to the wonderful museum of the Argyll and Southern Highlanders) holds on to a distinctly feminine feel. It was where royals flouted their finery while gazing at the rolling green countryside below.
On days like these when any small breeze is a gift to a sweating brow, there are countless cool nooks in Stirling Castle, empty spaces which balloon with silence where once there was so much heat and mayhem. When you go underground into a stone room on a hot day, the stones push cold with invisible hands, mixing their aroma with that of the earth and creating a metallic tang that reminds me of the root cellar we had when I was a child.

My favourite place of all is the kitchen, or The Great Kitchens. Once I’m over the drawbridge and past the forework, this is the first place I go, following the stairs into the darkened belly to greet its frozen inhabitants. It is a scene of drama and abundance, where the characters have been caught in mid-breath and held there forever.

I always expect they will come back to life at any moment. Steam and scent will erupt into the room, combined with an overwhelming clatter. The cook will continue his tirade against the boy who dropped the dish. The baker will turn back to the oven, the butcher will try to keep a side of beef away from a hungry dog, and the big man will don a warm smile as he languidly prepares cabbages.

After visiting the kitchen I spent most of my time walking the perimeter, taking in the views around Stirling, including the Royal Park and Gardens and also that famous spike in the landscape, The Wallace Monument. I also became enamoured with a set of stairs that are part of the outer wall. I convinced myself they lead to a never-ending drop. I dubbed them Zen Stairs.

I was only sad that the palace (this includes the royal apartments) is not open and is not set to reopen until 2011. However Historic Scotland is dedicating vast funds for archaeological research and for refurbishment, in order to restore the interior of the palace to some semblance its former glory.

Part of that journey includes employing a team of weavers to create seven huge tapestries that will be hung in the palace. The weavers work on-site and tourists can watch them as they painstakingly build on scenes depicting the hunt of a unicorn. Each tapestry takes four years to complete, and the project is set to finish is 2013.

Perhaps next time I will choose a rainy day and spend all my hours drifting around the open floor of the Great Hall, counting the five fireplaces over and over. But probably not. I’ll probably still be in the kitchen, keeping still and holding my breath to try to fit in.

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