Geography totally failed me this week.
Ok, ok, I digress – there may be the slightest chance that I was the one who failed geography.
Not the mundane kind taught from textbooks inside a classroom – that one I passed with flying colors. It was the real-life-geographical-scenario kind that carries the blame for my utter idiocy.
You would think that a person who devours every piece of travel literature and lives their life aboard trains, planes, boats, automobiles, and tuk-tuks would have at least picked up a smidgen of geographical sense along the way.
But nope. An aptitude for metaphorical osmosis eludes me.
You see, I had been touting about my upcoming trip to Stirling in the Perthshire District of Scotland for the past 2 months. It was displayed on my ‘Where Am I’ sidebar, mentioned in my monthly preview post, tweeted about on several occasions, and prominently publicized on Facebook. There may have even been a snapchat or two.
I instantaneously fell in lust upon my arrival as I rolled my suitcase up Stirling’s main street to be greeted by views of the lowland hills on my right and the town’s formidable castle on my left.
The subsequent days spent roaming through the Scottish countryside to the town’s outlying villages gave birth to story ideas revolved around my new-found wonderment and eventual love of the Perthshire District. I was head-over-winterboots for the area.
I even said as much to the barkeep at Stirling’s local pub three days into my trip. He folded his elbows to lean across the bar, cocked his head ever so slightly and said in his thickset Scottish accent:
“Aye, but ye ken you’re not actually in the Perthshire District of Scotland.”
No I did not “ken” I wasn’t in Perthshire.
Turns out Stirling is actually its very own region (chalk up my ignorance to an unreliable web source or perhaps even a misguided dream). Located in central Scotland, its dense historical past has seen everything from Stone Age settlements to Scottish wars to established monarchies.
The area holds an enchanting mix of old medieval villages, natural lochs and rivers, Renaissance architecture, and cobblestone streets – all of which are set within a striking landscape where the rolling hills of the Lowlands rise to meet the mountains of the Highlands.
Stirling’s allure captivated me from the offset and had me extending my three night stay to eight. I found tranquility and comfort wandering through the unspoiled countryside as I made my way from one village to the next, stopping to chat with friendly locals along the way. I found it didn’t matter one bit that I was missing out on Perthshire.
Here are the towns, villages, and sights in Stirling that have me counting down the days until I return.
The City of Stirling
The modern day center of the region is the old medieval town of Stirling. Once the capital of Scotland, the city continues to commemorate its prolific heritage to this day. Olden market streets still cluster around its famed castle; residents use bridges that were once important battlefields; and locals enjoy folk music at a bar that’s been serving ale since the 1700’s.
I used the city of Stirling as a base for exploring the wider region as it’s easy to get to with regular train service running from Glasglow, Edinburgh and London. Their bus system is also cheap and efficient for ease of traveling between Stirling’s nearby towns and villages. Cheap accommodation can be found at the Willy Wallace Hostel while a middle-of-the-road option includes the Golden Lion Hotel. For a more upscale experience try the Stirling Highland Hotel or the Victoria Square Guesthouse.
Stirling Castle – perched atop a craig with sweeping views over the city, this stronghold has sat diligently guarding the River Forth for centuries. It stood defiant in the 1300’s throughout the sieges carried on during the Wars of Scottish Independence; saw Mary Queen of Scots crowned in 1542; and was home to lavish parties where a large ship was once brought into the Great Hall to serve the fish course during a royal baptism celebration. The castle is open to the public year round and if you go in the offseason, you may even have the castle all to yourself. That’s what happened to me and I can personally attest that there is nothing like playing in a medieval castle by yourself.
Old Stirling Bridge – set over a crucial crossing point on the river, this stone bridge lays on the site where Scotland’s national hero, William Wallace, won a critical battle against England in the late 1200’s during the Wars of Scottish Independence.
The Old Town Jail – an old Victorian prison where criminals would wait out their punishments under strict control and debilitating regulations. Common punishments of the era included branding, hanging, and whipping.
Church of the Holy Rude – the name alone should make anyone want to visit. This still-in-use church has been around since 1129 and has seen a long string of royal coronations and baptisms. The impressive-yet-eerie graveyard made headlines in the 1820’s due do a bodysnatching case in which the grave-robber was controversially freed thanks to a legal technicality (if you were watching my snapchats – notouristiswear – you would have noticed my unintentional proclivity to wander through graveyards alone).
The Curly Coo – Mandy is the local proprietor of this cozy whiskey bar in the heart of Stirling and can often be found behind the bar with her 130 varieties of malt whiskey. My recommendation – saddle up to the bar, strike up a conversation, tell her your taste preferences, and trust her to pick out your whiskey for you. You won’t regret it.
The Settle Inn – opened in 1733, this is the oldest pub in Stirling. Locals enjoy their Scottish ales near the snug fireplace or beneath the vaulted, low-slung ceiling of the backroom where live folk music is performed. Monday nights are also popular among residents as they arrive to sing the songs of their choice during Open Mic Night. I became a regular myself and spent 6 out of the 8 nights I was in Stirling at The Settle Inn.
Cambuskenneth Abbey – settled in the outside village of Cambuskenneth, this picturesque abbey holds one of Scotland’s earliest examples of a gothic bell-tower. It sits three storeys high with a framework of elegant stone masonry and is only a 25 minute walk from Stirling. A local confessed that many citizens like to jump the fence and sneak in to enjoy the views over their final night cap (I may or may not have tried this myself).
The National Wallace Monument – If there is one thing the Scottish love, it’s a monument to their national hero – William Wallace. He was a fierce warrior during the Scottish Wars of Independence and was officially declared the ‘Guardian of Scotland’ after his martyrdom at the hands of the English. There are now over 20 memorials dedicated to him throughout Scotland. Imposingly sitting atop a large rock, this 220 foot tall tower holds 3 different exhibits commemorating the patriot. Brave the 246 steps for panoramic views over the Stirling region. Though most people prefer to visit by bus or car, I took the scenic walking route from Stirling over the River Forth, through old villages and country back roads, and on across cultivated fields (the ‘no trespassing’ rule doesn’t exist in Scotland). It’s the most rewarding way to arrive at the monument and you can break up the hour’s walk by stopping off at Cambuskenneth along the way.
Other sites around the town include the ruins of an old house known as Mar’s Wark, the independent shops of the Stirling Arcade, delicious toasties for lunch at Friar’s Wynd, and the 100 year old pub that serves traditional Scottish dishes, Nicky-Tam’s Bar and Bothy.
Bridge of Allan
Continuing on from the monument for another 25 minutes by foot would bring you past the walls of the University of Stirling and into one of Soctland’s cutestly named towns – Bridge of Allan.
The village is just as precious as its name thanks to its by-gone days as a popular spa town in the 1800’s. Remnants of its Victorian past still shine through in the architecture of the preserved buildings that frame this chiefly residential area. Most attractions come in the form of unique shops and galleries as well as locally owned restaurants and bars that can be found along Bridge of Allan’s main street. Spending one or two leisurely days here is a must – especially if you’re after that one-of-a-kind gift for friends and family back home.
Allanwater Brewhouse – a brewery and pub in one. This establishment hands-down has the best atmosphere of any pub I’ve been to – ever. You can literally smell the hops as you sidle up to a bar that’s garnished with bottles and barrels galore. Take a seat in one of the velvet-cushioned lounge areas near the log fire and enjoy their nightly live music sessions. Tours are also available at the onsite brewery.
Shopping – Heart of Glass was my favorite shop in Bridge of Allan. They specialize in importing quality, bespoke glassware and they even house their own local glass artist. I also loved browsing the The Fotheringham Gallery which sells artworks and paintings produced by contemporary Scottish artisans.
The Darn Walk – perhaps one of the more awe-inspiring (and easier) village walks in the area. This three mile path along the banks of the river takes you to the town of Dunblane and is rumored to have been used as far back as Roman times. You’ll bypass timber footbridges, domestic sheep and horses, expansive golf courses, wooded rest areas, and even a cave that’s rumored to have inspired Ben Gunn’s cave in Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island.
Most of the towns in Stirling can be described as ‘a place where time seemingly stands still’. However, it never felt as true as when I was strolling through the cottage-lined streets of Doune and was certain I was trapped in a storybook. Well, a storybook whose city center was once used for public executions. But hey – try and find me a medieval town where grizzly executions weren’t paraded around town. Regardless, Doune is a village well worth stopping through.
Doune Castle – I’m partial to this castle for two reasons. One – I was the only person there. THE ONLY ONE. Thanks November. Traveling solo during you rocks. Reason number two – I love the Outlander TV series and this castle is the fictional Castle Leoch where the series was taped. Other film credits include Monty Python and Game of Thrones. The castle’s historical importance? I’ll confess – I have no clue. I think it was home to some Duke (sorry that I’m not sorry for having castle burnout by the time I visited).
The Buttercup Cafe – the bus from Doune back to Stirling only departs once an hour so I ducked in here to wait out the remaining 45 minutes. It was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made (though my waistline begs to differ). Their selection of homemade cakes and pastries were a godsend. The Rolo pie melted in my mouth.
Deanston Distellery – only a 20 minute walk from Doune (though technically in the neighboring village of Deanston), this whiskey distillery offered the best tasting experience I’ve ever had – far outreaching any previous liquor distillery or brewery visits I’ve been on. What set it apart from the rest is that it truly felt as if I were touring a real-live working factory rather than feeling like I was in a museum that only produced the alcohol behind the scenes. Workers were milling around and you could actually see them manufacturing the whiskey. I did the 3 part tasting and chocolate pairing with one other couple (once again – thank you November travel) although our guide threw in a few extra samplings. I left more than happily buzzed.
Note: though its zip code puts the village of Doune in the region of Perthshire, it’s actually under the same governance as Stirling.
Blairlogie is no more than a tiny blip on the overall region of Stirling. It’s not big enough to be considered a town nor is it even sizable enough to be called a village. Its community of around 200 residents refers to Blairlogie as a clachan which roughly translates to a ‘hamlet’. Old houses are batched together amongst fields of orchards and farmland which in turn are framed by undulating hills. Positioned at the bottom of the Ochil Hills, the main draw of this clachan is its ideal location as the jumping off point for trekking the Scottish Lowlands.
Trekking to the Summit of Dumyat – Just saying the word Scotland conjures images of wild, rugged landscapes where human beings seem nil. It’s how I always envisioned this part of the UK and I knew before ever boarding my plane that I wanted to experience losing myself in the wilderness. In choosing to take the more difficult 3 to 4 hour trek to the peak of Dumyat from Blairlogie, I wasn’t disappointed – figuratively or literally since 2 of my newfound friends and I legit got lost thanks to directions along the lines of “walk through fields of bracken before coming to some stones and then head towards the cluster of trees.” It was my favorite adventure in Scotland and we had the added benefit of being on the mountain in the middle of November which meant we had the entire craig all to ourselves. Well, just us and the sheep.
Practical information: there is regular bus service from Stirling City Center to Blairlogie. This hike was steep and boggy so good hiking boots are a must. There is an easier hike to the summit. You can check all routes and levels of difficulty here.
Other Notable Towns and Villages
The locals I met inundated me with recommendations of other towns to visit in Stirling and while I had every intention of following though on them, I came to the traumatizing realization that I’m not Santa Claus. There was just no Christmas magic strong enough to help me see all of Stirling in the limited timeframe I had.
The below will just have to be added to the list for my next visit.
Bannockburn – made famous by a victory over the English in 1314. Visitors can walk across this historically important battlefield as well as take part in the new visitor center that provides an interactive look at medieval warfare.
Callander – this tourist town is normally used as a starting point for exploring Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park. One could spend days discovering the rugged nature of Scotland through the variety of outdoor activities it offers. If you want to stay inside the park, the town of Aberfoyle is well worth a look.
Dunblane – this old Celtic town is known for their pre-Reformation cathedral and is also home to Scotland’s oldest private library.
Have you ever been to the Stirling Region of Scotland? Which town or village would you like to see? Let me know in the comments below!
Why Suffer From FOMO When You Don’t Have To?
Taking on the classic “round-the-world” route, the next Travel Dispatch journey kicks off Nov 15 as I travel east to west, looping the globe over a period of 12 months with $25,000. Now’s your chance to get in on it from the very beginning!