Travel Tuesday: Sterling Stirling!
By: Charlie Wood
Naturally, with St Andrews being the size it is, trips to cities such as Edinburgh are usually the default for any student seeking a bit of drop-everything-and-go escapism. With their bustle, variety, frenetic pace, and a guaranteed surfeit of McDonalds, the appeal of big cities is no mystery. Yet this constant yearning for opposites – from seaside town to skyscraping city and back again – makes it easy to forget more medium-sized locales. Villages and small towns are small enough to be ‘quaint’; large cities are large enough to be ‘buzzing’. Larger towns and smaller cities, though, awkwardly defy easy categorisation. They are the undervalued middle sibling of the family; the forgotten second film of the trilogy; the essential-to-the-plot-but-easily-forgotten middle section of the novel. I think there is a tendency, at least in the UK, to view large towns and small cities as essentially functional in nature. They provide their residents with jobs and houses and schools. But are they viewed as ends-in-themselves, day trips, or places to be? Not often.
Not often enough, that is. In my view, there is one particular large town that is glaringly underappreciated, not least given its relative proximity to St Andrews. It goes by the name of Stirling. Now, I do not doubt this place is known about. You’ve almost certainly heard of it. But at least in my experience, it is seldom visited by St Andrews students. This is, if not a heinous crime, then certainly a petty one, which – given that its majestic and sprawling castle contains myriad jail cells, all currently unoccupied – should worry you deeply. Stirling Castle is awash with activity, live music, tours, and dazzling recreations of its original medieval interiors. It supposedly took the lone man who recreated the interiors over thirty years to finish the job, without any real break. The castle alone makes Stirling worth visiting.
The views from the castle are even more spectacular, however. Most eye-catching of all is the phantasmagorical Wallace Monument, which commemorates Scottish battle hero William Wallace (yeah, that’s the guy from Braveheart, except much cooler than Mel Gibson with a mullet could ever hope to be). You can actually climb the monument’s two-hundred-and-forty-six steps and stand atop it, with various exhibits about Wallace and other Scottish heroes on display as you ascend. I once played a university football match in Stirling with the pitch right next to the Wallace Monument, without knowing what it was or what it was doing there. It’s safe to say I was a little distracted. By the evening, the top of it had been lit up orange, and in my more-than-semi-drunken state on the coach trip back, I shouted out “It’s Sauron’s Tower!” (I won’t divulge what my teammates made of this razor-sharp observation.) More-than-semi-drunkenness aside, though, it genuinely looks like something out of The Lord of the Rings. Go on, Google it.
If history really isn’t your thing, though, Stirling still has plenty to offer besides dramatic stone edifices. For one thing, it is home to Blair Drummond Safari and Adventure Park (bet you didn’t think there were safari parks in Scotland), which hosts lions, rhinos, chimpanzees and more. Its centre is also home to a disproportionately large range of high-end shops, restaurants and hotels, plus more homely outlets such as pubs and fish-and-chip shops. The front window of one fish-and chip shop, Blue Lagoon, even carries a poster claiming Justin Bieber popped in for haggis and Irn Bru after the Glasgow leg of his 2016 Purpose tour (a quick Google search suggests this was indeed the case, though by sheer coincidence I was in Stirling on April Fools’ Day when I saw the poster, hence my initial scepticism).
Granted, then, Stirling will never possess the sheer variety of somewhere like Edinburgh. Nor will it possess the twee St Andrews charm we all know and love. But neither does it pretend to. In any case, its arresting combination of history and modernity means there are few places in Scotland quite like it. Added to its proximity – Stirling is under fifty miles from St Andrews as the crow flies – there are few excuses not to go. So if you’re ever bored one weekend, don’t go down the usual big city route. Look no further than this hidden gem of a large town. Oh, and if you’re really (un)lucky, you might just spot Bieber back on the Bru.