Bridge of Allan Highland Games takes place close to many of Scotland’s most historic locations. Here, at Stirling, Scotland’s Wars of Independence were fought and won, while Stirling Castle was, for centuries, the favourite royal residence of the Stuart kings and queens.
Early Bridge of Allan
The ford over the Allan was first bridged in 1520. Also during the 16th century a mine opened in the woods above the village, producing copper, silver and occasionally gold. Much of the land around Bridge of Allan was held by the Airthrey Estate, which belonged to the powerful Graham family, Marquises of Montrose. Today this estate provides a spectacular rural setting for the University of Stirling campus.
Stirling – Key to the Kingdom
For centuries of Scotland’s turbulent history is was said that: “He who holds Stirling holds Scotland.” Stirling straddled the narrow waist of Scotland, with the great River Forth widening to the East and the largely impassable bogs (at that time) of the Carse of Stirling and Flanders Moss stretching to the west.
The ‘crag and tail’ volcanic outcrop overlooking the winding Forth was a natural draw for fortification. Records speak of a wooden fortress on the castle rock in the 11th century but in all probability earlier structures stood here too. In 1124 Stirling was created a Royal Burgh, while the first stone-built castle buildings, defended on three sides but rocky cliffs, made Stirling very much the ‘key to the kingdom’.
Wars of Independence
By the late 13th century, Scotland lay under the yolk of the imperialist English king, Edward I. The kingdom appeared lost until a concerted fight-back began, guided by Andrew de Moray and William Wallace. Here, at Stirling, in 1297, they outsmarted a much larger English force by luring half of the army across the narrow wooden bridge over the Forth. Moray died of his wounds after the Battle of Stirling Bridge, while Wallace went on to be acclaimed Guardian of Scotland.
Eventually, Wallace was betrayed, captured and brutally executed in London. Yet Scotland was not to be kept down and found a new hero. Robert the Bruce was one of several suitors with a strong claim to the Scottish throne. Gradually his guerrilla tactics reclaimed most of Scotland, yet there was little chance of forcing the English garrison from the impregnable fortress of Stirling. In the way of the times, an agreement was struck by which the English would abandon Scotland if their army couldn’t relieve Stirling Castle by midsummer’s day, 1314.
So it was that Scotland’s most momentous struggle took place, near Stirling, on 23rd and 24th June, 1314. The Battle of Bannockburn saw ‘The Bruce’ rout the powerful but ill-led army of King Edward II, who barely escaped the field with his life. Although the Wars of Independence continued for years to come, from Bannockburn on Scotland’s nationhood was secured.
Bridge of Allan also lies close to events from the last open rebellions fought on British soil.
In 1715, many of the Catholic highland clans rose to the cause of the displaced house of Stuart. The ‘15’ rising sought to replace the Hanoverian King George with the exiled King James VIII – the ‘old pretender’. On 13th November, 1715, the Battle of Sherrifmuir took place in the hills above Bridge of Allan. Across this rugged moorland a Jacobite army, under the Earl of Mar, fought government forces, under the Duke of Argyll. The battle was a muddled affair, many believing the Jacobites could and should have secured victory – but Mar failed to press his advantage. Thereafter, although the rival king, James VII – ‘The Old Pretender’ – landed in Scotland in November, the rebellion lost momentum and petered out.
The second great Jacobite rebellion took place in 1745-6. Rising this time to re-throne the ‘young pretender’ – Bonnie Prince Charlie, the ‘45’ represented the last days of the great clan system in the Highlands. Today you can still see the marks on the battlements of Stirling Castle, from cannon and musket shot as the Jacobite army moved through Stirling on its way south. There was panic even in London as the largely highland army reached as far into England as Derby but the hoped for support from powerful English nobles failed to materialise. Thus began the long, agonising retreat that finally ended with the crushing of the clans at the Battle of Culloden, on the hills overlooking Inverness.
During the mid nineteenth century Alexander Henderson, Laird of Westerton, was pivotal in laying out Bridge of Allan as we know it today. Elegant stone villas grew up around spacious streets, just as the village was transformed into a popular spa town, with several hydropathic establishments and numerous boarding houses for the Victorian upper classes.
The coming of the railway helped encourage the influx of visitors. Among these was the young Robert Louis Stevenson, who frequently visited Bridge of Allan as a child. There is a ‘Stevenson cave’ on the Darn Walk, between Bridge of Allan and Dunblane and he loved to explore the slopes of the nearby hill of Dumyat. It is said that the local landscape here inspired various of places that would become world famous through Stevenson’s great novels, Kidnapped and Treasure Island.
Today Bridge of Allan, with excellent road and rail connections, is a popular commuter town. Although walking distance from Stirling, it thankfully retains its own identity and offers a fine selection of independent shops, pubs and restaurants, enjoyed by locals and visitors alike.
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