Tour Stirling and Trossachs – a gentle introduction to the Highlands

An outline to help you tour Stirling and Trossachs where tourism began. Stirling Castle was once one of the most important anywhere in Scotland, while the Trossachs offer a real taste of the romantic and rugged Highlands. An interesting day out from the Lowlands and into the hills beyond.

“Why go to the Trossachs? Because you can enjoy one of Scotland’s best castles on the way (at Stirling) and get a genuine Highland landscape experience – all in an easy day’s journey.”

— Wait though, that assumes you start from Edinburgh or Glasgow.

For this example of tours from Edinburgh, take the fast A9 motorway north-west for Stirling – well under an hour. You can’t go wrong finding Stirling Castle. Like Edinburgh Castle it sits prominently on a crag and dominates the skyline.

Just to take in the ambience you could find a parking place in the lower end of the town and keep walking uphill until you find yourself in the esplanade, the parade ground outside the castle.

If you’re less energetic you can park up there as well – it’s only fair to tell you now.

Stirling – The Key To The Kingdom Of Scotland

Stirling with its castle was once one of the most important strategic places in Scotland. Whoever occupied Stirling Castle, formerly at the lowest bridging point of the winding River Forth, controlled the main route between Highlands and Lowlands.

The most famous battle in Scotland’s story, the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314, which won almost four centuries of independence from England, was fought close by, with the castle as a prize.

Stirling Castle and the outer defences.
Stirling Castle and the outer defences.
Stirling Castle
Stirling Castle, the big prize going to the winner of Bannockburn

A Walk Around Stirling Castle

Yes, really, you should stroll around a bit if time permits. (Now, ahem, best tourist guide voice…..) 

The complex of buildings which today makes up the Castle, date from various times and show the many modifications made to them as the castle developed, for example, from the royal court of the Stewarts, kings of Scotland, into a military headquarters.

The outer defences of a great curtain wall and batteries were rebuilt around 1708. Note the conspicuous Palace built by King James V between 1538 and 1542.

This shows the influence of French masons who carved the decorative figures that festoon the ornately worked outer walls.

Hunting the Unicorn tapestry
The Mystic Hunt Of The Unicorn – one of the recreated tapestries at Stirling Castle.

The Great Hall, now restored, was originally completed in the time of King James IV in 1503.

Before the Union of Parliaments in 1707, this building had been used as one of the seats of the Scottish Parliament.

Afterwards this hugely important building in Scotland’s story became first a riding school, then a barracks, until a recent programme of extensive restoration work restored its former grandeur.

Costumed guide, Stirling Castle
A costumed guide in the restored palace of King James V.

There are other buildings to see and you should certainly allow at least an hour or so if you’re doing the tour.

If you just want to admire the building from the Esplanade, then look out for the marks of bullets and cannon balls on the walls, many from Bonnie Prince Charlie’s attempt to capture it.

Stirling Castle is high on the atmosphere of the vanished monarchs of Scotland’s royal court, Scottish politics and the deadly art of war.

(By the way, just between ourselves, Stirling is Johanna’s favourite Scottish castle experience.)

Tour Stirling and Trossachs – and blame Sir Walter Scott

It’s such a wide panorama from Stirling Castle that you can only get chunks of it in your viewfinder. The Trossachs hills that you may have seen distantly from Edinburgh Castle are very conspicuous. Go from Stirling to Callander.

If you’re a Monty Python fan, then you can go via Doune Castle, where scenes from Monty Python and the Holy Grail were filmed.

Och, these days though, Doune castle is swamped by Outlander fans. It isn’t a peaceful place any more.

(I tried to read the books once but found them so howlingly ridiculous I gave up. Still, a lot of people prefer fantasy Scotland to the real thing, so that’s fine.)

The little town of Callander is probably where you’ll pause for refreshments, if not some new outdoor gear. (It’s that sort of a place, usually pretty busy with day trippers and visitors on Scotland tours.)

If you tour Stirling and the Trossachs you will find the Trossachs are no  longer in sepia.
Here’s Loch Achray before colour photography became the norm!

The Cult Of The Picturesque In Scotland

These visitors are taking part in a tradition of Scotland tours that goes back more than two centuries – because it was towards the end of the 18th century that the ’Cult of the Picturesque’ came about.

(It was partly an emotional response to the order and symmetry of the preceding Georgian age. To be honest, I blame these hippy Romantic poets.)

Loch Achray, Trossachs in autumn
The Trossachs in late autumn. Across Loch Achray there is just a powdering of snow on Ben Venue. (Said he, slightly poetically.)

The Romantics Arrive In The Trossachs

As early as 1794, the local minister in Callander wrote that ‘The Trossachs are often visited by persons of taste, who are desirous of seeing nature in her rudest and unpolished state.’

Remember this was in the days when touring the Highlands of Scotland was a really big adventure!

Amongst these early Scotland tourists was the Hon. Mrs Murray of Kensington (in London, England). She published one of the very earliest travel guides in 1798, with the snappy title…

‘A Companion, and useful guide to the beauties of Scotland, to the Lakes of Westmorland, Cumberland and Lancashire….to which is added a more particular Description of Scotland, especially that part called the Highlands’ 

The Trossachs in winter, Loch Katrine distant
The Trossachs in winter, Loch Katrine distant

The famous Scottish writer Sir Walter Scott travelled here on legal business as early as 1790.

Gradually, the wooded hills and lochs worked their magic on him, so that by 1809, already as an established literary figure, he was quartering the ground.

He even checked riding times and distances for complete accuracy within the verse-world he was soon to create.

His work was called The Lady of the Lake and after its 1810 publication it became a best seller.

This work was a major milestone in the development of Scotland tourism. 

Take the road at Kilmahog westwards to judge for yourself. You’ll probably end up in the carpark at the side of Loch Katrine with enough time for a cruise on the SS Sir Walter Scott, the steamship that has sailed the loch for more than a century.

Either as you drive around, or as you stroll along the pedestrian-only little road that runs round the shore of Loch Katrine from the main carpark, you’ll work out the real secret of the Trossachs. It’s Scotland-Lite.

It’s nothing too demanding. or intimidating. Pleasant but not spectacular. Easy to reach – and so one of the most popular day tours from Edinburgh.

But it’s still worth doing. After all, visitors have been covering the ground here for more than two centuries.

So, to conclude, it’s southwards and up and over by the Duke’s Road (or the Duke’s Pass), called after the Duke of Montrose – a descendant of the aristo who was an enemy of Rob Roy – who had it built in 1932.

Drop down to the little tourist resort of Aberfoyle and turn east for Edinburgh, more than an hour away.

Follow the links below for more good stuff about how cruising Loch Lomond and the Trossachs made for a great day out, even in Victorian times.

And, like the Trossachs, discover why Loch Lomond was another early tourism honeypot.

The little resort town of Callander has plenty of accommodation and makes a good base for exploring The Trossachs.