A modern version of the medieval Hunt of the Unicorn tapestry series graces the walls of the Royal Palace at Stirling Castle. The originals are on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. The series of seven tapestries shows the stalking and killing of a unicorn. In this one, the hunting party has tracked the unicorn to its lair.

The man on the left, pointing at the unicorn, is the lymerer. It was his job to find the animal. The master of the hunt stands behind the fountain, in a fine plumed hat, with his finger raised. The whole group waits for the unicorn to run – only then can they give chase.

The unicorn dips its horn in the stream to purify the water, so the other animals can drink. Many of the animals and birds shown have symbolic meaning. The pair of pheasants on the fountain are thought to symbolise human love. The lions, panther and stag in the foreground are all symbols of Christ and also love, fidelity and courage. In contrast, the hyena by the orange tree is a symbol of the Devil and man’s evil.

The religious message is that just as the unicorn purifies the water, Christ redeems man by taking on the sins of the world.

The modern series was made by West Dean Tapestry Studio for Historic Scotland. Records dating from the reign of James V list more than 100 tapestries in the royal collection by 1539. One set of six pieces was said to show “the historie of the unicorne”. It may have told the same story as the original tapestry series of the same period that is now in New York.

Stirling Castle

Stirling Castle has been likened to ‘a huge brooch clasping Highlands and Lowlands together’.

From high on a volcanic outcrop, the castle guarded the lowest crossing point of the River Forth for centuries. Today it remains a great symbol of Scottish independence and national pride.

The castle’s long, turbulent history features:

  • William Wallace
  • Robert the Bruce
  • Mary Queen of Scots
  • Bonnie Prince Charlie

Stirling Castle was first mentioned around 1110, and many royal dramas unfolded here. Until the Union of the Crowns in 1603, almost every Scottish monarch had either lived in the castle, or been crowned or died here.

A vast amount of historical and archaeological research was undertaken as part of the Stirling Castle Project. View our research as it was published originally on the SPARC website.

A complex castle

Stirling Castle is a complex monument of diverse buildings and spaces added over the centuries.

The three main enclosures within the castle are the:

  • outer defences, on the main line of approach
  • main enclosure, at the summit of the rock, bounded in the south by the Forework and encircled by a defensive wall
  • Nether Bailey, to the north

At the castle’s heart is the Inner Close, a square formed of the principal buildings for royal occupation.

These buildings are the:

  • King’s Old Building – built for James IV in 1496
  • Great Hall – added by James IV around 1503
  • Royal Palace – built for James V around 1540
  • Chapel Royal – commissioned by James VI in 1594

Around the Outer Close are the Great Kitchens (early 1500s) and later army buildings.

The Nether Bailey, at the lowest part of the castle rock, houses powder magazines from the 1800s.

Guarding the main entrance from the town are the:

  • Forework – built for James IV around 1500
  • Outer Defences – added by Queen Anne around 1710

An icon of independence

Throughout the Wars of Independence with England (1296–1356), Stirling was hotly fought over and changed hands frequently.

Bloody battles waged nearby include:

  • Wallace’s great victory over English forces at Stirling Bridge (1297)
  • Robert the Bruce’s decisive defeat of Edward II at Bannockburn (1314)

Robert the Bruce had the castle’s defences destroyed to prevent it falling into enemy hands again. It was not substantially rebuilt until 1336, when the English recaptured it. The castle finally fell back into Scottish hands in 1342.

Centre of royal celebrations

Stirling was the preferred residence of most of Scotland’s later medieval monarchs, and most added something to its impressive architecture.

Scotland embraced the classical ideas coming from Renaissance Europe during the reign of James IV (1488–1513). He spent much time and money making the castle fit for a European monarch – partly to impress his queen, Margaret Tudor, daughter of Henry VII of England.

James V continued this legacy, as he was just as keen to impress his second French bride, Queen Mary of Guise. Their daughter, Mary Queen of Scots, lived in the Royal Palace as a child and was crowned here in 1543.

Later, in 1566, Mary’s own son, the future James VI, was baptised here. The fireworks display that ended the celebrations was the first recorded use of fireworks in Scotland.

In turn, James VI had the Chapel Royal built in haste for the baptism in 1594 of his first son, Prince Henry. A three-day celebration followed, but Henry died before inheriting the crown.

Find out more about Stirling Castle


Date Made
3300 x 3415mm
Property Information
Stirling Castle
Object Number
Access Status