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Carving a palace ceiling fit for a king

4 December 2009


A Renaissance king would expect the ceiling of his bedchamber to be truly magnificent.

James V would have been no exception, and the palace he had built in Stirling Castle was rich with elegant stone statues and other fine craftsmanship.

The Historic Scotland team recreating the palace interiors has commissioned a master craftsman to create a 1.5m tall oak carving of the royal coats of arms as the centrepiece of his bedchamber ceiling.

It will be surrounded by other carvings showing the heraldry of the four great orders of chivalry to which the king belonged.

When the palace reopens in 2011, these beautiful carvings will help give visitors a sense of what it would have been like to attend the Scottish royal court in the mid-16th century.

John Donaldson, the craftsman making the carvings, said: “The coat of arms will be very impressive, showing the Lion Rampant on a shield, with a beautiful unicorn on either side.

“And it is quite a major piece of work – in fact once it’s complete it will probably take two men to lift it.

“The whole ceiling should be quite a sight, with the heraldic symbols of the orders of chivalry to which James was proud to belong.”

The stone carvings outside Linlithgow Palace showing the arms of each order will be used as the basis for Mr Donaldson’s work.

He is also carving 10 much smaller bosses for the ceiling of the Queen’s Bedchamber which will feature elements from the coat of arms of James’ second wife, Mary de Guise.

Five will show the Cross of Jerusalem and the rest will depict three alerions (eagle-like mythical birds) skewered on a single arrow.

Peter Buchanan, Historic Scotland Stirling Castle Palace project manager, said: “The adjoining royal bed chambers were at the very heart of the palace and only the most favoured few would ever see inside.

“They would have been luxuriously decorated and furnished with the very best the kingdom could afford.

“Ceilings in rooms like these would often be used to display heraldry, to impress visitors with the majesty and importance of the people they belonged to.

“It’s great that we have the carvings at Linlithgow to copy as these show us exactly the kind of symbols that James V had around him, and the style in which they were carved.”

As James V died in 1542 it is uncertain whether he ever saw the palace complete, but Mary de Guise used Stirling as her main residence.

In the years after her husband’s death she brought up her daughter Mary, Queen of Scots at Stirling.

Eventually the dowager queen advanced her political position so far that she became regent, ruling the whole of Scotland.

About the carvings

  • The carvings will be composites, created out of several pieces, rather than carved from a single block of wood.

  • The work is highly detailed and is expected to take around a year to complete, after which the carvings will all be painted.

  • The Linlithgow Palace carvings are Victorian replacements of 16th-century originals, so Mr Donaldson has been studying surviving Renaissance heraldry to ensure the style is correct for the era.

The orders of chivalry

The orders to which the king belonged were:

  • the oldest of them all, England’s Order of the Garter, which dated back to Edward III in around 1348.

  • Scotland’s own Order of the Thistle

  • the Order of St Michael, founded by Louis XI of France in 1496

  • and the Order of the Golden Fleece which had been conferred on him by the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V.

Notes for editors

  • Stirling Castle is at the head of Stirling’s old town off the M9 at junctions 9 or 10. Call 01786 45000.

  • Ticket prices are £9 for adults, £7 for concessions and £4.50 for children.

  • Historic Scotland has 345 historic properties and sites in its care. These include some of the leading tourism attractions in the country, including Edinburgh, Stirling, and Urquhart Castles, Fort George, Linlithgow Palace, the Border Abbeys, and Skara Brae. For further details visit:

  • Historic Scotland’s Mission is to safeguard Scotland’s historic environment and to promote its understanding and enjoyment.

  • Historic Scotland is delighted to be supporting the 2009 Year of Homecoming with a series of initiatives including family trails, spectacular events and the creation of a Homecoming Pass for heritage attractions in association with other heritage organisations.

For further information

Rebecca Hamilton
Marketing Manager
0131 668 8685 / 07788 923871