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Unicorns and Eagles herald new era for Stirling Castle's renaissance palace

9 March 2011

Some of Scotland’s most skilled embroiderers have completed majestic unicorns and eagles as part of the heraldry to be displayed in Stirling’s royal palace.

The work involved detailed research and expert design followed by months of delicate cutting, shaping and sewing to recreate the heraldry of Mary of Guise, the widowed queen who resided at the palace in the 1540s.

Each element has now been carefully stitched to handmade velvet and brocade backcloths, the larger measuring 3m long, to create cloths of estate which will hang in the Queen’s Inner Hall and the Queen’s Bedchamber.

The team was led by textile artist Professor Malcolm Lochhead, of Glasgow Caledonian University, who said: “There’s a great sense of achievement in completing pieces of work of this scale and complexity.

“We are looking forward to seeing them hung in the palace where they will help create a sense of what it was like to visit a Scottish Renaissance palace in its prime, when it was a busy place where royals and courtiers lived and worked.

“Embroidery of this kind takes a long time, and you get very familiar with each element, so much so that we ended up giving pet names to the unicorns and eagles.”

The larger unicorn was dubbed Adam and is beside Eddie the eagle, while the smaller ones are Nicola and Archibald.

Behind the light-hearted approach is an exceptional degree of skill and professionalism and a commitment to keeping centuries-old skills alive.

The embroidery has been carried out, where practical, using traditional materials and skills and the designs were each approved by the Lord Lyon King of Arms, guardian of heraldry in Scotland.

The embroiderers working with Malcolm were Eileen Rumble from near Dundee, Liz Boulton of Cumbernauld and Mary McCarron from South Lanarkshire.

Peter Yeoman, Historic Scotland head of cultural resources, said: “Malcolm and his team are past masters at producing beautiful cloths of estate.

“Visitors can see two others at Rothesay Castle and in the Great Hall at Stirling.

“Their latest works are perhaps the most spectacular yet and I’m sure they will be hugely admired by the hundreds of thousands of visitors who will pass through the palace each year.”

Cloths of estate were of tremendous importance for the nobility in the medieval and Renaissance periods.

They acted like personal branding for an individual, and their family, showing their pedigree and social rank – something that mattered a great deal in strictly hierarchical societies where so much was determined by birth, title or marriage.

People looking at a cloth of estate would immediately be able to interpret the symbols and be able to judge their own position, and behaviour, in relation to the owner.

Anyone entering the Queen’s Inner Hall, and seeing a woman sat beneath a cloth of estate emblazoned with a shield bearing a red Scottish lion rampant and Guise cross of Jerusalem, supported by a unicorn and eagle, all topped by a crown, would know to bow very deeply indeed.

Mary was from one of the greatest noble houses in France and married into the Scottish royal family before her husband’s early death, aged 30, in late 1542 left her as dowager queen.

She and her infant daughter, moved to the newly completed royal palace at Stirling Castle in 1543.

Historic Scotland is close to completing a £12 million project, the centrepiece of which is the refurbishment of six royal apartments, returning them to how they may have looked in the mid-16th century.

For further information and photographs

Notes for editors:

  • For all the latest on the palace project, and everything else that happening at Stirling Castle, visit our website at and sign up for our free e-newsletter.

  • Stirling Castle is at the top of Stirling Old Town off the M9 at junction 9 or 10. Call 01786 450000

  • 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.

For further information

Matthew Shelley
07786 704 299 or 01786 431 325