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The New Stirling Heads are Unveiled

2 June 2009

Minister for Culture, External Affairs and the Constitution Mike Russell MSP to attend.

Five year project recreates Renaissance masterpieces in oak

A hand-carved replica set of the Stirling Heads – world-famous masterpieces of Scottish Renaissance art – is about to be unveiled.

The unveiling, by Minister for Culture, External Affairs and the Constitution, Michael Russell MSP, marks the completion of five years’ work for expert wood carver John Donaldson.

The 41 oak medallions, each a metre wide, are copies of 16th-century originals and feature vivid depictions of a variety of characters including Medieval kings and queens, Roman emperors and mythological heroes.

They were commissioned by Historic Scotland as a key part of its £12 million project to return the royal palace at Stirling Castle to how it may have looked in its Renaissance heyday.

Thirty-seven of the replicas will decorate the ceiling of one of the most important apartments in the palace, the King’s Inner Hall.

MSP Mike Russell said: “The Stirling Heads are a remarkable part of our national heritage, sometimes referred to as Scotland’s other crown jewels.

“John’s work in creating the replica set has been a tremendous achievement, demanding the very highest standards of artistry and craftsmanship.

“The completion of the new heads represents an important milestone in the wider project to return one of Scotland’s finest royal palaces to how it may have looked when it was a childhood residence of Mary, Queen of Scots.

“The palace project will further enhance Stirling Castle’s international reputation as one of Scotland’s must-see attractions.

“This is an excellent example of sustainable economic development which we hope will bring benefits to the tourism industry throughout the area.”

The unveiling will see a dozen of the replica Stirling Heads put on show in the Chapel Royal at Stirling Castle on Tuesday, 2 June.

Mr Donaldson, from Livingston, said: “The Stirling Heads come from an exciting period when James V was determined to show the world that Scotland was a culturally important country, playing its part in the Renaissance.

“It has been a wonderful experience to recreate the work of the Renaissance craftsmen who carved the originals 450 years ago.

“While I have been working I have often thought about who they might have been and what their lives were like.

“It’s quite a privilege that my versions of the heads will become part of the castle’s story, and to think that in centuries to come people might look at the ceiling of the King’s Inner Hall and wonder who carved them.”

The heads will now be painted in bright colours, as the originals would have been.

Chris Watkins, Historic Scotland head of major projects, said: “The carving of the new heads has been an astonishing accomplishment.

“Each one is a work of art, as well as great craftsmanship, in its own right. They will be among the wonderful attractions of the palace when it opens to the public in 2011.

“What makes them so special is that John used the same types of materials, tools and techniques as the original craftsmen.

“This approach helps keep traditional skills alive and gives visitors the most authentic insight possible into the grandeur of the Scottish Court in the mid-16th century.”

Notes for editors

  • A full press pack will be available at the unveiling. This will take place at 9.15am in the Chapel Royal at Stirling Castle on 2, June.  Media should arrive at 9am, sharp.

  • Due to his busy schedule there will be 10 minutes available for photographs of the Minister and a further 15 minutes available for interviews.

  • John Donaldson, Chris Watkins and other members of the project team will also be available for interviews and photographs.

  • Media are requested to arrive at the castle for 9.00m so they can be guided to the Chapel Royal.


  • In addition to the 37 heads needed for the ceiling, extra ones were carved to go on display and educational uses.

  • Due to the size of the replica heads, each of which weighs around 40kg, a representative selection of 12 have been chosen for the unveiling.

  • The royal palace at Stirling was commissioned by King James V and the Stirling Heads are believed to represent his royal relations, while also establishing his credentials as a leading European prince.

  • The heads on display include ones believed to represent:

  1. King James V
  2. Mary de Guise, the king’s second wife, and regent of Scotland for some of the period when their daughter, Mary, Queen of Scots, was in exile in France.
  3. King Henry VIII of England (James V’s uncle)
  4. Margaret Tudor (mother of James V)
  5. King James I of Scotland (James V’s ancestor)
  6. Julius Caesar
  7. Hercules
  8. A nobleman
  9. A noblewoman
  10. A female worthy
  11. A jester
  12. A dancing putto (plump baby representing peace and love)

  • After the unveiling the heads will be on show for specially-invited guests, and then for castle visitors for the afternoon. They will then be removed for safekeeping.

  • 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 and Media Manager
Marketing and Media
0131 668 8685 / 07788 923871
rebecca.hamilton@scotland.gsi.gov.uk