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Linlithgow lions head for Stirling

4 December 2009

Carver commissioned to recreate stone heraldry in oak

What would a Renaissance Scottish king want staring down from the ceiling of his bedchamber? Probably lions and unicorns – and plenty of them.

Part of the £12 million project to return the royal palace at Stirling Castle to how it may have looked in the mid-16th century involves creating new ceilings for the bed chambers built for King James V and his French queen, Mary of Guise.

In keeping with the tastes of the time, these will be decorated with heraldic symbols.

Renowned Livingston craftsman John Donaldson has been commissioned by Historic Scotland to create intricately-carved panels showing heraldic symbols linked to the royal couple which will be fixed to the ceiling.

Four will be copied directly from stone carvings at the entrance of Linlithgow Palace.

These show the symbols of the great orders of chivalry of which James V was a member – the Order of the Garter, the Order of the Thistle, the Order of St Michael and the Order of the Golden Fleece.

Once complete, the metre-wide carvings will decorate the King’s Bedchamber, along with an even larger Scottish royal coat of arms measuring 1.5m.

The Queen’s Bedchamber will be resplendent with 30cm carved wooden bosses showing two elements of the coat of arms of Mary de Guise – the Cross of Jerusalem and three alerions, eagle-like birds, skewered by 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.”

Lions will be a central theme of the carvings in the king’s room – one on the royal coat of arms and six as part of the orders of chivalry.

As king of the beasts it was a popular symbol, celebrated for its courage and great physical strength.

The chamber itself sits beside an open courtyard known as the Lion’s Den, where it has been claimed that a real lion was once kept.

Unicorns, another important part of the Scottish royal heraldry, will also feature strongly in the bedchamber.

One will appear as a supporter beside the royal coats of arms, another will be painted above the fireplace.

Mr Donaldson already has a great deal of experience of the palace project, having carved a replica set of the famous Stirling Heads, which will be used to decorate the ceiling of the King’s Presence Chamber.

He 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 project will take a year to complete after which the carvings will be attached to the wooden ceilings of the chambers and painted in bright colours.

Notes for editors

The orders

  • The Order of the Thistle, which is dedicated to St Andrew, is specifically associated with Scotland and is the second-most senior order of chivalry in the UK.
  • The Order of the Garter is the oldest in any of the UK nations, dating back to Edward III in 1348 and membership was solely in the gift of the king of England.
  • The Order of St Michael was the highest order in France. James V’s membership reflected not just the close relationship between Scotland and France, but the fact that James’ first wife Madeleine was a royal princess, daughter of King Francis I.
  • The Order of the Golden Fleece, was founded by Duke Philip III of Burgundy and dated back to 1430. It was bestowed on James by the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V.
  • The honours from England, France and the Holy Roman Empire were of great importance to James V as they confirmed him as an important player in European politics, whose favour was courted by some of the most powerful rulers in Europe.

The symbols

  • The lion was one of the most popular animals in heraldry and stood for courage, nobility and ferocity – but was also understood to only attack if threatened. It was most often shown as rampant, up on its hind legs, but could also be passant, standing on all fours or lying down
  • The unicorn has been linked to the Scottish crown for around 600 years. It first appeared in royal heraldry in 1426 when James I introduced one as a supporter beside his coat of arms. In Western Europe unicorns were often thought of as white with the body of a stag, the tail of a lion and the head of a horse, with a single long horn. Medieval Christians saw the unicorn as symbolic of Jesus. Wild and free, it was beyond the control of Earthly powers, like Christ who even hell could not hold.
  • The Cross of Jerusalem is also known as the Crusaders’ Cross – as it was the symbol they wore. It consists of one large cross with smaller ones in each quarter. The version in the arms of Mary de Guise is highly elongated.
  • Alerions were mythical kings of the sky and reputed to be larger and more powerful than eagles. There are various tales and descriptions of them. Some say they had no beak or legs, others that they are the colour of fire and their wings were as sharp as razors.

The castle and Historic Scotland

  • Stirling Castle is at the top of the city’s old town, off the M9. Telephone 01786 450000.
  • Tickets are £9 for adults, £7 concessions and £4.50 for children.
  • The royal palace at Stirling Castle is currently closed while the refurbishment takes place and will reopen to the public in 2011. To find out more about the project visit
  • Historic Scotland has 345 historic properties and sites in its care. These include leading tourism attractions like Edinburgh, Stirling, and Urquhart Castles, Fort George, 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