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Renaissance Defences Rediscovered

2 March 2011


Slezer picture reproduced courtesy of the National Library of Scotland

Archaeologists have discovered fragmentary remains of Stirling Castle’s once-mighty 16th-century outer defences.

Mary of Guise, widow of James V, is believed to have brought in European experts to apply the very latest Italian military engineering techniques at the castle in the 1540s.

Intermittent warfare with England, battling against Henry VIII, made it essential to have specially-designed fortifications to protect against the increasingly-sophisticated heavy artillery that could be used in a siege.

Work to extend the castle’s main shop and ticket office have now revealed a section of walling which archaeologists identify as the remains of these walls.

Our knowledge of the defences is limited and the new discovery will help with attempts to work out exactly where they stood.

An engraving by John Slezer, published in Theatrum Scotiae in 1693, shows that the approach to the castle looked very different to how they do today.

The find has been welcomed by Fiona Hyslop, Minister for Culture and External Affairs. She said: “Right now we are heading towards the completion of a £12 million project to return the royal palace at Stirling Castle to how it may have looked in the mid 16th century. So, it’s exciting that archaeologists are discovering more clues about what the castle was like at the time when the palace was new.”

Experts believe that the outer defences may have been created at the same time as similar ones in Edinburgh.

Peter Yeoman, Historic Scotland head of cultural resources, said: “The new discovery gives us a tantalising glimpse of the fortifications created for Mary of Guise, paid for by the French king Henri II, and probably designed by the same Italian engineer, Signor Ubaldini, who was working on a similar defensive spur at this time at Edinburgh Castle. They are of great interest because they were early examples of a changing approach to military engineering, and among the most advanced in the whole of the British isles. We only have very limited evidence about what they were like, and the line along which they ran, so this find could prove very helpful in future research.”

The new military thinking involved creating huge earthworks, faced with thick strong walls, and built according to specific geometric designs, which would simultaneously act as gun platforms, while deflecting or absorbing the impact of incoming fire.

Slezer’s engraving shows a fine example of this approach, a pyramidal structure called a talus, which was intended to protect against cannon fire.

Knowing the line along which the walls ran may mean that the location of any buried remains of the talus, and other features, could one day be identified.

Gordon Ewart of Kirkdale Archaeology, whose team discovered the walling, said: “We knew the defences would have been in this area, but not exactly where because the Slezer engraving, and remaining military plans, are not entirely accurate. This is what makes the discovery of physical evidence so important – it helps us identify exactly what existed – and to understand more about what the castle was like in the past.”

Much changed between 1711-14 when the old defences were demolished during a programme of modernisation.

Further dramatic alterations took place when the esplanade was created in the early 19th century.

  • Slezer’s engraving is available and can be reproduced by the media for free to illustrate this story – courtesy of the National Library of Scotland. To see more images visit the Slezer’s Scotland website at

Notes for editors:

  • Other evidence from the 16th-century defences includes the remains of walls incorporated into later structures and the earlier discovery of a wall fragment by archaeologists in the 1970s.

  • Stirling Castle is at the top of Stirling Old Town off the M9 at junction 9 or 10. Call 01786 450 000

  • 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