The Pipes Still Call

Continued from Bonnie Doune

After leaving Doune, it was back on the motorway and on towards Edinburgh.  I had just one last stop to make first – Linlithgow Palace. After exiting the motorway, I found myself driving down the main street of the town of Linlithgow.  Dating back to the reign of David I in the early 12th century, the town is forever linking with two sites, Linlithgow Palace and St Michael’s, the church that sits adjacent to the palace.


It wasn’t long before my GPS indicated I should turn right into what looked like a simple side street.  Immediately after turning, I saw it – the main gate into the palace.  It struck me as odd that the palace would be so close to the main street of the town.  Normally great castles and palaces are set apart and announce their presence with a great drive and lots of space.  Not so with Linlithgow.  Another unique thing is that you actually drive under and thru the main gate – a rather tight fit with a modern car I might say as well.

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The gate itself immediately announces to all who approach that this is the palace of King James V.  In brilliant color, four coat of arms announce the chivalric orders to which James belonged: The Order of the Thistle, The Order of the Garter, The Order of St Michael, and the The Order of the Golden Fleece of Burgundy.  Having these above the gate was a status symbol for James and you still feel the power of them as you pass beneath.

There isn’t much parking available as it is sandwiched between the palace and St Michael’s, but I quickly found a spot and pulled in.  As I walked the short distance towards the entrance, I looked up and saw huge openings in the wall which were once filled with glass staring down at me. These once allowed light to flood into the chapel inside. The burnished red of the palace’s stone stood out boldly against what had turned into a bright blue sky.  This side of the palace also shows scars created by the musket fire of Cromwell’s troops when he spent the winter of 1650-51 here.


Linlithgow has been connected with Scottish royalty going back to the 11th century when David I built the first royal residence on this spot.  The entrance used by visitors today is the south entrance and it was built by James V in 1535.  The east entrance, now closed off, looks out over the nearby loch and was the original entrance to the palace.  It dates from the 1420’s.  But the first thing I noticed as I cleared the long entrance corridor of the south entrance, was a beautiful barrel roofed hallway that ran adjacent to the main courtyard. Little did I realize at the time, but apparently I was on the Outlander tour of Scotland and didn’t know it.


Just today I had passed Glasgow Cathedral, been to Doune Castle, and now found myself staring down a corridor of Wentworth Prison, Linlithgow’s role in the TV series.  Although a big fan of Outlander, I’m a much bigger fan of Scottish history, so being in Linlithgow was a double shot of joy.

I ducked into the gift shop, paid my entrance fee, and grabbed a guidebook, some shortbread and water, and headed into the main courtyard.  Lucky for me there were benches sitting around the perimeter of the courtyard, so I grabbed one, cracked open my lunch of shortbread and sat there, just soaking it all in.  Without a doubt, the most spectacular thing at Linlithgow is the central courtyard fountain.  It dates from 1538 and amazingly enough is still functional, although it wasn’t running during my visit.  It is a masterpiece of stonemasonry that is full of symbolism.


It is the ultimate symbol of James V’s power.  I spent several minutes walking around it and talking photos.  Perhaps the most interesting feature was the winged deer, symbol of the alliance between Scotland and France that was secured by the marriage of James to Madeleine de Valois, the daughter of the King Francis I of France.  There is so much detail on this fountain that I could have spent hours taking photos of it.  I had to settle for a few and then headed back to my bench to plan my next move.

The most amazing thing happened as I was sitting there – bagpipes began to play somewhere off in the distance. As the sun fell down, casting shadows in the courtyard, a cool breeze stirred as I sat there listening and munching on my shortbread.  You couldn’t have ask for a more perfect moment – a uniquely Scottish moment.


I next decided to explore a bit around the eastern gate.  Standing in front of the what were once the main gates, it was very easy to imagine a king striding in through the passage in which I stood.


Off to each side of the main gate were guard rooms.  I stepped inside one and the dank darkness was all consuming.  I could vividly imagine guards watching the gate on some cold dark night long ago, with only torches lighting this room.  Considering this was the residence of the king and Linlithgow’s position on the main road between Edinburgh and Stirling, I can only imagine how utterly fearless the men that used these rooms must have been. Never knowing who was coming up out of the darkness nor what their purpose was.


Definitely not a job for the faint of heart.  Lucky for me there weren’t many people visiting on this particular day, so it did a lot for the atmosphere.  I felt like I was all alone, wandering the halls, climbing uneven steps of varying heights that seem to plunge evermore downward into the pitch black spaces beneath.  It didn’t take much of this before I was ready to be back in the sunlight.  Looking out through the bars covering a window, I saw the beautiful green lawn and brilliant blue loch below.  Today this is a park and was dotted with people enjoying the last moments of their weekend.  Back during James’ time, that wouldn’t have been the case.


After ducking in a few more of the empty rooms, I decided it was time to be on my way.  I was hungry, dangerously tired from no sleep, and still had to make it back into Edinburgh, return the rental car and find my hotel.  One day I will go back to Linlithgow as I didn’t even scratch the surface of all the exploring left to be done. After all, this was also the birthplace of Mary, Queen of Scots, so there was much, much more to see. It is truly an amazing place.

As I left back out the south entrance, I walked over to the end of the palace and looked around.  You could still see where the original gate once stood and it must have been quite impressive in its day.  Now all that can be seen is the ruins of the barbican built by James IV to improve defenses and reinforce the eastern range.  A drawbridge would have been lowered from the main gate onto stairs that sat a bit beyond the wall.  In times of trouble, the drawbridge could be raised, creating a solid wall for protection. Today though, there were no marauding armies storming the gates.  It was peaceful and quiet.

Linlithgow has seen some of the most famous figures from Scottish history pass through its corridors.  Perhaps the last great visitor was Bonnie Prince Charlie who traveled through Linlithgow on his way to Edinburgh.  He was the last hope of the Stewart dynasty. Twenty-five years old and full of promise at the time, it is said that the fountain of Linlithgow was flowing with red wine upon his visit.


A year later, the young prince would return through this area and the mood was altogether very different.  This time he was fleeing north to the highlands with Butcher Cumberland in hot pursuit.  Some of Cumberland’s troops camped at the palace and as they left, a great fire began, either by accident or intentionally. Some could argue that the red wine running from the fountain during Charlie’s previous visit was the ultimate irony.  Celebrated at the time, it unknowingly foretold of the blood that would fall at Culloden, essentially ending the Stewart line and the highland way of life.  Somehow it seems fitting that Linlithgow, once such a symbol of the Stewart dynasty, would end its life at the same time. It would sit, empty and uninhabited, for the next two hundred and fifty years.

As I returned to my car to leave, I discovered the source of the bagpipes I’d heard earlier – a wedding was about to begin at St Michael’s.  Men in kilts stood outside as the bagpipes began again.  Somehow life always seems to come full circle and breathes new life into old places.  People remember the old ways despite efforts to destroy them.  Both wearing the plaid and playing the pipes were outlawed after Culloden, but here they are…outside a stronghold of Stewart kings that still stands damaged, but proud – much like the Scottish people.

Irony indeed.

All photos not marked by the author.




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