The Walk to Abbey Craig

One of the wonderful things about Stirling is that you don’t have to walk far to find yourself in the countryside, and walking in Scotland’s countryside on a mild summer’s morning makes you glad to be alive.

A few blocks from Castle Walk, I hit the last stretch of town, walking along Abbey Road. It is not THE Abbey Road, of course, but like The Abbey Road, it was named long, long ago, for the place to which it led – the local abbey. In Stirling, this means Cambuskenneth Abbey.

As I got closer to the River Forth, I could see the footbridge that crossed the river, and houses on the other side. There is a very small village across the river called, “Cambuskenneth,” which means “fields of Kenneth,” after the 9th century King Kenneth McAlpin who defeated the Picts in a battle here in 834 AD. Traditionally, this battle marked the founding of “Scotland,” because Kenneth became the first king.

Beginning in medieval times the crossing here was by boat. A log boat was found on the spot in 1874, carved from a single tree. Carbon dating indicates the boat was built in 996AD, and it is preserved now within the neighboring bell tower.

The serene River Forth from the footbridge between Stirling and Cambuskenneth.

The ferry boats themselves had evolved over time from the early log boats, to dory-looking craft with oars, until the last ferry was powered by steam and designed by Baillie “Captain” Robert Wilson, a local whose family owned a steamship cargo company. It was launched in 1928, and named Cameo III. (Cameo I and Cameo II were owned by the steamship company and used to transport ammunition to nearby Forthside.) Cameo III served until the footbridge opened in 1935. Comparatively speaking, the footbridge is still new, and has barely lost its shine, outdone only by the bridge further upstream that was built to serve motorised traffic.

The bell tower holding the medieval log boat belongs to Cambuskenneth Abbey, founded in 1140 by King David I, and which became home to an order of Augustinian canons. Most of the abbey is gone, and the bell tower and the western doorway to the church are all that’s left.

The Campanile, or bell tower. I was able to walk into the bottom floor, but entrance to the upstairs, where I presume the boat is, was blocked.

Cambuskenneth Abbey was used by Robert the Bruce as his main supply depot in 1314 for the ten thousand soldiers of his army at the Battle of Bannockburn. Bruce and his army of about six thousand defeated Edward II and an English army of about eighteen thousand at the Bannockburn. In 1314 and in 1326, Bruce held parliaments at this abbey.

The bell tower is next to a cemetery where King James III and Queen Margaret of Denmark are buried. James was killed at the Battle of Sauchieburn, about three miles south, in 1488.

Near the cemetery. The fence that kept me from exploring the cemetery doesn’t show in the photo because I’m standing on the bottom rung and leaning on the iron rod across the top, avoiding the sharp, pointy iron arrows at the top. (It’s a different fence than the one you see above.) I looked for another entrance or a way to climb the fence, but didn’t find any. Despite the inviting open gate, visitors were clearly not allowed.

The Abbey was next to a key fording point on the River Forth, and “would have been a well known and a welcome sight for travelers and tradesmen travelling between the Highlands and Lowlands of Scotland,” says the sign next to the footbridge. The abbey was disbanded after the Reformation of 1560, and the stones were used for other buildings in Stirling. The Campanile (bell tower) was restored in 1865.

Cambuskenneth, the village, is a very pleasant place with friendly people. I know that because when I arrived at the abbey, I found a group of men who were just arriving at the very small park by the abbey. We had a lovely conversation about the things tourists and locals talk about – where I’m from, where they’ve been in the U.S., how long they’ve lived here, things like that. Are you Rotarians? I asked, because they reminded me so much of my club on South Whidbey Island. They were not, they were simply friends who liked to walk, and did so regularly. The small park at the abbey provided seating to rest, chat, and enjoy a lunch while outside and socially distanced. A few of them let me take their photo.

Part of the walking group. The field with the small park and the Abbey is to the right of the photo.

The village is also a “conservation village,” a designation meaning the area is considered to have “special architectural or historic interest, the character or appearance of which it is desirable to preserve or enhance.” The area has special protections from the top of Abbey Craig across to Stirling itself, along with Stirling castle and other historical buildings.

A street in Cambuskenneth

My destination was the Wallace Monument, which sits on Abbey Craig. Wallace is considered a hero in Scotland as a whole, and here in Stirling especially, because of the famous Battle of Stirling Bridge fought in 1296. It was an early battle in the First War of Scottish Independence, roughly from 1296 to 1332.

How Scotland, and William Wallace, arrived at the Abbey Craig to fight the English King Edward, goes like something like this:

In 1290, seven year old Margaret, Queen of Scotland, died, leaving the Scottish throne vacant. Two men claimed the right to succeed the unfortunate little queen: Robert Bruce and John Balliol, both descended from King David I, but along slightly different lines. The claims of these two possible successors were deemed roughly equivalent, and so the lairds of Scotland asked King Edward I of England to decide between the two.

King Edward didn’t care much about ancestry, but he did care who ruled Scotland, and wanted someone who would “take suggestions” from him. Edward thought this was John Balliol.

Depending on whose history of Scotland you read, Scottish or English I suspect, either John Balliol turned out to think for himself or he was a weak and ineffective king. When Edward was getting ready to invade France, he communicated his expectation that Scotland would join him to deal with England’s enemy. Balliol either refused or couldn’t get the lairds to go along with Edward, and Balliol either defied Edward by signing an alliance with France in the following year, 1295, or the lairds forced Balliol into signing the alliance.

Either way, King Edward was enraged, and invaded Scotland in 1296. By July, 1296, Edward had forced John Balliol to abdicate and imprisoned him in the Tower of London, leaving the Scottish throne empty again, and Edward free to rule Scotland as if it was a province of England. Needless to say, this didn’t go over well in Scotland.

William Wallace was the son of a low-ranking Scottish landowner, and was deemed an outlaw in his early years for killing an Englishman who insulted him, followed by killing two Englishmen who accused him of poaching. (Being that the English and Scots were frequently at odds, there may be more to this story.)

As Wallace was a wanted man, he visited his wife and their infant daughter in secret, but the English sheriff heard of this, and took his men to capture Wallace. Wallace escaped, but the sheriff had Wallace’s wife, Marion, executed on the spot by his soldiers. This was Wallace’s transformation from outlaw to freedom fighter, at least according to “Blind Harry,” the bard who composed “The Acts and Deeds of Sir William Wallace, Knight of Elderslie,” an epic poem, almost two hundred years later in 1470.

That same night, Wallace and his men murdered the sheriff and all the soldiers present, and then went on to lay siege to Dundee Castle. Wallace became England’s most wanted man.

The Scottish lairds were organizing to revolt, but their revolt was losing energy by mid-1297. Leadership was lacking in the south of Scotland. Another revolt further north, led by Andrew Murray, was brewing in Moray. When finished at Dundee Castle, Wallace proceeded toward Stirling, meeting Murray along the way. They positioned their forces on Abbey Craig, overlooking the River Forth and Stirling Castle.

Edward I, for his part, sent a large army north to reinforce the English garrison at Stirling Castle, and to destroy the Scottish rebellion. The army was led by the Earl of Surrey, and included Sir Richard Lundie, a Scottish knight who had joined the English forces, and had knowledge of the area.

The landscape was critical to the outcome of the battle. The River Forth twists and turns through the marshy plain between Stirling Castle and Abbey Craig. At the place where the English were, was a wooden bridge, the safest crossing for men and horses because the river became wider to the east of the bridge, and the marshland of Flanders Moss lay on the west. But the bridge was narrow, and cavalry could cross only two abreast. With a force of about two thousand cavalry, crossing would take hours.

Sir Richard offered to lead a cavalry force to ford the river two miles upstream where sixty horsemen could cross at one time, and attack the flank of the Scots, but Cressingham, King Richard’s treasurer in Scotland, persuaded Surrey to cross the bridge and make a direct attack.

Wallace and Murray waited on Abbey Craig as the English cavalry began crossing the bridge. When as many as they thought their force could overwhelm had crossed, they swooped down on them. The English were caught on three sides by the twisty River Forth and were not able to retreat back across the bridge. They were killed.

That Stirling Bridge no longer exists – only the supports remain, now covered by the river. There is a newer bridge, c. 1500, that carries foot and bicycle traffic a few hundred yards from the remains of the original Stirling Bridge.

The Earl of Surrey still had thousands of archers and, not having crossed the bridge, was in a fairly strong position, but he had lost his nerve. He retreated quickly, abandoning the garrison remaining in Stirling Castle to fend for themselves, and headed south to Berwick, in England.

Murray was alive at the battle’s end, but was mortally wounded. He hung on for a few months, dying in November of that year. Wallace was made Guardian of Scotland and commander of its army. Wallace and the army raided as far south as Durham, England, keeping the border area on edge. Edward was already planning a new invasion.

Wallace’s fortunes changed after that. He led the his army into battle at Falkirk in 1298 and the Scots were defeated by Edward I. Historians, with the benefit of hindsight, conclude that Wallace was a charismatic man and a popular leader, but that Murray had been the military strategist. Wallace resigned as Guardian. He was still very popular with the people, however, and therefore Edward I considered him a threat.

In the next few years, not much is known of Wallace, except that he went to France, possibly to gather French support for Scotland’s rebellion. When he returned to Scotland, he was captured – some say by treachery – by Sir John de Menteith, Keeper of Dunbarton Castle, in 1305 at Robroyston. Menteith sent Wallace to England in chains, where he ultimately was executed in a most grisly manner.

On the road, leaving Cambuskenneth to walk to Abbey Craig. “Craig” is a variation of “crag,” a rocky bluff made of quartz-dolerite exposed by erosion, with a “tail” formed by glacial shaping. In the photo, the craig is on the left, where you can see the Wallace Monument reaching up toward the clouds, and the tail slopes to the right.

Leaving Cambuskenneth, heading for Abbey Craig, I was walking on Ladysneuk Road, long and straight across the fields between. About halfway across, someone had thoughtfully placed a bench. There was a break in the foliage between the road and the River Forth, and across the river, up on the hill was Stirling Castle. In the distance, in the sunlight, it looked rather pink to me. I have been learning that castles were once more colorful than we thought – monarchs and rich nobles would put a smooth finish on the walls of their palaces, and paint them, often in bright colors, rather than maintaining the stone gray that we usually associate with castles.

Stirling Castle. The light colored walls are the walls of the palace within the castle.

It was a long walk and the day got warmer. The road turned to the left, and the way to Abbey Craig went through a newer part of Stirling with traffic, including the local buses passing me as I walked, now on a sidewalk.

I stopped to admire a garden (and take a short break.) There was a waist-high stone wall between me and the garden, and the garden’s owner was busy weeding and hoeing. “Great-looking garden,” I said, and it was – lovely beds growing flowers and vegetables, although being August, the vegetables were slowing down some. He thanked me, and stopped to chat for a few minutes. These are the moments in travel that I love best – the chance to meet the residents of the places I visit. We talked about the weather, the path up to the monument, and the cost of real estate around Stirling. He is a retired postmaster, and he allowed as how he was glad he inherited the house and land from his mother because land is expensive in Stirling, and Scotland as a whole.

There was more hill to climb, and the path turned upward, through an alley that ran between the houses, a direct path from the village street I left to the more rural road a couple of tiers up the hill.

From there, there was sidewalk again that passed by someone’s estate with a gorgeous view across the valley and big iron gates across the car access road. This stretch was all up hill, and I was relieved when I finally saw the sign indicating the entrance to the park surrounding the monument itself.

This was actually the beginning of the “Wallace Way,” the path from the visitors’ center to the monument at the top of Abbey Craig, so there was still more hill to climb. The Historical Scotland people had placed signs and statues along the way with information about the monument and Scotland generally as visitors make their way through the woods and up the hill – a nice, educational effort, but I think they did it to help people get to the top.

Yes, Robert Burns is found even at the Wallace Monument! There was, not much further, a bust of Robert the Bruce, too.

At the end of the Ice Age, the Forth Valley was under water. It seems impossible as you walk up the hill, but Abbey Craig with its 300 metres of height was one of the few areas of land above the ancient high sea level. Whale bones were washed up on the prehistoric shoreline, and discovered just below Abbey Craig.

By 3800 BC, the people were farming here. There is evidence of tree clearing to enable growing wheat and barley, and evidence of domesticated animals for meat, milk, wool, and leather. People were building permanent homes, burial mounds, and stone circles. They were still hunters and gatherers, but they spent most of their time with their farms.

The first fort on Abbey Craig dates from 500 AD. Stirling, over the centuries, has been invaded by Romans, Picts, and Vikings. It had the fortune (or misfortune) to be the only safe place to cross between north and south Scotland because of the terrain. It was always considered the “gateway” to the Highlands and northern Scotland. The original fort was destroyed by fire around 700 AD, a fire so intense that the heat fused the rock together, making a “vitrified” fort. The fort was re-fortified around 900 AD to fend off the Vikings.

Blind Harry’s epic poem about Sir William Wallace was popular entertainment for the court of James III of Scotland, and when it was revived in the 1800s, as Queen Victoria’s affection for Scotland was taking root, the epic found a receptive audience again for the romanticised Scot hero. In 1859, a competition was held to design a suitable permanent monument for Sir William. The winner, chosen from among seventy-six entries, was a design featuring a crown spire, turrets, and gun loops traditionally found in Scottish castles and other ancient structures, done in the “Scottish Baronial” style.

The Duke of Atholl laid the foundation stone on June 24, 1861, and the monument was built over the next eight years. The stone was quarried on site. Moving stone from another place would have been difficult – it would have to be hauled up the 300 foot hill. As it was, a small railroad track was laid for the workmen to move material and equipment up and down the hill.

In 1869, the monument, 220 feet (67 metres) tall, with 246 steps, was completed at a cost of 18,000 pounds, more than twice the original estimate (some things don’t change.)

The Wallace Monument as approached from the “Wallace Way” path.
From the observation terrace. The building is large, and the area around it, while very adequate, is not large.
The building was closed due to the pandemic and the need for distancing.

Inside, there is a “Hall of Heroes,” organized in 1886. The first two busts in the gallery were, of course, Robert the Bruce, donated by the Marquess of Bute, and Robert Burns, donated by Andrew Carnegie, the U.S. steel magnate. By 1907, there were sixteen individuals memorialized altogether. I don’t know who the others were or if any more were added after that because the Memorial building was closed – pandemic, you know.

Sir William wielding his sword.
It’s easy to see why it was a preferred position for a fort – the view is broad and spectacular. Looking west.
If you can enlarge the photo, in the distant center you will see the village of Cambuskenneth and the bell tower of the abbey. The road leaving the village, coming towards the monument is Ladysneuk, the road I walked on. Looking south. Because Abbey Craig is so steep at this part, you can’t see the part of Stirling that I walked through at this end of Ladysneuk Road.

It’s easy to see why this was considered a high value military position – you can see out across the valley. There are thick woods growing on the tail portion of Abbey Craig, which would have hindered any organized army of archers and cavalry from approaching.

I was glad that I live in a time when this is a recreational walk and not a matter of choosing sides. Wallace fought in an era when, as someone said, life was “brutish and short,” and it didn’t even seem to matter whether one was a commoner or a royal.

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