As a history geek, I got pretty excited about Mary Queen of Scots hitting the big screen.
The film stars Saoirse Ronan as the legendary Scottish Queen, and Margot Robbie as her English cousin, Queen Elizabeth I. It certainly captures the turbulent drama of Mary’s life, although is littered with historical inaccuracies (a glaring one: Mary never actually met Elizabeth!).
Despite numerous attempts to recreate Mary’s tragic life on the silver screen, the true story is certainly stranger than fiction, and there’s no substitute to actually visiting the fascinating sites associated with her life.
Join me on a journey through Scotland in the footsteps of Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots …
Set beside the picturesque Linlithgow Loch, just a short journey from Scotland’s capital city of Edinburgh, Linlithgow Palace was built by the Stuart monarchs and gradually expanded over 200 years. Its location also made it a convenient stopping place on the journey between Edinburgh and Stirling Castles, and it became a favoured royal retreat.
On the 8th December 1542, it also became the birthplace of Mary, Queen of Scots, and was to remain her home for the first 9 months of her life. Now a magnificent ruin cared for by Historic Scotland, you can wander through the great hall or the grounds and imagine them bustling with medieval knights and ladies.
The fortified Stirling Castle has played a part in many important events in Scottish history: the Battle of Stirling Bridge, the Battle of Bannockburn, and in 1543, the coronation of the infant Queen Mary, aged just 9 months.
The Stuart kings had wasted no expense in updating Stirling Castle in line with the Renaissance style of the time. Recently restored by Historic Scotland, you can admire the ornate decorations, marvel at the Great Hall (the largest medieval banqueting hall ever built in Scotland), and have a taste of life at the Stuart royal court.
My Stirling Castle fun fact: the bright yellow colour of the Great Hall exterior wasn’t a blunder. It actually now looks almost exactly like it would have done in the 1500s when the ‘King’s Gold’ colour was designed to be visible for miles around and display the wealth and power of the Scottish crown.
Just a short drive from Stirling is Inchmahome Priory, which sits on a small island on the Lake of Menteith. The sole building nestled amongst towering forest, Mary was taken there aged 4 as the Priory provided the perfect place of safety during the impending threat of English attack. A visit to the Priory affords the perfect opportunity to experience the solitude she might have felt, and if you’re really quiet, indulge in a bit of wildlife spotting.
Offering one of the most unique ways of getting to a historic site, Inchmahome Priory is accessed by a passenger ferry from the Port of Menteith. It sails on demand, so if the ferry isn’t waiting at the pier, turn the wooden board so its white side faces the island. This signals to the ferry staff that you wish to make the crossing. Pretty cool, right?
You may be more likely to recognise the town of Falkland in Fife for its use in Outlander than its connection with Mary, Queen of Scots, but Falkland is also home to one of Scotland’s finest Renaissance palaces – Falkland Palace – which was a favourite residence of Mary. She visited frequently on her return to Scotland from France, and enjoyed hunting and hawking in the woods and park which encircle the Palace. It’s said she even played a spot of tennis on the oldest tennis court in Britain, built in 1539 and which you can still see today.
Our self-guided Outlander Tour features an overnight stay in Falkland and offers a great chance to explore the Palace and its stunning grounds at your own pace.
The image of Edinburgh Castle silhouetted against darkening winter skies is imprinted in my memory from years of bus journeys from the north to the south side of the city for school. Having recently returned to my hometown, my fascination with “The Castle” remains, and I can often be found wandering through it of an afternoon, being a tourist in my own city.
For Mary, Queen of Scots, it was the birthplace of her son James, who was to become James VI of Scotland and I of England. The Castle’s changed quite a bit since Mary’s time, but you’ll still get a sense of what life might have been like to live there in the 1500s. With a variety of exhibitions and plenty of passages and towers to explore, make sure you give yourself enough time to visit.
There are fantastic views of Edinburgh from the battlements, and you might even be able to see up to the Highlands on a clear day. It gets pretty busy around one o’clock when the aptly named ‘one o’clock gun’ is fired, so my insider tip is to head to Princes Street Gardens, just below the Castle, to watch the gun going off. You can eat your lunch in the green city centre oasis with a unique view of the spectacle.
Known as “Edinburgh’s other castle”, Craigmillar Castle has withstood the test of time, and you can still explore the entirety of its 17 metre tall tower house where Mary is rumoured to have slept when she stayed there. Situated only a short distance from the medieval city walls which represented the boundary between city and country, Craigmillar Castle provided a point of refuge for Mary when she fled Edinburgh following the murder of her secretary, David Rizzio.
Rizzio’s grave can be found in Edinburgh’s Canongate Kirkyard.
Our final stop is another island castle: Lochleven Castle in Kinross. The tower house was built in the 1300s and Mary, Queen of Scots was a prisoner there in 1567. She spent nearly a year there before being forced to abdicate in favour of her son, James VI. Although Mary escaped to England and the protection of her cousin, Elizabeth I, she was never to return to Scotland and was eventually sentenced to death by Elizabeth. They do say you can’t choose your family!
Journey to the island by passenger boat and enjoy having freedom to roam. On a clear day, you’ll be treated to views across to the Lomond Hills, and in the summer months, the scent of wildflowers fills the air.
Are you feeling inspired to follow in Mary’s footsteps on an unforgettable journey through Scotland? Absolute Escapes offer tailor-made self-drive holidays where you can explore our magnificent country at your own pace.
Why not check out our Historic Scotland itinerary which takes you to Edinburgh and Stirling, or lace up your walking boots and enjoy a self-guided walking holiday on the John Muir Way, which ventures through Linlithgow and Edinburgh.