Stirling

stirlingcastleStirling, ancient capital of Scotland, where Highlands and Lowlands meet, historical heart of this great nation and home to (most of) the Midnight Plumbers. Again, much is written about this town, but this unique guide will tell you what the other guides won’t. You can be sure, dear reader, that the information herein is derived from the bitter experience of bona fide locals.

The town has much to commend it, nestling as it does in the winding coils of the Forth River (a port until the 1960s), a subtle fusion of urban chic and rural idyll. It is dominated by two of Scotland’s most famous landmarks, the ancient castle and the Monument to William Wallace, arguably one of Scotland’s greatest heroes. The Victorians built the monument and any resemblance the structure has to a certain male appendage is purely coincidental. You be the judge.

The town, or city as we must now call it since city status was conferred on Stirling in 2002, lies within easy reach of the stunning countryside of the Trossachs to the north and west and close to the major cities of Glasgow and Edinburgh, short journeys to the south and east respectively – both are just short train rides away. It is the perfect base to explore Scotland’s treasures.

Where To Eat

Eating out in Stirling needs to be done with some care, as is true across most of Scotland, the quality varies, but there are still a few rewarding culinary experiences to be had. Current favourite is L’Angevine, 01786-446277, on Spital Stret. Also recommended are Herman’s restaurant, 01786-450632, on Broad Street and, a little out of town, the River House, 01786-465577, which is excellent for Sunday lunch and gets a particular commendation for child friendliness. One of Stirling’s latest dining hot-spots is the restaurant at the Tolbooth theatre, 01786-274010, it is highly recommended for pre-theatre dining, or just a start point for your night on the town.

For curry-lovers, The East India Company, 01786-471330, on Viewfield Terrace is pretty good, the rather understated entrance belies the cosy wood-panelled atmosphere to be found inside. If you prefer your curry in cheesy décor, head to King Street to the Taj Mahal, 01786-450966. The bar design is reminiscent of India’s great monument of love. The Goan fish is particularly recommended. The local Tex-Mex is Smiling Jacks, 01786-462809, a small place with big portions, starve yourself first.

Scholars restaurant in the Highland Hotel makes it into many of the good food guides and that may be your bag, but your day at the races will need to have been a good one to enjoy this one to the full. The drams are expensive, but their range superb 01786-475444.

Lovers of Chinese cuisine might like to try The Regent, 01786-472513. on Upper Craigs.

Recent additions to Stirling’s gastronomic repertoire include a new, and lauded, Thai restaurant. Wilawan on Baker Street, 01786-464837. Dinner with wine can run to about £30 a head.

A short trip to Bridge of Allan will allow you to sample the fare on offer at Clive Ramsay’s in Henderson Street. Clive has been selling good food for a lot longer than it has been fashionable with his shop in Bridge of Allan winning several awards over the years. He also recently became the food-buyer for Jenners in Edinburgh, a move which has certainly revitalised the epicurean reputation of one of Scotland’s finest independent stores. The recent addition of a Valvona and Crolla-like bistro to the shop in Bridge of Allan has simply cemented his reputation as bon-viveur and restaurateur extraordinaire. The Plumbers can particularly recommned the fresh asparagus ravioli with a sauce vierge.

Something a bit different is the Bouzy Rouge, 01786-823285 (aka the Sherriffmuir Inn) about 5 miles out of town in the Ochil Hills. On a nice night, the views are spectacular and the food is excellent, with contemporary Scottish cuisine a speciality. There are also four bedrooms, why not make a night of it. The nearby moorland was the scene of a battle during the 1715 Jacobite rising. Sea food is a speciality at Chambo in Bridge of Allan, and again comes highly recommended, 01786-833617.

For more traditional sea fare, we particularly recommend the Allan Water Café in Bridge of Allan for fish suppers ? 01786-833060 – cooked to order and completely delicious.

Those after poor quality American-style dining might be tempted by the Filling Station on Port Street, 01786-472820.

One thing Stirling is not short of is cafes and tea shops, the town is peppered with them, from comfy sofa, Sunday papers joints like Bean Scene on King Street to the fine Italian café that is Corrieri’s at Causewayhead. My favourite is 81 Port Street, a lovely wee deli up an alley on Port Street, next to a funeral director, but don’t let that put you off. They have a café at the back, only four tables, but the coffee is great, the bacon sandwiches and home made soups quite excellent and the cakes large and varied.

Where To Drink

Like most Scottish towns, Stirling has Irish bars. It also has a selection of trendy, glass and steel theme bars with knuckle-heads in black guarding the door. Best of these is probably Pivo, which has a selection of continental bottled lagers. Neighbouring Cambio has loud music and vastly overpriced wine. Don’t be put off, there are alternatives. The Hogshead at the top of Friar Street has a good selection of ales and a nice atmosphere for the more mature drinker, where merry banter can be exchanged, without having to shout over Eminem to get your joke heard. This is probably the best pub in town for real ales. Round the corner is the Stirling institution that is the Barnton Bistro, huge high ceilings and very busy at weekends. I’m told that the bar staff used to get people to drink up at closing time by starting and revving their motor-bike engine, filling the place with exhaust fumes. Happily this practice has been discontinued. The Bistro is also where you’ll want to be if you prefer the company of other men. Yes, we all prefer the company of other men, but you know what I mean. Elsewhere in the centre of town, we recommend the Port Customs Bar and (less enthusiastically) Nicky Tams on Baker Street.

Much better drinking is to be found just that bit out of town, the Birds and the Bees, on Easter Cornton Road serves passable food and has the added charm of stuffed sheep for seating, you can even play petanque out the back. A quite different establishment is the Borestone Bar in St. Ninians, which has an unrivalled selection of whiskies.

If pub quizzes are your thing, there are a few regular ones, the Wallace at the top of Causewayhead Road offers a good prize,  The Torbrex Inn (once a haunt of the Midnight Plumbers) has a pretty good quiz on a Wednesday and is a good enough local. Also worth a favourable mention is the Abbey in Cambuskenneth, a very quiet friendly pub, with a pool table.

However, we have reserved the plumbing ‘u-bend’ of delight for the Foresters in the village of Cambusbarron, just south of Stirling. The lounge has a splendid array of tables across three mezzanine levels and a high ornate wooden bar. A reasonable selection of beers, wines by the two-glass bottle and a good selection of whiskies are on offer. They also seem to have a rather agreeable, non-PC, staff recruitment policy. It is also famed as the home of the Thursday quiz, where named teams battle it out for very ordinary prizes. If you fancy the challenge, the Midnight Plumbers will be happy to rise to the occasion, come and have a go if you think you know enough.

Pass marks also go to Hydes, behind the Queens Hotel in Bridge of Allan, not least because of its proximity to the Bridge of Allan Brewery, the local micro-brewery. Also in B of A, the Westerton is pretty good. Students and staff from the nearby university favour the Meadowpark, though it’s lost its edge since it demolished its unique Gaudi-esque beer garden and is in need of a face-lift. It does have two enormous screens for watching the footie, though.

Where To Stay

Fairly obviously, as we live in Stirling, we have not the merest inkling of an iota of a clue where might be a good place to hang your hat for the night. If you’ve got loads of cash from a day at Perth or Hamilton races, you’ll be staying at the Stirling Highland Hotel, 01786-475444, and it serves you right. The Best Western Terraces, 01786-472268 gets a good name (if you are a Rotarian, and if you are, you’re excused) and the Golden Lion, 01786-475351, is in the centre of town and has the added attraction of being where Rabbie Burns wrote some of his poetry. Anything else he might have done while staying there is a matter for debate, but I’ll bet the sheets needed changing.

Something a bit different might be the accommodation on the University campus where, in student vacation periods (which is most of the year, let’s face it), you can rent a room in the halls, 01786-467141. The management centre, also on campus, has a much higher standard of accommodation with fine bars and restaurants, 01786-451666.

The Bouzy Rouge at the Sheriffmuir Inn is also an option, though it has a limited number of rooms, and is well out of town. There are many B&B establishments on Causewayhead Road that will provide reasonably priced comfort, but we recommend the Georgian House B&B on Allan Park, 01786-very close to the centre of town, yet quiet and a fine example of the city’s architectural heritage. The rooms are decorated with the landlady’s own art works.

What To Avoid

Sportsters and any town centre bar after 8pm on a Friday/Saturday night.

Culture

It would be almost derisory to try and summarise the cultural offerings of Stirling in a brief guide like this. The city is central (literally) to Scotland’s history, and is especially associated with the key battles of Stirling Bridge in 1297 (Scotland 1 – 0 England) and Bannockburn in 1314 (Scotland 2 – 0 England). The story of Wallace and the 1297 scrap is told at the National Monument to him, and the view from the top (a fair climb for the over 40s, so Nissan Micra drivers be warned) over to the castle and the carse beyond is splendid. The story of Robert the Bruce’s victory at Bannockburn is told at the visitors centre (National Trust for Scotland), which is off the beaten track a bit, but served by Stirling’s excellent open top bus tour. The castle itself (Historic Scotland run it, as they do Edinburgh Castle) has enough to keep the kids entertained for an afternoon, and of course all the history of the kings and queens of Scotland, note the superbly reconstructed great hall (way bigger than Edinburgh’s, by the way), we suggest you walk up to it via the Back Walk which runs from Corn Exchange Road and is described as Europe’s finest urban walkway (no really, it is). During the summer months, the castle hosts a number of re-enactments of the events of the Jacobite risings, where rough, bearded, ginger-headed, tartan clad coves stand heroically and roll their Rrrrs a great deal. It’s a lot of fun.

Add the legend of Rob Roy MacGregor, whose grave is some 20 miles to the north of the city, and we can offer enough carnage and mayhem to keep the most bellicose American tourists happy for weeks.

Lesser known cultural highlights include Scotland’s oldest football at the Smith Museum. Have a walk through Riverside and over the footbridge to the village of Cambuskenneth, at first quaint but uninspiring, to discover Cambuskenneth Abbey, James III of Scotland and his queen are buried in the grounds.

It’s not all blood and thunder, Scotland’s roll-call of sporting greats would be considerably shorter without Stirling’s contribution. Billy Bremner, the ginger terrier for Leeds and Scotland in the 70s was from the city (maybe we spoke too soon about the blood and thunder?), as was horse-racing legend and Claire Balding’s plaything, Willie Carson. Kenny Logan, one of Scotland’s most capped rugby internationals is also a Son of the Rock.

Lovers of sport are well served, top division rugby union (in 2008/09) from Stirling County at Bridgehaugh, the delights of second  division football at Forthbank, home of Stirling Albion, even cricket at the new cricket ground near Forthbank stadium.

If industrial heritage is your thing, then Stirling has a particular boast. As you look over the town from the Wallace monment, what is now a housing estate was once a small engineering works off Causewayhead Road. It was from here that the Barnwell brothers made the first powered flight in Scotland. The fact is commemorated by a small (and rather bizarre)  statue at the roundabout at the top of Causewayhead Road

If you are into walking, you have the agony of choice: the Ochils to the East, the Campsies and Loch Lomond to the West and the Trossachs to the north. However, on a warm Sunday afternoon, take the drive to the Port of Mentieth (15 miles west, on the road to Aberfoyle) and take the boat out to Inchmaholme Priory on the Lake of Mentieth, Scotland’s only lake. An oasis of calm and tranquillity. Nowhere else quite like it in Scotland.

In a city of this size, it is unusual to find two major arts venues: the Tolbooth at the top of the town, towards the castle has recently undergone a major refurbishment and hosts music, theatre and comedy events. It also has an excellent café bar (though the scones kept out of sight, you have to ask) and it?s worth taking the walk to the top floor for the view from the roof terrace. The university campus has the newly reopened MacRobert arts centre which has a full programme of theatrical performances and a film house. And, yes, the ubiquitous café bar. Passable lunches of (salads, panini etc.).

Getting There

Stirling is right in the middle of the central belt of Scotland. The city is almost equidistant from Glasgow (35 miles) and Edinburgh (30 miles). Well connected to these cities via the M9/M80 motorways and to the north by the A9. By rail, Stirling station is 30 minutes from Glasgow, 50 minutes from Edinburgh, with trains running twice an hour to both cities well into the evening. We are 30 minutes from Perth, 2 hours from Aberdeen and, via Edinburgh, 5 hours from London. It is just over 30 minutes drive from Edinburgh airport, and just over an hours drive from Glasgow’s International Airport. We are very well connected.

Getting To The Course

Racing can be had just outside Stirling at Corbiewood stadium in Bannockburn, where greyhound racing is held, as well as trotting racing most Thursdays in the summer months. The stadium lies on the main ring road and is best reached by car, a taxi from the centre of Stirling would be between £5 and £10.

Harness racing is quite a sight for the uninitiated. Jockeys tend to be older (and larger) than your average and one has to respect the bravery of someone who is prepared to start a race behind a speeding car and career round a track at high speed less than six feet from a horse?s bottom. Sudden braking cannot be contemplated.

About The Course

Epsom it ain’t, but the stadium has a small covered area beside the finish line and a sizeable bar, right alongside the track. The track itself is a red ash surface, with the dog track within this outer ring. Entrance fee is £6 with a programme.

Events are modest in stature, with only a few bookies prepared to take your money. Odds tend to be short, with maximum fields of around 5-6 traps. Our visit netted a few quid, but gambling on odd-on favourites has limited appeal.

You won?t find to many Barbour-jackets here, more baseball caps than Fedoras, more Buckfast than Bollinger, and the best dressed lady competition would be a struggle for the most generous of judges.

One feature of the course is its unique backdrop. From the stand, a spectacular vista from the castle across the Ochil Hills provides quite a view on a balmy summer’s evening. And if you can trouser a few quid into the bargain, it’s all good.

A higher standard of racing can be found at Hamilton Racecourse, about 40 minutes south or at Perth, 40 minutes north. Your Racing Post will be more useful to you there.

What To Wear

In town on a Saturday, you’ll need your GAP hoodie to blend in. In the summer, you could wear a kilt to impress the tourists, but the locals would assume you are American, or from Edinburgh. If the weather dictates your wardrobe, then you’ll need rainwear from October to around April. You’ll also need it from May to September, but may get away with wearing it less frequently. At Corbiewood, dress down, and a tattoo or two will help. If you are a girl, then some form of undergarment designed to give maximum cleavage is a must, your man’ll need somewhere to store the tenners.

The Plumber

The Travel Guide recommends: Stirling Plumbers have, in general, proved to be an unreliable, unpredictable bunch of arrogant knuckleheads. Just hope nothing goes wrong with the old waterworks and get out the Yellow Pages.

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