When I started writing this blog post of my recent visit to Linlithgow Palace, I paused to wonder why it was a “palace” and not a “castle”. What is the difference? Google to the rescue! According to this post, castles’ main objective was to be a fortification in preparation for battle, whereas palaces were purpose built to be lavish royal residences. Linlithgow Palace, though looking like a castle, fits the bill of a palace nicely. The first informative board you meet describes Linlithgow as a place for “pleasurable pursuits” and the birthplace of Mary Queen of Scots. So the palace moniker certainly applies.
The palace was built in the place of an older fort in 1420s by King James I (of Scotland), as a convenient stop over spot between Stirling and Edinburgh. Today the 33 km distance could be driven in 45 minutes but in the 15th century it would have taken a full day. The royal household would travel with carriages and wagons whose top speed was perhaps 6 km per hour (yes, that’s about walking speed), and possibly rest during the nights with honored subjects along the way. Like many of the Scottish palaces and castles, it fell into disuse in the early 17th century when King James VI and I (of Scotland and England) moved his court to London after the death of Queen Elizabeth I. The palace became a ruin a century later after a fire gutted it.
The palace is the main attraction in Linlithgow, which itself is a nice historic town which I must someday go back and explore better. The Linlithgow Burgh Hall just before the palace as you walk there from the train station (on the left in the picture on the right) is also worth a look. It dates back to early 17th century and features a cafe and occasional exhibitions. I didn’t have time for it on this visit as it was already 2:30 pm and the sun would be setting in an hour and half. Nights fall early in Scotland this time of year!
Why was I there so late in the day, you ask? My journey to Linlithgow wasn’t as straightforward as hopping on the direct train to Linlithgow in Edinburgh Waverly station, which it could be. You see, I was actually going to Blackness castle that day, and I eventually made it there by 1:30 pm (despite a mix up of buses) but the castle was closed for preparations to film Outlaw King there the following week. I will have more to say on Blackness and the movie in a later post. After my disappointment, my options to get back to Edinburgh were to wait an hour for the next direct minibus to Edinburgh, take bus 49 to Boness and a bus to Edinburgh from there, or take that bus to the other direction, to Linlithgow and take the train to Edinburgh from there. As Linlithgow Palace was also on my list of places to visit, and having just been recommended by the production crew I met at Blackness Castle, I took the bus to Linlithgow, which happily was due in just a few minutes. This bus fare was covered by the Edinburgh bus day pass that I had bought that morning.
I was at the palace eventually around 2:30 pm and knowing I would have limited time, I thus passed by the magnificent St Michael’s Parish Church, which might also be only open for visitors during summer time. See, plenty of reasons to go back! As I have the Historic Scotland membership card, I can visit the palace as often as I want. And I’m sure I say this of every castle, but Linlithgow just might be my favorite. It’s a palace, yes I know *hand waves*. The entrance is a magnificent gate decorated with the emblems of the four chivalrous orders (the Garter, the golden fleece, St Michael and Thistle), which is the only part of the castle with any color to it.
The plan of the castle is quite square, with buildings on all four sides around an open courtyard in the middle. One side has the Royal Apartments, another the chapel and anteroom, another the Great Hall and the fourth, the northern side, the banqueting hall. Alas, the north side was closed for essential repairs and was not accessible on the upper floors, but the ground floor rooms were open to visit. Each corner of the courtyard holds a surprisingly wide spiral staircase, ending in a vaulted ceiling and a doorway open to the battlements (parapets? crenellations?) at the top of the castle.
There was no handy floor plan provided at the ticket office, but one might be included in the guide booklet available to purchase. Given how many historical buildings I have already seen and will probably visit in future, I stopped buying these guide booklets a long time ago. Interesting though they may be, I just don’t have the space for lots more of them. I found a floor plan online (see sources section) which helped in making sense of it afterwards, and there were helpful information boards at the palace that identified the rooms you were standing in. You know it’s interesting how visiting these castles and palaces that have fallen into ruin gives you a false perception of how miserable the medieval existence was, even for royals. What we see is just bare rock walls, roofless halls, and open windows without panes.
But back then, the walls would have been painted, plastered and hung with tapestries, there would have been torches on every wall and a roaring fire in the numerous fireplaces. And the dresses of the day had several layers, designed for warmth and ease of washing. You only stripped and changed the undershirt, which would have protected your more delicate over garments. Kilts only appeared about a century later, so however tempting it is to picture men wandering the halls in their colorful tartans, alas it was not so.
As I had no plan of the palace, I picked a staircase in random and started exploring. It felt like a maze, again, with rooms leading to more rooms, closets, privies, other staircases and around and around. I first happened on the anteroom and the chapel, then the Great Hall, now roofless but with an enormous fireplace and a huge picture window in one corner, flanked on one side by a gallery on an upper floor (above). The palace now has a charming airiness to it, as you can see across the open courtyard to the other side and beyond from the many windows bringing in light from both through the outer wall and the wall to the inner courtyard. Some narrow passages ended in tiny rooms that the floor plan refers to as private rooms, some of them with what I’m sure some were adjoining privies. The Royal Apartments were a series of rooms as they so often are, with greater intimacy the further in you were allowed. The King’s apartments were on the first floor, but the Queen’s apartments above them were now a floor-less and roofless space above the King’s, adding to the permeability of the castle. It would have felt cosier and perhaps more claustrophobic back then, with its narrow passages, stairs, existing ceilings and a fraction of the light we have for our explorations today.
At one point I I found myself climbing a staircase which eventually led to the highest tower of the castle behind a mother with her children who they kept counting the steps. I stopped to take photos on the way and when I got to the top I asked them how many stairs it was. Answer: 123. Imagine walking those steps up and down, around and back up again, over and over all day. No wonder they fit into their corsets! It was worth the climb with fabulous views over the castle, the nearby parish church and Linlithgow Loch. The tower is called Queen Margaret’s Bower and legend has it that she waited in vain at the small room up there for her husband to return from the Flodden Field in 1513.
The filming of Outlaw King took place at the palace in August of this year, and it will be interesting to see what role it plays in the movie. I can’t find any confirmation online whether Robert actually ever visited Linlithgow, even though his troops seem to have captured the fort from the English in 1310. The current palace was only built a hundred years later. The palace was also used in the Outlander series, where it stood for Wentworth Prison where the main hero Jamie Fraser suffered a great deal. I tried to look for a screen print from the show that would be a dead give away, but frankly, one narrow castle corridor, dressed to look like a prison looks much like another. Scotland is full of fascinating and picturesque castles and it’s fun to see both these productions (and others) going to the same ones, especially now that I live in Edinburgh and can easily visit many of them. These castles must be such heaven sent for the movie and TV productions, as they are close enough to Edinburgh that they have easy access and plenty of choice for accommodation for the crew and stars. Seeing as how I keep stumbling on the filming locations, I have added tabs on the right for these two shows. Enjoy!