My hostel was in the Old Town, almost at the top of a rather steep hill, and close by to many of the town’s attractions. I popped into the Church of the Holy Rood quickly one day, on my way to walk the town on the first nice weather day, always meaning to go back with better time and never did. The adjacent cemetery however became one of my favorite spots, as I mentioned, due to a gorgeous view over the castle, the town and the hills beyond. You could even see the William Wallace monument from there.
One of the nearby attractions was the mid-19th century Old Town jail, a rather fun tour of a jail that was way ahead of its time. This new Stirling jail replaced the old jail which was in the Tollbooth building and which was closed down for being outed as the worst jail in Scotland. They tried out new innovative ideas of housing each prisoner in their own room, feeding them good food, providing them with brief fresh air and exercise sessions each day, and generally attempting to reform the prisoners, not just punish them. It was working, too, but then times turned and soon they had 2-4 prisoners in each cell again. Granted, the cells were bigger than anything I had seen in prisons before, e.g. in Alcatraz, or the so-called second bedrooms in some of the flats I have viewed (!), but to have several prisoners in one of the cells must have been awful.
The tour was provided by an actor, who performed many roles – warden, prisoner, turnkey – by simply donning a new hat and a jacket and transforming his whole way of talking and moving. It was quite something. The tour took us from the bottom floor all the way to the top of the tower with fabulous views, past the tiny exercise areas, where each prisoner was let out one at a time. The original layout of the prison had a central tower from where each cell could be seen, due to a cleverly designed layout. But when the military took over the prison for their purposes, they closed off corridors and swapped glass for opaque materials, blocking the views and multiplying the amount of guards needed. Oh well.
Keeping in with the jail theme, I found myself at the Bastion and thieves’ pot, a small 16th century jail that once was in the basement of a guard tower in the corner of the old town walls. Today, it’s right in the middle of the Thistles shopping center. There’s a narrow spiral stair case to what used to be the guards’ room, which has a few copies of the Stirling Heads on the walls. The thieves’ pot is a dismal round underground cell, below this level, where the prisoners were kept. The prisoners there would have thought they had died and gone to heaven, if they had been taken to the Old Town jail’s roomy individual cells!
On one of my last days, my wanderings took me down from the castle hill, past cows with enormous horns, to King’s Knot, in the valley below. The Knot is a geometric set of raised grassy platforms that was the royal gardens 400 years ago. The geometric design is best admired from the castle hill, but it is fun to walk around in as well. And the views of the castle are the best from here, as buildings block the line of site from elsewhere in town. On the way down the hill and back up again, I found several wooden carvings tucked under the foliage. There were objects like a postbox and an apple; a judge, prisoner and executioner; and a long one that had a dragon which was of course my favorite.
Finally it was time to move on from Stirling and head to the Loch Lomond national park. Another successful week of exile from Edinburgh!