Siol nan Gaidheal
Most visitors to Stirling know the main visitor attractions – Bannockburn, the Wallace Monument and the Castle. Many go and see all three, as they are all easily reached within the space of a day’s visit. But the majority of visitors miss out on what is actually one of the most interesting places in Stirling’s history, Cambuskenneth Abbey, a site which was heavily involved in the wars against foreign invasion.
It isn’t too hard to find, either. From the small roundabout at the foot of Abbey Craig, where the road runs up the hill to the Wallace Monument, head east instead on the A907 for a few hundred yards until you see the sign for the Abbey. Follow this small road across the railway line and keep going, and soon you will see the bell tower ahead of you. Be careful where you park as there isn’t a lot of room, it lies at the edge of a small housing scheme.
Founded by King David I in 1147, and run by the Augustinian Order, this was the site of King Robert the Bruce’s parliament in 1326, as well as being the burial place of King James III following his death at Sauchieburn. But there’s a lot more to it than that. Despite the fact that the bell tower is the only building left standing, there are extensive ruined foundations and a number of information boards which show you the original layout.
The bell tower is fascinating. From outside, look up and chuckle at the gargoyles carved under the uppermost parapet. No doubt some of these faces were modelled on people the stone masons knew! If the door is open, enter and sit in one of the stone seats around the perimeter of the square building. Many famous people have sat there before you – Sir William Wallace, Andrew de Moray, King Robert the Bruce, Sir James Douglas, Sir Thomas Randolph – and many others. This is where preparations were made for both the Battle of Stirling Bridge and the Battle of Bannockburn – in those days the church was more actively involved in the fight for Independence than it has been for many centuries now.
Very occasionally, the upper floors are open to the public, and if you get the chance then go along. In the next chamber upstairs is an old log boat reclaimed from the river many years ago. This may date back as far as the Iron Age. There are many pieces of carved stone which once adorned the now long-gone buildings around. And once you reach the top and look out over the parapet, the view is absolutely amazing.
Outside in the ruins and foundations, there are a number of things to look at including the tomb of James III, restored in Victorian times – quite a fancy memorial to an essentially weak king. But the most important relic is probably missed by the vast majority of those who do visit, simply because it is not signposted, and if you don’t know where it is – and what it represents – you will undoubtedly walk right over it. And this is where the story descends into local legend…
Wallace’s uncle (his mother’s brother) was the priest of Dunipace, a village a few short miles from Stirling. He undoubtedly knew the monks of Cambuskenneth well, and would have been a frequent visitor. Following Wallace’s judicial murder in London, his head was spiked on London Bridge, and the 4 quarters of his body sent to be displayed in Berwick, Newcastle, St Johnstoun of Perth, and Stirling. His left arm and upper body was nailed to the recently rebuilt Stirling Bridge. The “triple death” he suffered from hanging, drawing and quartering was a vicious invention of the English of the day, designed to prevent resurrection and thus deny the sufferer an afterlife – grim indeed in the days when one’s immortal soul was felt to be the most precious thing one possessed. The monks in Cambuskenneth knew Wallace’s uncle, and may indeed have met Wallace himself during the period of his Stirling Bridge triumph. So they decided that at least one part of Scotland’s hero would receive a decent Christian burial.
The local legend states that the monks crept out of the Abbey one dark night and retrieved Wallace’s remains. These were then buried with due ceremony within the confines of the Abbey, the arm outstretched towards the Abbey Craig, scene of his greatest victory. A small stone, unmarked save for “WW” was placed over the remains, and the monks sworn to secrecy. A nice little story, and one which has been handed down locally for centuries. But is it true?
As you walk around the ruins, head over to the North East corner, near the hedge. Just inside the six-inch high walls, a small oblong stone can be seen, pointing almost NE. It’s about 18” long and maybe 5” wide, with a flared lower (innermost) end on which can faintly be discerned some ancient carving which might once have been “WW”. Stand at the foot of the stone, and look along it - and you will find that you are staring directly at the Abbey Craig… This stone, according to local sources, marks where at least one part of Scotland’s greatest hero lies. And many times when I have visited, I’ve found a single white rose laid on the stone. The local people still remember, and they still pay their respects…
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