The Great Restoration
Stirling, Scotland is the home of Stirling Castle, a truly marvelous place that I love to visit, that sits atop a giant crag, or hill, overlooking the whole town of Stirling. There has been a castle on that hill since the 12th century at least, and maybe before, but the current buildings date from the 15th and 16th centuries.
When we think of medieval castles we usually picture a grand structure, with subdued, dark stone masonry. But when you gaze upon Stirling Castle today from the town below, you will notice that one of the buildings is different from the others. Since 1999, after a decade long restoration effort that altered the building inside and out, the Great Hall of Stirling Castle has been a bright, cheery yellow.
[Artist rendering of the Great Hall with the yellow finish.]
But not everyone in Stirling is happy about that.
[Stirling Castle map.]
When Historic Scotland took over guardianship of Stirling Castle in 1991, they found the Great Hall in an awful state.
The Great Hall was used as barrack accommodation. Turning the one big, fancy room into barracks meant adding floors, altering windows, replacing the ceiling…really changing everything. Once the military left, the place was gutted. And when Peter Buchanan’s team at Historic Scotland took over in 1991 the building was a shell. They were left with a huge question mark as to what they were going to do with it.
[The Argyll and Southerland Highlanders occupied the castle in the 20th century.]
statues of unicorns and lions that sit on the apex of the roof. All of the etchings show these, but they show different numbers of them. So the etchings give an idea of what the castle might have looked like, but as a tool for restoration, they weren’t much use.
[Historic etchings had conflicting details about the chimneys and ridge beasts on the Hall.]
To help figure out where the ridge beasts should be placed on top of the building, they had to figure out the original structure of the roof. Sometime in the 20th century the roof had been completely replaced by the military, but the original hall had a glorious hammer beam roof. A hammer beam roof is a medieval technique that uses wood beams as a network of cantilevers and trusses on the inside to make the roof strong over such a big, wide open room. You can see all the timber when you look up from inside the hall. It’s stunning. It’s a jigsaw puzzle of beautiful triangles that are amazing to behold. Because the stone ridge beasts weighed ¾ of a ton, they could only be placed where the hammer beam roof was strongest. This is as true now as it was 300 years ago.
So the team had a hammer beam roof to construct, but they had no hammer beam roof left. They needed clues in order to get it right.
They found one diagram, a cross section of the hammer beam roof of the Great Hall from 1719, but since there’s only one record, it’s hard to know if it’s completely accurate. Since there was no other information about what the roof looked like, they began researching the surveyors from 1719 who drew the diagram, and found that other diagrams they drew of other castles were very accurate.
[Survey from 1719 showing a cross section of the hammer beam roof.]
Using the one historic document, they built the roof, which determined where the heavy, stone ridge beasts were placed on top. One discovery begat another, and another, and the historic building came into focus.
[The completed hammer beam roof as seen from inside the Great Hall.]
[The south elevation of the Great Hall before the restoration and after.]
The hammer beam roof was completed in 1999. Everyone who sees it, including the Stirlingfolk, seem to agree, it really looks great. So far, no controversy.
It was when they decided to also restore the lime wash finish to the Great Hall that local people began to express their objection.
When Historic Scotland took over the castle, it was completely grey stone. But throughout the castle, in corners and covered sections, they discovered bits of the original lime wash. Lime wash is pure lime (calcium oxide) and it also contains earth-based pigments. It’s a coating that’s meant to protect the stone masonry. In the case of Stirling, they found a significant yellow ochre layer of lime wash. The yellow was very intentional at the time. Hundreds of years ago, the built world was basically grey and brown, but on this giant hill, there was a great yellow piece of ostentatious bling that signaled for miles that this was a place for a king.
[Panels showing samples of the original lime washes.]
“We did huge sample panels of the lime washes all around the building to show people what it might have looked like,” says Peter Buchanan. “And we brought a lot of people from the Stirling area to see this as well. Because what we were intending to do, based on the analysis and the information that we had, was to put the finishes back.”
As a tourist, though, visiting the Great Hall is quite thrilling. I
All images courtesy ofHistoric Scotland. Crown Copyright Historic Scotland.
Special thanks to Peter Buchanan and Barbara Clark for speaking to me about this story. Please forgive me, Ms. Clark, but I like the yellow.