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I’ve been touring historic sites for years and always wonder about how Scotland’s glorious built environment – from tiny churches to epic castles – was conjured up. I wonder too about how our ancient buildings are preserved through a range of traditional skills. With my young family also eager to find out, I set off for a day exploring Stirlingshire, delving beyond the scenes at a brilliant trio of Historic Environment Scotland sites.

The Stirling Tapestries

Our exploration was well-timed as this year has been designated the Year of History, Heritage and Archaeology. As a result there are plenty of opportunities to discover more about some of Scotland’s half a million or so traditionally built buildings. The first stop – we soon learned from our guide – was an apposite one. We’d booked ahead, asking to learn more about the Hunt of the Unicorn series of seven tapestries. The kids and I reckon these are among Stirling Castle’s thrilling highlights.

Tapestry Studio, Stirling Castle

Tapestry Studio, Stirling Castle (c) Robin McKelvie

Rather than head straight for these spectacular wall hangings, we followed our guide down to the workshop where some of the tapestries were so painstakingly woven. The original loom still stands on site and a film shows you this most impressive of traditional skills in action. Through our guide we learned about the multinational nature of the 18 weavers (who hailed from Scotland and England trough to the USA and Japan). The original 16th-century tapestries that inspired the castle’s collection, meanwhile, were commissioned in France, created in the Low Countries and eventually sold to the Rockefeller family. They now hang in The Met Cloisters Museum in Manhattan.

After hearing in intricate detail about the process involved in creating this dramatic re-imagining of the Unicorn tapestries we moved on to the Queen’s Inner Hall where this striking art now hangs. They are even more spectacular when you know some of the story and the sheer skill that went into their creation. We learned how they are constantly monitored to make sure they’re not under too much stress, and about the skills that will be needed in future to keep them in tip-top condition.

Hunt for the Unicorn Tapestries, Stirling Castle

Hunt for the Unicorn Tapestries, Stirling Castle (c) Robin McKelvie

Built Heritage and the Engine Shed

Out next stop was the brand new Engine Shed. This brilliant project opened in Stirling in July 2017 and it really is groundbreaking. As well as being a centre of research, innovation and learning of global significance, the Engine Shed is one of the most appealing hands-on visitor attractions in Scotland.

My girls could have stayed all day! We loved the massive central space that was dominated by the largest map of Scotland I have ever seen. It is no normal map either. Grab one of their iPads and augmented reality brings it alive. iPad in hand you can travel the length and breadth of the country effortlessly learning about historic sites across Scotland. My girls loved the lasers and Minecraft stations too, but enjoyed creating buildings and inventing with good old LEGO just as much.

Exploring traditional skills at The Engine Shed

Exploring traditional skills at The Engine Shed (c) Robin McKelvie

We also checked out their auditorium. Here we learned more about the Engine Shed and how it puts the traditional skills that it teaches into practices. It was constructed using more traditional methods of heating and insulation to minimise its environmental impact. We also learnt more about the impressive and innovative work being undertaken by Historic Environment Scotland. This includes using sophisticated lasers scanners to digitally record and explore historic sites across the country. Using this data traditional skills can be both improved and better utilised in future conservation and reconstruction work.

Learning about traditional skills at the Engine Shed

Learning about traditional skills at the Engine Shed (c) Robin McKelvie

Traditional Skills and Conservation

Our last stop shifted our focus onto conservation rather than recreation or the recording of building techniques. At Doune Castle we learnt how traditional skills are being employed to ensure that one of Scotland’s most dramatic fortifications is preserved for future generations.

With the continuing success of the Outlander TV series Doune Castle has never been under more pressure as visitor numbers soar. I was impressed that the team here remain undeterred in their task of rolling conservation. This year the focus has been on preserving the interior courtyard, which has meant painstaking repointing the ancient walls stone by stone. Where at all possible every effort is made to keep things exactly as they were. It may be time consuming, but it creates a time capsule that people can continue to enjoy and access.

Robin learning about traditional skills at Doune Castle

Robin learning about traditional skills at Doune Castle (c) Robin McKelvie

Next year the focus at Doune Castle will move to the rugged exterior walls. Selective stone and mortar repairs will be carried out by HES specialist stone masons. This will reinstate full structural stability to the massive curtain wall. A guide showed me the larger blocks that have to be re set in new lime mortar. The sandstone used comes from Stirlingshire quarries, keeping things ultra local and authentic.

If you’re interested in learning more about the traditional skills that helped create the Scotland you see today, and how they are being used in its conservation, then a trip to Stirlingshire will help you delve behind the scenes. What are you waiting for?

Traditional Skills are vital to the conservation of Doune Castle

Traditional Skills are vital to the conservation of Doune Castle (c) Robin McKelvie

Historic Scotland Membership

Historic Scotland’s great value membership gives you free entry to all of their attractions, including Stirling Castle and Doune Castle  (Entrance to the Engine Shed is free). It also gives free entry to hundreds of daytime events and discounts in Historic Scotland shops and cafes. It even gives 20% off one day, weekend and week-long traditional skills courses at the Engine Shed.

Further Information

For more information on the wealth of Historic Scotland attractions visit or their dedicated members pages:


*This blog comes in association with Historic Environment Scotland


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