Birthplace of Mary Queen of Scots in 1542
What remains of Linlithgow Palace, once one of Scotland’s grandest royal residences, lies in the small town of Linlithgow, 15 miles west of Edinburgh.
Today as you explore within its ancient walls and walk through what remains of the Great Hall, bedchambers and royal reception rooms it’s not difficult to picture the kings and queens who once passed this way, a who’s who of the people that shaped Scotland’s history.
Quick facts about Linlithgow Palace
- Linlithgow Palace is a Historic Environment Scotland property.
- In 1424, James I began work on the Palace after a fire that severely damaged the earlier residence.
- James V was born in the Palace in 1512.
- Mary Queen of Scots was born in the Palace in 1542.
- By 1583, parts of the building were in a ruinous state
- In 1745, Bonnie Prince Charlie stayed – the courtyard fountain ran red with wine to celebrate his visit.
- The name Linlithgow means “the loch in a damp hollow” and indeed the palace overlooks a small loch once “swimming full of fine perch and other notable fish.”
History of Linlithgow Palace
Historical records show that in 1143, during the reign of David I, the Canons of Holyrood Abbey in Edinburgh were granted skins from the cattle and sheep that grazed at the house, which later became Linlithgow Palace.
It was 1302, during the long years of the Wars of Independence when England’s King Edward I (the Hammer of the Scots) arrived at Linlithgow and immediately saw the strategic advantage of strengthening the building.
Edward entrusted the work to one of Europe’s most experienced architects. He was Master James of St George, already with an impressive record of building some of the great castles of Wales: Conwy, Harlech and Caernarfon.
In order to isolate the residence and church from the town a ditch was dug across the promontory and behind that they constructed a ‘pele’ a stockade of tree trunks (from the Old French pel meaning stake) a similar structure was also built on the side facing the loch.
The work was finally completed at the end of 1303, making it an important supply base for the assault on Stirling Castle in 1304. It remained in English hands for the next ten years. In the end the garrison fell to Robert the Bruce after his great victory at Bannockburn.
Great Fire in Linlithgow
In 1425, a great fire swept through Linlithgow destroying much of the town, castle and church leaving reigning monarch James I (1406-37) with a monumental task in order to rebuild it.
Undaunted he set about the work with gusto allocating over £5000 to build a ‘Pleasure Palace’ which would leave his subjects “gazing open mouthed in admiration.”
Although no conclusive documentation remains to tell us about the building work it’s thought James was responsible for the East Range and its Great Hall along with kitchens and royal residences.
His murder in Perth in 1437 brought building work to a halt. It was estimated he had spent over £7000, a huge sum which represented around a tenth of the king’s income. He was succeeded by his young son James II (1437-60) who had little interest in continuing his father’s work.
In 1461, the Palace had an unexpected guest when it became a temporary refuge to fugitive English king Henry VI.
More renovations, in the continental style, were done by James V (1513-42) born at Linlithgow and still an infant when his father was killed at Flodden.
The windows in the Great Hall were re glazed along with a new wooden ceiling in the Chapel, extensive re painting throughout the Palace and a grand new fountain in the courtyard.
His French wife Mary of Guise declared it a “very fair place as fine as any chateau in France.”
Battle of Solway Moss
James like most of his forefathers was often at war with his southern neighbours and in 1542 his army under the leadership of his favourite Oliver Sinclair was routed at Solway Moss.
It was a devastating blow to the Scot’s king and in a state of some mental anguish he went first to Edinburgh, then to the Hallyards, the Fife home of Sir William Kirkcaldy. In a conversation with Kirkcaldy’s wife he told her he would be dead in 15 days. “On Yule day, you will be masterless and the realm without a king.”
Linlithgow Palace and St Michael’s Church
Leaving Hallyards he went briefly to Linlithgow to see his wife Mary who was in the final stages of labour and then to Falkland Palace where he seemed to suffer a complete mental collapse.
When a messenger arrived from Linlithgow to tell him he had a daughter he said simply, “Adieu, fare well, it came with a lass, it will pass with a lass” referring to the marriage of Marjory Bruce and Walter Stewart which had founded the Stewart royal dynasty.
Six days later at the age of 30 he died. (James’s prediction was right in one sense; the Stewart dynast did end with lass but not until the death of Queen Anne in 1714).
Mary Queen of Scots
James’s lass was Mary Queen of Scots who spent the first seven months of her life in the royal nursery at Linlithgow Palace before being sent to the relative safety of Stirling Castle. It was twenty years before she returned.
If life and the politics of the time had been kinder to Mary perhaps she would have spent more time in a place that her mother loved.
Her son (James VI, 1566 –1625) would also spend little time at the Palace particularly after the Union of the Crowns in 1603 when the Scottish royal court moved to London.
By 1583, parts of the building were in a perilous state prompting a report from master of works Robert Drummond that the West Range of the Palace was “altogidder lyk to fall down.”
However it wasn’t until 1607 when the inevitable happened. The Palace keeper reported that “This sext of September, betwixt thre and four in the morning, the north quarter of your Majesties Palace of Linlythgw is fallen, rufe and all…”
James finally returned in 1617, to the place of his birth, and gave instructions that the North Range be rebuilt.
Charles I at Linlithgow
Over the next two centuries the Palace played host to a number of visitors. Charles I (1625-49) arrived at Linlithgow in 1633 after a small fortune was spent in preparation for his visit.
In the town the middens and beggars were cleared from the streets and the magistrates bought themselves new robes in preparation for the visit.
Within two decades the rise of Oliver Cromwell had changed the political map of England and Scotland beyond recognition. Charles had been defeated in the first of the English Civil Wars (1642-45) but remained defiant provoking a second civil war (1648-49.
It was the Scot’s refusal to recognise Cromwell’s republic and instead declaring Charles’s son to be their king that brought Cromwell and his roundheads to Linlithgow.
Battle of Dunbar
After an overwhelming victory over the Scots at Dunbar, he lodged at the Palace while his men camped on the peel and his cavalry and their horses were quartered in nearby St Michaels Church.
Little further work was done at Linlithgow and was described in 1668 as formely “werie magnificent” but now for the most part ruinous.”
Prince Charles Edward Stewart was the last of a long line of Stewarts to stay. When he arrived on September 15 1745, the ornate fountain in the courtyard ran with red wine in his honour. His visit however was brief and he left with an English army not far behind him.
Battle of Culloden
It was only a few short months later that the Prince was defeated at Culloden the last battle ever fought on British soil. But Cumberland’s soldiers had been careless and a fire took hold in the North Range and the building was soon engulfed in flames. Since that day the palace has remained uninhabited.
Visiting Linlithgow Palace
Mary of Guise, mother of Mary Queen of Scots called Linlithgow Palace a “very fair place as fine as any chateau in France.” Today although mostly ruined it is such an evocative place and well worth the short journey from Edinburgh. Remember if you’re a visitor to Scotland you may never be back again. It would be a shame to miss the opportunity
Some of the highlights are:
- Great Hall built for James I.
- Magnificent courtyard fountain added by James V in 1538.
- Queen Margaret Bower where according to tradition Margaret Tudor queen to James IV watched forlornly for the return of her husband from the Battle of Flodden in 1513.
- Some of the Palace areas were used to represent the infamous Wentworth Prison in the Outlander series.
How to get to Linlithgow Palace
If you’re not driving the best and quickest way is by train. The journey from Waverley Station, in the centre of Edinburgh, takes around 20 minutes. The bus journey, while less expensive takes, around an hour.
Historic Environment Scotland – Visitor Information Linlithgow Palace