It’s hard to forget the first sight of Linlithgow Palace. Off the ‘merkat’, up cobbled Kirkgate, past St Michael’s, through the outer gateway - and the palace fills your vision. It is massive, literally awesome, so obviously a ruinous shell - and yet there’s a niggling hint of what it once was, or might have been. While you wander round this slightly melancholy building on the shores of Linlithgow Loch, do the ghosts of grand kings and courtiers drift through empty windows and draughty doorways, and glide between guileless guests? There is no suggestion that Linlithgow is haunted – though it may well be for all I know; it is merely that, despite the roofless rooms and algae-covered walls, you might feel it could all, somehow, come bursting back to life. This was the great palace of the Stuart monarchs, birthplace of Mary, Queen of Scots; it could have been – and maybe sometimes was – Scotland’s Hampton Court.
Linlithgow’s roots may lie in prehistory, but we do know it had a royal castle or fortified house during the reign of King David I, in the 12th century. In the 1300s, during the so-called Scottish Wars of Independence, the English King, Edward I, developed a supply base and stronghold on the site. An enormous ditch was excavated across the outcrop it stood on, separating the castle and church from the town. Behind the ditch, the English built a stockade, known as a pel, or peel – the name used today to refer to the parkland around the palace. The Scots captured Linlithgow in 1313 and in the following year decisively defeated the English at the Battle of Bannockburn. Once again, Linlithgow could be a residence for Scottish monarchs. King David II held court there and the Parliament that met at Linlithgow in 1371 elected the first Stuart King, Robert II. Then, in 1424, disaster struck; an enormous fire broke out in the town, engulfing the castle and church.
Linlithgow was possibly disused until Margaret and James’s son, James V (1513-42) came of age. He added the grand gateway and the totally over the top fountain – which, it is said, was filled with red wine on special occasions. His wife, Mary of Guise – mother of Mary, Queen of Scots – pronounced Linlithgow to be the equal of any chateau in her native France. But it was once again largely abandoned by the royals on James’s death. The infant Mary was taken to Stirling Castle for safety by her mother, and only returned to Linlithgow 20 years’ later. Her last stay was in 1567 – the year she was abducted and imprisoned. Her son, James VI, used Linlithgow – but by this time it was in a very poor state of repair. His master of works informed His Majesty that the west range was “altogidder lyk to fall down”. In 1599, the Palace was reported as “a quarter ruinous and the rest necessary to be repaired”. In 1607, the north range collapsed.
By this time, after all the vicissitudes of the Scottish kings, power had shifted south, to England and London. James VI – James I of England – did return to Linlithgow and authorised the building of a fashionable long gallery to replace the fallen north wing, but never saw it completed. The last reining monarch to stay there was his son, Charles I, who spent just one night at the Palace in 1633 following an absolute fortune being spent on its – and the town’s – refurbishment.
Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell resided at Linlithgow during his Scottish campaign (1650-51), his troops camping in the peel. Less than 20 years’ later, the Palace was declared mostly ruinous. Despite that, the Duke of York – later James II – stayed there for a period in 1679.
Deserted and decaying, Linlithgow’s coup de grace was delivered in 1746. Government troops, pursuing Bonnie Prince Charlie and his rebel army, camped there. A fire broke out as they left – it may even have been arson – and the palace sadly and finally met its end.
It seems an inglorious conclusion. The splendour of Linlithgow spanned a relatively short time – just 200 years – but what a place it was! Its somewhat erratic fortunes (and clearly inconsistent maintenance) stemmed from the volatile and unstable nature of Scottish politics. But perhaps it was also a victim of power being centred in London. Maybe, had times been kinder to the Stuart monarchs and had Elizabeth I of England had an heir, there would still be a Royal Palace at Linlithgow to rival anything in Europe.
It is certainly hard to do justice to the magnificent ruins in a few paltry photographs. You can learn more from visiting Linlithgow’s pages at Historic Scotland.