450 years on, a focal point in Scottish history is undergoing refurbishment. Su Clark reports
Coming through the tall gate, the children crowd together in the centre of the large courtyard and gaze up, following the pointing finger of education officer Kirsten Wood, to where a worn but still distinct sculpture clings to the wall. Binoculars are passed round for a closer view.
The sculpture is of King James V, father of Mary, Queen of Scots, dressed as the Goodman of Ballengeich, a village not far from where the children stand. He commissioned the Renaissance palace, which would declare to his subjects and foreigners that he was a major player in the international scene and a modern, sophisticated monarch. Aged 26 when building began in 1538, he would be dead before it was complete.
Now, more than 450 years later, the castle is still a magnificent monument, the second most-visited Historic Scotland site after Edinburgh Castle. More than 20,000 pupils make the pilgrimage to where, it seems, much of Scottish history is concentrated. From the esplanade, visitors gaze over at the Wallace monument or across to the battleground of Bannockburn, or they can look up at the stronghold of the Stewarts, where Mary was crowned Queen of Scots on September 9, 1543.
While rich in a history that supports numerous "people and places" topics, the castle also offers resources for other subjects within the curriculum. It has expanded its Skills for Life programme, which teaches traditional building methods; it provides a vibrant backdrop for any art and design projects, and it has immense archaeological opportunities. It is not surprising that so many schools visit.
But big changes are happening at the castle, outside and in, that will have implications for school trips. The palace will soon be closed.
Nearly 20 years ago, Historic Scotland unveiled an ambitious plan to recreate it as it was, shortly after the death of James V. Since then, millions have been spent on returning the Great Hall to its former glory; the provision of education rooms; the creation of a tapestry studio, where craftsmen have spent the past seven years weaving wall hangings similar to those commissioned by James; the return of the great kitchens to how they were in the Middle Ages and the refurbishment of the Chapel Royal.
During that time, the majority of the castle has remained open. But now the palace, one of the biggest buildings in the castle complex, is to undergo extensive reworking that will not be complete until 2011.
"The conservation and presentation of James V's magnificent Renaissance palace is the most ambitious phase of Historic Scotland's project at Stirling Castle," says Chris Watkins, head of the major projects team. "It will mark the culmination of many years of research and skilled conservation and craftwork that have helped reinstate the splendour that the Stewart monarchs gave to Stirling."
Visitors are promised royal lodgings brought back to their former glory, with richly decorated walls; handsome replica furniture; tapestries and a Renaissance gallery above the lodgings where 35 of the original Stirling Heads - carved roundels that adorned the ceilings of the palace - will be on display. In the gallery, there will be an exhibition on the research to ensure that the recreation is authentic. Accompanying this will be an education programme which will bring castle life alive for pupils.
But as the organisation moves into the next phase of the project, costing pound;12 million, consideration has been carefully given to what will be on display for schools during the rebuilding. The loss of the lodgings has been countered by increased use of the Argyll's Lodgings, a town house from the same period near the castle. "The education programme will continue throughout the work on the palace and there will still be lots to see, from the Great Hall to the medieval kitchens," says Miss Wood, education officer for Stirling and Doune castles and Castle Campbell.
"All our activities will still be available, covering the Wars of Independence, castle life and Mary, Queen of Scots. Argyll's Lodgings allows us to show what life was like in the mid-16th century."
Two of the original Stirling Heads and three of the completed tapestries are on show to give pupils an idea of the luxurious and decorative life enjoyed by James and his family. There will also be costumed interpreters and storytellers available to enrich any visit, and every school will be briefed on work happening beyond the sculptures high on the palace wall.
For the next few years, there will be much to bring the historical perspective into focus for pupils, and perhaps whet their appetite so that, by 2011, they will be queuing to see the new palace.