The good folk of Stirling have always believed their castle to be superior to that of Edinburgh.
The latter maybe Scotland's num- ber one tourist attraction. It may contain the Scottish crown jewels and the Stone of Destiny. But Stir- ling Castle was the main palace for the Stewart dynasty from James II through to Mary Queen of Scots and her son James Vt of Scotland and I of England.
"It was the Stewart palace," says Gary DArcy, senior steward at the castle, "and it is a major key to understanding Scottish history.
It's a complete castle, not just a ruin, and the buildings are as they were in the late Middle Ages.
So when you walk through the main archway into the castle you are literally following in the foot- steps of the monarchs, seeing what they would have seen. tt is one of the finest examples of Renaissance architecture in Scot- land and the place where Mary Queen of Scots was crowned."
This partly explains why Stir- ling Castle is the single most popu- lar destination for school groups of all Historic Scotland's properties, which number more than 300.
Another reason for its popular- ity is the castle's situation y perched on top of a classic geolog- ical "crag and tail" formation, with the town spread out below, Stirling castle overlooks the sites of two of the most important bat- tles in Scottish history: William Wallace's victory against the Eng- lish in 1297 and Robert the Bruce's routing of English forces in 1314.
"If a class is studying the Wars of Independence, then Stirling is the crucial place to visit. From the castle, which was witness to many key events in Scottish history, you can go on to Bannockburn and to Wallace's Monument to complete your day," says Mr DArcy.
The castle also boasts the largest medieval hall in Scotland.
The Great Hall's eight-year restoration has just been com- pleted at a cost of pound;8.5 million, and included the replacement of the 42 metre long hammer beam roof, which was constructed from 350 oak trees using wooden pegs, lke the original, with not a single nail or screw. With its wall-hangings, stained glass, wrought iron and wood carvings, all exquisitely restored to their Renaissance splendour, the Great Hall is the jewel in the crown.
But it is not just history which attracts the schools. "The range of the curriculum areas is the main attraction," says Patricia Atkin- son, headteacher of Holy Trinity Episcopal school in Stirling.
"Given its situation and the view, it's perfect for geography and geology."
The refurbishment is an ideal starting point for design and tech- nology as well as art. "The sheer scale of the Great Hall, for exam- ple, affects the children. They're seeing scale and grandeur that is not in their every-day experience, so you are taking in maths, geom- etry, architecture and the use of different materials," she says.
Her sentiments are echoed by her pupils. "I like the artwork. It's well carved and I love the gold," says 10-year-old Catherine Welsh.
"I like the roof and the way it's held up without a nail, its colour and its size," says Il-year-old Pauline McCafferty.
"I like the stained glass win- dows, the huge wall-hangings and the big royal chairs," says nine-year-old Caroline Gilmore.
"It would be a great place for a party," adds Pauline. "You could dress up in costumes and have fun and stop and admire it."
More recently, the castle esplanade has been a venue for rock concerts with performances by groups as various as REM, Ocean Colour Scene, Capercaillie and Runrig. It looks like a historic site with a bright future.
* Stirling Castle, Esplanade, Stirling FK8 1EJ.
Tel: 01786 450000.
www.historic-scotlandgov. ok Further information, teachers' packs and slides with notes from the education manager.
Historic Scotland, Longmore House, Salisbury Place, Edinburgh EH12 SRE, Tel: 0131 668 8732.
Open daily April-September 9.3Oam-6pm; October-March 9,3Oam-5pm.
Admission: adults pound;5, children under 16 pound;1.50, school groups free.