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Linlithgow Palace: Birthplace of Mary Queen of Scots

A young widowed mother is holed up in her home and is struggling to protect herself and her infant. She knows that there are men coming for her daughter and is determined to protect her at all costs. Left with no other choice, she takes steps to ensure her child’s safety and has her taken to a more fortified location. After all, Marie de Guise knows that she is the last hope to ensure that her daughter, Mary, maintains her birthright as Queen of Scots.

In this week’s virtual tour of Scotland, we head west of Edinburgh to explore the iconic Linlithgow Palace. I chose to open our story at the Palace and in the way that I did with the hope to humanise those who once lived there. This is an approach I favour (for example in my article on Mary, Queen of Scots, and the Palace of Holyroodhouse) as I believe it helps us to remember to look at history with a different perspective. Historical people are often discussed in removed ways. By thinking about them in a more human way, we can better understand their real-life experiences and the places we are touring. We will come back to Marie and Mary a little later in our tour. However, we first need to look at a bit of the history of Linlithgow Palace to better understand their story.

There is a great deal of history that took place well before the Stewart family began their residence at the Palace. For example, archaeological evidence lets us know that there was a Roman fort or camp in the area in the 1st century. Much later, in 1124, David I founded the royal burgh of Linlithgow and most likely built a castle next to it. The Stewart family’s time at Linlithgow began in the late 1300s with the arrival of Robert II (Robert the Bruce’s grandson). Both he and his son, Robert III, spent a great deal of time at Linlithgow Palace. Unfortunately, in 1424, a fire destroyed much of the burgh, castle, and St Michael’s Church (I’ll come back to the church in just a bit).

After the fire, James I began work on creating a palace (most likely adding to what remained of the former castle) as his royal residence. Renovations and additions were subsequently completed by James III, IV, and V. Linlithgow Palace served as the royal residence of the Stuart dynasty until the 1700s. It is strategically located between Edinburgh Castle and Stirling Castle and was a perfect place to stop and rest when travelling between the two castles. Essentially, it served as a ‘pleasure palace’ for the royal family. Most notably, James V and his daughter, Mary Queen of Scots were both born at Linlithgow Palace.

Virtual Tour of Linlithgow Palace Grounds

Before you enter the Palace grounds you must go through an imposing gate. It was built for James V to create a “more impressive entrance to the palace”. Historic Scotland points out that by walking through this entrance, “in the 1500s represented passing from the ordinary, everyday world into the elevated environment of the Stewart royal court”. The carvings above the gate (recreations of the originals) represent James V’s connections to “powerful European chivalric orders”. Take note of the second carving from the left which is the Order of the Thistle. This is the greatest order of Scottish chivalry and you can learn a bit more about it in our article on the celebrated Scottish architect, Sir Robert Lorimer.

Once you walk through the gate, look to your immediate right- this is St Michael’s Church (which I mentioned earlier). The Church is located right next to the Palace and we recommend that anyone visiting Linlithgow Palace should stop and spend time at St Michael’s as it has an incredible history. We’ll pop inside now for a quick visit.

A church in Linlithgow was first mentioned in the historical records in King David I’s charter of 1138 (although St Michael’s highlights that there was most likely a church on the grounds before that date we just don’t have an official record of it). The Church you see now is mostly from the rebuild after the 1424 fire- the renovations took 115 years! Notably, each of the Stewart Kings from James I-IV donated money towards the restorations. A new royal charter was finally granted in 1540 as the Church celebrated the completion of the long-lasting construction.

Baptismal Font

One of the most famous events to take place at St Michael’s Church was the baptism of Mary, Queen of Scots. Unfortunately, the baptismal font used for Mary was destroyed in 1559 (although there is now a recreation of that font) when the Protestant Lords of the Congregation arrived and obliterated all traces of the Roman Catholic religion. St Michael’s faced further destruction in 1646, when Oliver Cromwell’s troops disrespectfully took up residence in the Church. Their horses were “stabled in the nave and soldiers billeted in the triforium”. According to St Michael’s, “by the time the Cromwellian army left Linlithgow the church had deteriorated and the heritors estimated that £1000 Scots was required to repair the roof and windows”. In fact, you can still see evidence on the stone walls of the damage Cromwell’s army caused during their destructive takeover.

Despite its tumultuous history, St Michael’s still stands and provides a peaceful sanctuary for locals and visitors alike. It is now a Church of Scotland Congregation and more information about visiting or worship can be found on their website. I certainly enjoyed walking around the Church and admiring its beautiful architecture including the vaulted ceiling and exquisite stained-glass windows.

While I’ve enjoyed our time at St Michael’s, its time to head back outside and continue our tour at the Palace. The first stop we need to make is to pay our respects to Mary Queen of Scots. I started this article with the story of Mary and her mother, Marie. Let’s explore a bit more of that sad tale.

Mary was born on 8 December 1542 and her father died only a few days later (at the Falkland Palace) on 14 December. Upon his death, Mary became Queen of Scots- although regents would rule the country until she was old enough to take over. It is not hard to imagine the drama, tension, and power void the death of King James V created. Further, Mary’s mother, Marie de Guise (only 27 years old), had to deal with the difficult position of protecting Mary while managing the drama unfolding all around her. She had Henry VIII of England forcefully pushing her to an arranged marriage between Mary and his son, Prince Edward, by invading Scotland with a war called the Rough Wooing. She also had to contend with the ongoing battles between Protestant and Catholic Scots who were vying for power on multiple fronts. Despite all of this, Marie managed to keep Mary safe and eventually arranged for their escape to Stirling Castle (which was better fortified) just several months after her birth.

Mary Queen of Scots

Mary was eventually sent to France for safety and you can read a bit more about that in our Palace of Holyroodhouse article. Regarding Linlithgow Palace, she didn’t visit again until she was an adult. When you visit Linlithgow Palace in person, be sure to stop and admire the beautiful statue of Mary located to the left once you enter the gate. We owe our gratitude to the Marie Stuart (Mary Queen of Scots) Society (note that Mary changed the spelling of her last name from Stewart to Stuart when she was in France to help the French with the pronunciation). They raised the funds to erect the statue which was unveiled on 24 April 2015. Their website is also a fantastic resource for all things Mary and we highly recommend you check it out if you are interested in learning more about her and the Stuart family.

As we explore the grounds and outside of the Palace, it is helpful to imagine how it looked back in its prime. For example, we now see only stone walls, but they were once covered in a magnificent limewash harl (to better help you picture this- take a quick look at pictures of the exteriors of the Great Hall at Stirling Castle and Braemar Castle). Additionally, there were beautiful pleasure gardens which infused the air with sweet smelling fruits and flowers. Visitors were sure to also hear the buzzing of bees kept in skeps (baskets), sometimes set into garden wall recesses called bee boles.

There is a small, serene loch next to the Palace and it is quite peaceful to walk around Linlithgow Peel (parkland) and enjoy the lovely scenery.

I’ve thoroughly enjoyed our time exploring the grounds, but there is much more to see inside where our tour continues. While much of the Palace no longer exists, there are still some fantastic sites to see. Our tour of the interior includes some of my favourite spots. The first stop we will make is in the Palace courtyard because there is a magnificent fountain to admire.

The fountain is thought to have been added by James V and would have looked a little different during his reign. For example, Historic Scotland points out that it ‘was most certainly painted’. Also, ‘the broken fragments were reassembled in the 1800s and missing sections reimagined in the 1930s. More recently, some of the worn 16th-century stonework had to be replaced during essential conservation work’. The fountain as we see it today has some interesting pieces including a unicorn and mermaid. One fun tidbit about the fountain is that it didn’t only run water, but also had wine flowing through it for special occasions including for the wedding of James V and Marie de Guise. That James V really knew how to throw a party!

As we head downstairs, we eventually come to the lower kitchen and brewhouse. The brewhouse was a necessity as the purity of drinking water couldn’t always be relied upon and ale was a safer option. A spiral staircase connected the lower kitchen to the court kitchen which was used to serve the Great Hall.

The awe-inspiring space of the Great Hall was used for important gatherings and celebrations. Engage your imagination for a moment and envision the tapestries hanging on the walls, the ornate statues adorning the plinths, and the king’s expensive silver laid out on the banquet tables around the perimeter of the room. A huge three-bay fireplace commands one end of the room; this is where the king’s table was located so that he and those sitting with him could stay warm.

As we walk out of the Great Hall, we head into our last stop of our tour- the Chapel Royal. According to Historic Scotland, the Chapel Royal was probably built by James IV in the early 1500s. The ceiling no longer exists, but James V had it renewed during his time and painted in ‘fine asur’ (blue). Incredibly there are two consecration crosses that have survived the centuries that you can still see on the wall. This is where a bishop anointed the chapel with holy water or oil. Looking out the chapel window, we can see St Michael’s church where the royal family would have also attended.

Consecration Crosses
View of St Michael's Church from the Palace Chapel Royal

Before we bring our tour of Linlithgow Palace to an end, here are more pictures to help you appreciate its lasting beauty:

Well, I hope you have enjoyed our brief virtual walking tour of Linlithgow Palace, grounds, and St Michael’s Church. There is so much more to see in the Palace, and this was just a wee taste of what’s in store when you visit in-person. Therefore, we highly recommend you visit the Palace and the town of Linlithgow in general. Please check out the Historic Scotland website on Linlithgow Palace for the most up-to-date information.

Of course, there is so much more to see and do in Scotland. We encourage you to explore our blog to help you with your Scotland travel planning. We specialise in Edinburgh as that is where we conduct our walking tours, but we regularly travel around Scotland and try to offer a wide range of articles. Also, don’t forget to subscribe to our blog so that you can get our free, weekly articles sent to you as soon as they are published. Finally, you can also follow along with our adventures through a variety of social media platforms including Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, or Pinterest.

Until next time- Explore & Discover!


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