There’s something about Mary, Queen of Scots: she’s everywhere in Scotland, from her birthplace at Linlithgow Palace; to Craignethan Castle, near Lanark, said to be one of her regular ‘haunts’ (quite literally); and Edinburgh, as she hangs quite defiantly on display at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery. All places history fans can explore on a trip to Scotland.
In 2019 a brand new film, Mary Queen of Scots (out 18 January in the UK) – which stars Saoirse Ronan as the titular Queen, and Margot Robbie as her second cousin and rival monarch Elizabeth I – inspires renewed interest in a tumultuous period of British history and offers the perfect excuse to explore Scotland and the many fascinating historical connections to Mary Stuart, as well as some the stunning filming locations used in the film.
The film explores Mary’s difficulty in asserting her authority in Scotland, with threats from protestants (including from John Knox, played in the film by David Tennant), and from the English Queen, struggling herself to be a Queen in a man’s country. Strong female roles are brought to life by two brilliant leading actresses, as well as a female director, Josie Rourke, and producer Debra Hayward.
Director Josie Rourke said of filming in Scotland: “We wanted to do as much as possible in Scotland and to show Mary in that environment and what her journey with it is. During the film, she comes to a deeper understanding and love of her country, so she had to be outside in it and witness the epic sweep of that landscape. Scotland is an extraordinary country, and it matches the scale of the story and the scale of what happens to Mary at certain points in the film. We just wanted to show Scotland in all of its incredible glory.”
What’s more, fans of the movie can continue their Scotland experience with a choice of Mary, Queen of Scots events across the country to tie in with the big screen release.
Filming locations open to visitors in Scotland included in the film are:
Lying in Upper Donside, around 45 miles west of Aberdeen, Strathdon is a stunning and quiet part of Scotland and a superb place for spotting wildlife. It is an area steeped in history and visitors can learn more at Corgarff Castle with its fascinating star-shaped fortifications, and at Glenbuchat Castle. In the summer spot the Lonach Highlanders parading through Bellabeg, the main village in the area, as they make their way to the Lonach Gathering. In winter, there’s skiing and snowboarding on offer at The Lecht Ski Centre.
During the production of Mary, Queen of Scots, filming included a scene at Poldullie Bridge, Strathdon in which the Queen Mary gets ambushed: a fight scene with cows blocking the bridge.
The East Lothian landscape
To the east of Edinburgh and within very easy reach of the city, lie the craggy cliffs, golden beaches and rolling countryside of East Lothian. Hemmed in by the Firth of Forth to the north and the Lammermuir Hills to the south, the history of the area is typified by the stronghold of Tantallon Castle as it rests formidably on cliffs above Seacliff Bay. The area is also very popular with golfers and must-visit attractions include the Scottish Seabird Centre, National Museum of Flight and Glenkinchie Distillery to name just a few.
Seacliff Beach, North Berwick, East Lothian
With the ruins of Tantallon Castle perched above it, the beautiful Seacliff Beach is found near the East Lothian town of North Berwick. Seacliff is privately owned and there’s a small charge to access it, but it’s well worth a visit to discover what’s thought to be the UK’s smallest harbour with views of the Bass Rock. The beach also been featured in the recent Netflix release, Outlaw King, which stars Chris Pine.
In the film, Seacliff can be seen in a scene featuring Mary and her ladies in waiting on a rocky shore, looking out to sea, speaking to one another in French.
Blackness Castle, West Lothian
This mighty fortification, jutting out into the Firth of Forth with its long and narrow design, has been described as ‘the ship that never sailed’. It owes much of its nautical shape to the many fortifications that were added to it during the 16th century, transforming it into one of the most secure fortresses of its time – part of its south-facing wall is 5.5 metres thick! Now a popular visitor attraction, the castle has served as a garrison, state prison and also featured in season one of Outlander as well as Outlaw King.
The photogenic Cairngorms and Glen Coe are also featured in the film, as Mary and her army ride across Moorlands.
Explore the history of Mary, Queen of Scots, including the following places:
Linlithgow, West Lothian
These historic ruins, once a royal ‘pleasure palace’, surrounded by peaceful gardens and grounds, were also the birthplace of Mary Stuart. The site was first occupied as far back as Roman times, 2,000 years ago. There has been a royal residence here since at least the reign of David I (1124–53). He also founded the town that grew up around the royal residence.
Open daily, tickets from £5.20 for a child, £9 for adults. See www.historicenvironment.scot/visit-a-place/places/linlithgow-palace for more information.
Mary spent the first few years of her life, from 27 July 1543, within the safe confines of this castle and in the hands of her guardian Lord Erskine, to February 1548, when she was moved to Dumbarton Castle and eventually shipped to France. It is here, in the Old Chapel, where she was crowned Queen of Scots on 9 September 1543, aged nine months. The ceremony consisted of the quick investiture of the child in the presence of the nobility.
Open daily, tickets from £9 for a child, £15 for adults. See www.stirlingcastle.scot for more information.
Scottish National Portrait Gallery,
Queen Street, Edinburgh
The painting of Mary, Queen of Scots, by an unknown artist, is said to give some clues as to her imprisonment and execution. Famed for her tall and elegant appearance, the captive yet dignified Mary seems to tower above those who look at her in the painting. She stands on a Turkish-style carpet and her pale and slightly weary features are set against a dark background, accentuated by her black velvet dress with its elaborate lace cuffs and a diaphanous cloak.
Open daily, free admission. Go to www.nationalgalleries.org/visit/scottish-national-portrait-gallery for further details.
National Museum of Scotland,
Chambers Street, Edinburgh
The museum has a vast selection of objects associated with Mary. History fans can explore her dramatic story and separate out the facts from the myths that have built up over the centuries. Included in their selection of items is a harp, or clarsach, made in the 15th century and said to be to have been given by Mary, Queen of Scots to Beatrix Gardyne of Banchory, while on a hunting trip to Atholl, circa 1563. It is also said to have been adorned at one time with a gold portrait of Mary, which could be the real reason for its association with her.
Admission to the museum is free. For more information, go to: https://www.nms.ac.uk/explore-our-collections/stories/scottish-history-and-archaeology/mary-queen-of-scots/mary-queen-of-scots/queen-mary-harp/
Blackwood, Lesmahagow, Lanarkshire
There are various stories of places in Scotland – and elsewhere in the UK – of places the ghost of Mary, Queen of Scots is said to haunt; Craignethan Castle (where Mary is said to have spent the night before the battle of Langside in 1568) has one of those stories. Visitors have reportedly seen a headless woman walking in the grounds, who some believe to be the Scottish Queen.
Open daily, tickets from £3.60 for a child, £6 for adults. See www.historicenvironment.scot/visit-a-place/places/craignethan-castle/ for more information.
Mary Queen of Scots Visitor Centre
Queen Street, Jedburgh, Scottish Borders
Located in a 16th century tower house in the centre of the historic town, the visitor centre reflects the proud association of the town with Mary who stayed there in 1566. The building was bought in 1927 by the town of Jedburgh as it had always been linked with Mary’s stay on an official tour when she became seriously ill after riding to Hermitage Castle to visit Bothwell, her supposed lover. Each room has a different focus. The Rogues’ Gallery introduces the individuals in the drama of Mary’s life, whilst the Last Letter Room reveals Mary’s final thoughts.
Admission free, see www.scotborders.gov.uk for more information.
Don’t forget to check out the Mary Queen of Scots trail from Historic Environment Scotland. See https://maryqueenofscots.historic-scotland.gov.uk/ for full details.
Mary, Queen of Scots events for January 2019:
Mary, Queen of Scots: The Cursed Crown
Edinburgh Dungeon, 26 January – 31 March 2019
In 1587 Mary, Queen of Scots, was put on trial for treason and imprisoned in Fotheringay Castle. Accused of plotting to assassinate her cousin, Queen Elizabeth I, Mary was sentenced to face the chop – death by executioner’s axe. It took three chops before her head rolled.
In this new show at the Edinburgh Dungeon, discover the harrowing tale of Mary’s incarceration within England’s castles, the multitude of misfortunes that befell her at the hands of her own kin and the lead up to her tragic end. You will hear stories so shocking that heads will roll!
For more information and tickets please visit www.thedungeons.com/edinburgh/en/what-is-the-dungeon/mary-queen-of-scots
Mary, Queen of Scots banquet
Borthwick Castle, Saturday, 19 January
To celebrate the premiere of Mary, Queen of Scots in cinemas Borthwick Castle is lowering the drawbridge to welcome guests for an evening of regal medieval delights. Begin the evening with a cocktail in the State Room, followed by a magnificent banquet of six courses in the Great Hall.
Priced at £160 per person, including wine. For more information, the menu for the evening and to book, go to: www.borthwickcastle.com/dining/maryqueenofscots.html
A map of Mary, Queen of Scots locations and historical links to Scotland will be available to download from Friday, 18 January from: www.visitscotland.com/maryqueenofscots
For more on visiting Scotland go to: www.visitscotland.com
Mary, Queen of Scots will be released at UK cinemas on Friday, 18 January. For full details on the film, visit www.focusfeatures.com/mary-queen-of-scots/