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Holding the fort

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A bold approach to the restoration of Stirling Castle's Great Hall, a Grade A scheduled monument, has made it fit once more for lavish entertaining.

Stirling Castle, fortress and palace of sixteenth-century kings of Scotland, sits high above the plain, guarding the crossing of River Forth and the route to the Highlands. Dominant among the cluster of buildings at the hill's summit is the 500-year-old Great Hall, a building of rare Renaissance beauty which, from time out of memory, was a grey forbidding presence above the town.

Imagine the reaction, then, when it ceased to be grey and forbidding. In 1997 Historic Scotland built a tin shed round it. The hall went in grey and, two years later, came out golden. This 'shock of the old' sent tremors through the burghers of Stirling, but they have now generally come to accept it and even evince pride in the great golden casket it has become, with its reinstated battlements and heraldic beasts rampant on its roof ridge.

The £8.5 million restoration - part of a £22 million, 15-year programme for the castle - raised a multitude of questions: whether and when to reinstate parts of the structure no longer extant; whether to introduce modern services, and if so how and where; how to reconcile modern health and safety and disabled access requirements with preservation of a Grade A scheduled monument; and what kinds of after-use were appropriate and feasible.

At any other time, the restoration would probably not have been done at all. A few years earlier the prevailing conservation philosophy, as espoused by the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (SPAB), was 'Leave as found'; today if such a decision was to be taken, the response would be similar. But at Stirling's Great Hall that would have meant leaving in place the three-storey barracks crudely inserted by an army threatened with Napoleonic invasion.

It would also have meant no battlements, no splendid lions and unicorns on the ridge - and no sound of revelry by night. The building would have remained a ghost, belying its original function, which was lavish, joyful entertaining. So, as Peter Buchanan, Historic Scotland's architect in charge, puts it: 'It was decided to give the building a new lease of life rather than leave it as a sterile museum piece.'

That has been done very splendidly, with the added bonus of giving work to a whole string of artists and artisans, from stone masons and carvers to carpenters and tapestry workers - all sought first locally, then in Scotland, then, in default, elsewhere. The same holds true for materials:

4000 blocks of Caithness stone, for instance, and 350 Scottish oak trees for the roof, fixed with oak dowels.

But the recreation of the Great Hall is not mere conjecture. Every element of the structure 'put back' is based on physical or documentary evidence or both. For instance, the great hammer-beam roof - bigger than Edinburgh Castle's but of the same vintage - is based on Board of Ordnance drawings from 1719, which Edinburgh comparisons showed must be regarded as accurate, and on surviving fragments of the corbels; the two lions and two unicorns on the ridge are such as were frequently found on great buildings and survive elsewhere at Stirling. We know too that the shocking golden colour is right because sections were found, notably on a wall sheltered by a later vaulting.

The material that covered the Hall's exterior is harling - the lime render the Scots use to protect stonework - and it contained a natural ochre pigment that gave that golden glow. The hall's external stonework was in fact deteriorating from exposure to the weather, so it made sense to harl it, and to do so with the original mix.

Buchanan, who as a SPAB scholar travelled around learning about restoration techniques on site, explains that, working with the Scottish Lime Centre, his team tested limewash panels for 18 months to observe colour change, weathering and other factors.

A big challenge was to insert modern services and facilities with minimum interference to the original structure. Providing adequate heating in a space 42m x 11m x 16m high posed particular problems, solved by laying a new stone floor 300mm above the preserved but damaged original, and running hot water pipes between them. By contrast, four of the five great fireplaces which originally heated the hall have false backs behind which services run. 'At one point everything has to go through one rising duct, ' says Buchanan. 'Altogether we made only five new holes through the historic masonry.'

The aim was to have a space that looked grand and could be used in ways redolent of the lavish entertainments of the Stuart kings. The existence of a series of vaults beneath the hall helped with this. Here could be fitted the kitchens, cloakrooms, and - not least in a project depending heavily on private philanthropy - room for the entertainment of sponsors and other VIPs.

The biggest intervention, departing from what has been proved to exist, is a new stairway connecting the 'high table' end of the hall to an adjacent vaulted chamber.

In the hall, the work of twentieth-century craftsmen is prominent: the 6.5m long oak table, for instance; the great oak screen at the western end of the hall with its minstrels' gallery; fire-irons and candelabra; stained glass using sixteenth-century heraldic forms; and, above all, the great Cloth of Estate, hanging behind the dais to symbolise the sovereign's presence.

The result is an interior which must look remarkably close to the Great Hall in which James IV entertained his guests in comfort and style in the 1550s, and in which Mary Queen of Scots celebrated the birth of her son James, later king of both Scotland and England, with a banquet in which one of the courses appeared on a ship 5.5m long with canons firing.

The hall can accommodate 300 for a banquet, 450 for a ceilidh. Last Hogmanay some 1000 people thronged to the castle. This splendid restoration chimes in well with the pride and confidence of post-devolution Scotland.

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