Stirling Castle With Music in The Ceiling

Stirling Castle once was a Royal residence of the kings of Scotland. Being situated near the border to England, the castle was of strategic importance for centuries before it became the seat of kings. When the Scots started to convert it into a Royal residence, the builders included a curious code into the ceiling of the king’s bedchamber. The code was cracked to reveal the music hidden within.

Stirling Castle ceiling bedroom


The first historical mention of Stirling Castle goes back to 1110 to an act of deed by King Alexander I with which he authorized the building of a castle chapel. The strategically important spot on the Forth river should have had earlier occupants such as Picts or Romans, but so far no evidence has been found to prove that. The deed suggests that the fortification had been in place for some time before the reign of King Alexander I, though.

Stirling Castle

In the 13th century, especially when the Bruce family took up the crown, the castle changed hands between the Scots and the English every few years. The frequent sieges did a lot of damage and it is therefore not too surprising that no buildings from that time survive. Stirling Castle as we see it today is a product of the 16th century. James IV, James V, Marie of Guise, and James VI took it in turns to add, replace, and embellish the building as a truly Royal residence.

Stirling Castle

The history of the Royal house of Scotland is one of social climbers. Scottish Royalty was regarded as second rate by the leading monarchies in Europe and they were treated like poor relatives by the kings of England. Frequent marriages into the Royal houses of France were aimed at bettering their acceptance level in the Royal European pecking order. They also helped the French in aggravating the English more than once.

Stirling Castle

After James VI became King of England, he moved to London and converted Stirling into barracks, whereby the former Royal Hall became a stable. Talk about social climbing! The castle was used in this way until 1964. In 1930, restoration work started on the Chapel Royal, and since the military left the premises in 1964, major restoration and rebuilding work has been ongoing to recreate the castle to a facsimile of how it looked as a residence of the Scottish kings.

Stirling Castle living quarters

Part of this restoration work were the wooden ceiling panels in the Royal bedchamber built by James V. The room was described at the time as the most sumptuous room in Europe and was another ploy to gain acceptance from the leading monarchies in Europe. The artisan entrusted with copying the wooden panels noticed a deviation in the decoration in the 20th panel when he started working on it. Around the edge of the portrait of an unknown woman he found an embellishment that reminded him of a code rather than a personal idiosyncrasy of the original artist.

Stirling Castle chapel Royal

Analysis of the markings consisting of 0, I, and II marks revealed it to be a musical annotation similar to Welsh musical annotations of the 1560s. The panels predate the Welsh musical scores by a generation. The annotations are not a precise musical score as we would read them today for Bach or Mozart, but rather a guiding musical ground sequence on which Renaissance musicians could improvise or play variations thereof. A modern equivalent of this style of playing music may be found in Jazz music.

Stirling Castle

This system of annotating musical scores was abandoned during the 17th century to be replaced by the musical scores we still use today. The game of playing variations of a well known tune did not die out with the change in notes; one famous collection of variations was composed and written down by Christoph Emmanuel Bach, one of the many musical Bach children, on a French song called “Ah, que je vous dirai, Madame.” The tune of which, by the way, is still a favorite children's song called All My Little Ducklings. The original text, it may be noted, was not aimed at children.

Stirling Castle entry

The claims of historians, reported just about in any media I could find, that the annotations in Stirling Castle are the oldest musical annotations found in Scotland are dubious (to use a friendly term), as there seem to be musical scores integrated into Rosslyn Chapel predating Stirling’s by several centuries.

Stirling Castle hall

Further reading