Scottish Castles Association

Preserving the Past for the Future

Stirling Castle's door and its mysterious grooves

The construction of the Palace of Stirling was begun by James V in 1540 and largely completed by his death in 1542. Except for the carved stone fireplaces and a few oak doors, none of the original furnishings survive except the famous (but sadly incomplete) ‘Stirling Heads’ now splendidly reproduced and replaced in the ceiling of the King’s Presence Chamber.

Stirling door
Palace door at Stirling made from Baltic oak proved to have been felled around 1533

Regarding the oak door, which leads from the inner close into the palace, recent tree dating has provided a felling date of some time after 1533 which would allow for some seasoning before it ending up being used at Stirling. Studies show the oak itself was sourced from the eastern Baltic.

Something perhaps overlooked by visitors are the ‘straight incisions’ on the door’s stone jambs. Such marks are ubiquitous and can be found, for example, at Doune, Dirleton and Caernarfon Castles. They occur at gates and doors, but also turn up in kitchens, as at Doune where there is a fine example in a window nook. The general explanation is that these cuts were made by guards sharpening their weapons while on watch and kitchen staff putting an edge on their implements.

Incision palace doune
Incision marks seen, left, at the Palace door and, right, at Doune Castle's gate passageway:

Surprisingly they can also be found at churches as at Stobo Kirk in Peebles. Their occurrence here is ascribed to ‘Wappenshaws’ where the locals were obliged, by law, to assemble at set intervals with arms and armour suitable to their station and to exercise accordingly. Such assemblies could take place at the local church. Archery contests were part of the 'show' and the church door provided a useful place to sharpen arrow heads.

Incision stobo
Incision marks at Stobo Church - made by sharpening arrows or pencils?

However, a more prosaic explanation for Stobo is given by the author, John Buchan, who claims that the shallow grooves were made by schoolchildren sharpening their slate pencils in the days when the parish school was housed in the church – or did the pupils simply adapt what was already there?

The jury is out!

Article by SCA member Brian McGarrigle.

Added: 08 Sep 2015 Updated: 28 Mar 2018
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