History, Stirling Castle

12 November 2018

An Ancient Fortress and A Modern War

The Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders based at Stirling Castle in the build-up to the First World War were kept occupied until the very last moments of peace, before daily life at the castle changed almost overnight.

Soldiers from the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders relaxing during a break in First World War training

Although the summer of 1914 saw tensions brewing across Europe, life in Scotland largely continued as normal, even for those already serving in the military. For the men of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders based in Stirling Castle there were some notable occasions in the final weeks before the war.

Royal Duties

On the 22 June 1914, the regiment had been appointed a new Colonel-in-Chief, Princess Louise, the Duchess of Argyll and daughter of Queen Victoria. Although a largely ceremonial position, it was nonetheless a very important part of the regiment’s identity and played a significant role in regimental events. The Princess’ name featured prominently on the regiment’s recruitment posters.

On 11 July,  the castle was visited by King George V and Queen Mary. The royal couple were entertained to lunch at the castle with the officers. Even as late as the 4 August, the day Britain declared war on Germany, the Castle’s garden party was held as usual – a last moment of normality before the horror that was to come.

A view of Stirling Castle gardens with lawn and flower bed.

Ready for action

The order to mobilize the battalion and depot staff in the castle came on the evening of the garden party, reportedly just as the last of the guests left.

Britain’s declaration of war on Germany followed at midnight. Almost immediately, some of the 3rd battalion under Lieutenant Purves departed for the war station at Woolwich, south-east London.

Within days the Castle, as the Regimental Depot, was crowded with reservists and new recruits.  Thousands of young men from all over Scotland gathered at its gates to sign up to serve King and Country. For many, this first introduction to army life was not a pleasant one.

A First World War recruitment poster for the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders showing three soldiers in kilts standing outside Stirling Castle.

The already limited accommodation in the castle was stretched to its limits. One recruit recalled having to sleep ‘in what were almost cellars’. Supplies were inadequate. A slice of bread and butter and a little tea served as breakfast for those lucky enough to scrounge it up.

On the move

For those bunking in the ‘cellars’ it may have been a relief that the stay at Stirling was short. The remainder of the 3rd battalion (around 700 in total) following the detachment under Purves to Woolwich on 8 August. Such brief stays were to be common throughout the war.

Two reenactors in First World War army uniforms at an event in Stirling Castle.

At a centenary event in 2014, costumed interpreters took on the roles of those who would have been present at the castle in November 1914

They typically remained in the castle long enough to be examined, declared medically fit and receive their uniforms. They were then despatched to join units on active service or Reserve Battalions stationed elsewhere in the UK.

For those who eventually ended up on the front lines, the cramped and poor conditions of Stirling Castle may have seemed a paradise when compared to the realities of trench warfare.