Falkland Palace, and the village of Falkland that grew to its south, lie in the shadow of the distinctively shaped East Lomond. North of the Palace the landscape opens out into the broad Howe of Fife, the valley of the River Eden. In medieval times this was a largely wooded area, renowned for the quality of the hunting it offered.
Today the hunting forests have long gone, but the imposing south front of Falkland Palace continues to tower over Falkland's main street, dominating views to the south from the village almost as much as East Lomond continues to dominate views to its north.
Although technically still a Crown property, Falkland Palace has been in the keepership of the Crichton Stuart family since its acquisition by the 3rd Marquess of Bute in 1887. In 1952 the National Trust for Scotland was appointed Deputy Keeper of the Palace, and they now care for and maintain the Palace and its extensive gardens.
Many Scottish castles were transformed over time into grand residences as the need for defence was replaced by the need for comfort and the need to impress. In some cases the same building was converted and reconverted as tastes and needs changed. In at least one case, Aberdour Castle, each successive generation of building was built a little to the east of what had preceded it, with the earliest parts simply abandoned over time, though still standing in ruined state.
A similar story took place at Falkland Palace, though it was masked by two factors. The first was that the original castle built at Falkland became referred to as a palace in the late 1300s: and each of the generations of building that followed were also referred to as palaces, making distinctions between one phase and another more complicated.
The second is that, unlike at Aberdour, at Falkland as each generation of building was built to the south of the one that preceded it, traces of earlier generations of buildings were eventually removed, and probably reused. Nonetheless, in two centuries of active development from the early 1300s to the early 1500s, Falkland Castle progressively moved south, starting with the obviously grand castle whose tower base can be seen reconstructed in the garden, and concluding with the South Range and the Gatehouse, the latter completed in 1542.
Today's visitor to Falkland Palace finds a great deal to see. The accommodation on view in the South Range is some of the most impressive and atmospheric you will find anywhere. This includes the beautifully panelled keeper's quarters immediately to the east of the Gatehouse, the Old Library, the recreated King's and Queen's Rooms in the restored Cross House beside the ruined East Range, and the Bakehouse. But the undoubted highlight of any visit has to be the Chapel Royal, occupying the east end of the South Range. This is simply breathtaking, as is the remarkable Tapestry Corridor next to it.
But the tour of the Palace itself is only part of what makes a visit such an interesting experience. Extensive gardens run to the south of the Palace, complete with glasshouses, and Falkland is also home to Britain's oldest Royal Tennis Court, built in 1539.
The starting point for the story of Falkland Palace has to be with Robert Stewart, Duke of Albany and the younger son of Robert II. A strong candidate (amongst many) for the title of the least pleasant person in Scottish history, Robert Stewart made his home at Falkland Castle and it was during his time that the title of Falkland Palace came to be bestowed on it. Robert was appointed Guardian of Scotland by his ailing father during the 1380s in preference to his elder brother John. And although John went on to be crowned (confusingly) as Robert III, he, too, was in poor health and his younger brother the Duke of Albany never really gave up the reigns of power.
In 1402 the 24 year old David Stewart, 1st Duke of Rothesay, heir to the throne, died while being held prisoner by his uncle at Falkland Palace: he was probably starved to death. The Duke of Albany then forced Robert III's younger son, James, to flee Scotland and (probably) arranged for his capture by English pirates: the Duke certainly obstructed negotiations for James' subsequent return to Scotland from his captivity at the English court. As a result Robert, Duke of Albany, retained his post as Governor and Regent of Scotland until his death in 1420.
James I returned from captivity in England in 1424, and amongst his first acts were the execution of Murdoch, 2nd Duke of Albany (Robert Stewart's son) and the annexation by the Crown of Falkland Palace. The Palace came to be regarded as a country retreat by successive generations of the House of Stewart. By the time James V oversaw the finishing touches to the Gatehouse in 1542, not long before his death at Falkland on 14 December that year, the building had changed beyond anything that would have been recognised by Robert Stewart, Duke of Albany.
Robert may, however, have been responsible for the building of the Great Hall at Falkland. This formed what would now be a North Range enclosing the north side of the courtyard on a site now indicated by the outline of the flower beds. Some time later, perhaps around 1460, the north half of the East Range was built, with the Cross House and the south half of the range appearing during the reign of James IV later that century. The South Range was built by James V in the decades up to 1540.
At some point the old castle, to the north of the North Range, disappeared, and it is tempting to think it was probably removed to provide stone for the South Range in the early 1530s. The North Range was probably demolished early in the 1600s leaving Falkland Palace much as you see it today.
Well, not quite. The East Range was largely destroyed by an accidental fire during a stay by Cromwell's troops in 1654. And the remainder of the Palace had been allowed to become derelict and overgrown by the 1800s. In an early echo of many modern conservation debates, Sir Walter Scott wrote in 1829: "Some part of the interior has been made what is called habitable, that is a half-dozen of bad rooms have been gotten out of it. Am clear in my own mind that a ruin should be protected, but never repaired."
But John Crichton-Stuart, 3rd Marquess of Bute, who purchased the Keepership and the Palace in 1887, thought differently. He set out to restore and, where necessary, rebuild the Palace so that it regained the glory it has seen in James V's time. Work had been completed on the Gatehouse, the South Range and the Cross House when the 3rd Marquess died at the age of 53 in 1900. His plans for the East Range remained unrealised, and his successors and the National Trust for Scotland have since sought to preserve the Palace in the condition he left it in, though with the addition of furnishings for the recreated King's Room and Queen's Room.
Which leaves unresolved the question addressed by Sir Walter Scott. Is it better to have a preserved but unrestored shell of a building, like Linlithgow Palace, or a restored and partially rebuilt one, like the South Range and Cross House at Falkland Palace? Perhaps we should just be grateful that we can see both!