Stirling's Church of the Holy Rude occupies a magnificent location on the shoulder of the city's highest hill. It would be better known and more often admired from both near and far were it not for its grander and even more magnificently sited neighbour, Stirling Castle.
The name Church of the Holy Rude was first given to a church that stood on this site in the 1130s. "Holy Rude" means Holy Cross, giving it the same origin as Holyrood in Edinburgh.
Its close proximity to Stirling Castle led the church to its almost unique place in history. On 29 July 1567 the infant James VI was crowned King of Scotland in Holy Rude following the forced abdication of his mother, Mary Queen of Scots (see our Historical Timeline).
As a result the Church of the Holy Rude can lay claim to being the only active church in the United Kingdom, apart from Westminster Abbey, to have held a coronation.
Stirling suffered a catastrophic fire in 1405, and little is known of the church or churches that had existed on this site until then. Soon after the fire, work began on the structure that today forms the nave and the lower part of the tower at the west end. By the end of the 1400s the church was functioning again, with the east end of what is now the nave screened off to form a small choir.
The nave is an impressive structure, but by far the most remarkable part of it is the original oak-beamed roof held together entirely by oak pegs. One of very few medieval timber roofs still surviving in Scotland, the timbers still carry the marks of the adzes used to shape them six hundred years ago.
The second phase of construction took place between 1507 and 1555. This added a choir to the east of the original nave complete with a spectacular apse to round off, literally, the east end of the church. The apse dominates the road leading up to Stirling Castle and is by far the church's most impressive aspect. At the same time the western tower was increased in height, to keep it in proportion with the much longer church.
The third phase of construction was intended to comprise a large central tower with north and south transepts. At the same time the nave was to be heightened to match the choir. But the Reformation halted further work on the church, leaving its overall structure much as you see it today.
As a result aspects of the church can seem odd. Viewed from either side (see header photo) the Church of the Holy Rude looks rather misshapen, with the choir built to a very different scale than the earlier nave. The height of the intended roofline for the rebuilt nave can be seen from the lines visible on the east side of the tower.
On the plus side, had phase three gone ahead, the beautiful nave roof we admire today would have been lost. This may be the only example of church architecture in Scotland being saved rather than destroyed by the Reformation. Internally, signs of the planned phase three include the crossing designed to support the intended central tower and provide a focus for the transepts that also never arrived.
If James VI's coronation was the highlight of Holy Rude's history, perhaps its lowest ebb was during the long period from 1656 to 1936 when a wall divided the nave from the choir, and the church served two divided congregations. This was originally the result of an argument between the minister of Stirling, Rev James Guthrie and a colleague. The Rev Guthrie had a knack of making enemies and he was eventually executed for treason in Edinburgh on 1 June 1661, his head subsequently being displayed on a spike in the city as an example to others.
But the dividing wall long outlived him, and survived major alterations to the church in the 1800s which included the removal of the great west door. But from 1935 to 1940 the wall was removed, together with most of the 1800s alterations, including a ceiling that had been inserted in the nave to conceal the roof beams. The result is the beautiful if slightly eccentric building you see today.