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Most historians agree that the Great Hall at Stirling Castle was the work of James IV, and built during the years 1501 to 1504. James had already built what is now called the King's Old Building on the west side of the Inner Close: the Great Hall was intended to provide a fitting venue for his state occasions.
There remains some confusion, however, because one account written in the late 1500s suggests that James III built the Great Hall. And there are also references from around the same time to "The Old Hall", suggesting that the Great Hall was not the first to be built within the castle.
James IV, assuming this was his work, clearly intended to impress. The Great Hall was the largest ever built in Scotland, measuring 138ft by 47ft: far larger than the hall at Edinburgh Castle, which measured just 95ft by 41ft. It is heated by five fireplaces. The space seems huge to 21st Century eyes. It must have been truly awe-inspiring in the 1500s.
The Great Hall had about a century's use in its original role as a royal hall. Events held here included the banquet following the baptism of James VI on 17 December 1566: while on 15 July 1578 twelve year old James presided over a meeting of the Scottish Parliament here.
Perhaps the most spectacular event seen in the Great Hall was the banquet following the christening of Prince Henry in the new Chapel Royal on 30 August 1594. The highlight of the banquet was a wooden ship, 18ft long with masts 40ft high. From it seafood was served to the guests. The ship came complete with 36 brass cannons that fired a salute to the Prince.
The Union of the Crowns shifted the focus of the monarchy to London and the Great Hall was no longer needed for its original purpose. For many years it served as a stable and cart shed and was damaged during the siege by General Monck in 1650 (see our Historical Timeline and Stirling Castle Timeline).
At the time of the upgrade to the defences of the castle in 1711-1714 an extra floor was inserted into the hall to make it more useful for military purposes. Further work took place between 1796 and 1799 when two floors and five cross walls were inserted into the structure and twelve barrack rooms were built, numerous windows created, and the original complex hammerbeam roof greatly simplified to give more room for accommodation.
As early as 1893 it was suggested that the Great Hall should be restored to something more like its original state, and things went one stage further when plans were drawn up in 1946. But there was little opportunity to begin restoration until the military left Stirling Castle in 1964.
Early work in the 1960s to remove the additions made in the late 1700s produced enough evidence of the original state of the Great Hall to allow a decision to be taken to restore it as nearly as possible to its 1504 condition. After more than 30 years' work, the restored Great Hall was opened by Queen Elizabeth II on 30 November 1999.
The return of the Great Hall to its original state was as much a rebuilding as a renovation, and the process was a controversial one that would probably not be contemplated today. Especially striking, and especially controversial, was the way the restored building was rendered and limewashed before its opening in 1999. The result is a hall that looks much as it would have done to James IV in 1504; and which is visible for miles around.