I had 48 hours to scour Scotland, and when weather proved advantageous, I knew that I wanted to explore more than beyond the city limits of Edinburgh. I wanted to visit one of the smaller historic towns that also played a significant role in both Medieval and Stuart-era history. I selected Linlithgow as the first of two other cities to which I would venture. It is also at much less of a steep incline than Edinburgh and Stirling, so visiting there gave my weary legs a bit of a break! The chief highlight and attraction in Linlithgow for history enthusiasts is the ruined palace of Linlithgow right next to the Loch. Even though five hundred years ago it would been magnificent, today it is left scarred and in ruins from centuries of disrepair and a fire that destroyed the interior. The palace served as a primary residence of Stuart (or Stewart) Kings and Queens of Scotland which I will touch on, and remarkably it is credited as the very first ‘palace’ of Scotland or at least the first residence dubbed such. Several other highlights that I got to experience in Linlithgow were a glimpse of the famous Mary Queen of Scots statue, Linlithgow Loch, dining at a local favorite – the Four Mary’s, and the very impressive St Michael’s Parish Church.
How to get there?
Linlithgow is situated in West Lothian, fifteen miles west of central Edinburgh. It can be reached by frequent train intervals from Edinburgh Waverly, but I actually wound up taking an Uber after comparing costs and routes on the fantastic Rome to Rio , Trainline, and ScotsRail which allowed me to monitor trip estimates, times, and routes. From my pick-up near Calton Hill in Edinburgh to my drop-off point in central Linlithgow, it cost me 30 pounds not including an optional tip which made it all the more worth it because my friendly driver decided to take me along some of the countryside. Typical price ranges for utilizing Scotsrail and buying a one-way or round-trip ticket with one-ways costing (depending on timing, prime commuting hours are a little higher) anywhere from 5 to 12 pounds. There are even cheaper options, such as traveling there by bus. Buses depart every 30 minutes from Princes Street in Edinburgh that go all the way to Linlithgow. Also keep in mind that there are tours on Viator and Get Your Guide that include stops in Linlithgow or one of the nearby castles.
Searching for History in a Ruined Palace
Linlithgow Palace today is a shell of the elaborate palace that had once impressed Mary of Guise, perhaps arguably an even more intriguing figure in history than her daughter, Mary Queen of Scots. During initial courtship before marrying the Scottish king James V, she even rebutted English monarch Henry VIII ‘s suggested proposal to him stating that she would marry him if she had but a second head to spare. This was a reference to Henry having Anne Boleyn executed. Mary of Guise married James V and gaven birth to several sons that all died in childbirth before giving birth to Mary at Linlithgow Palace afterwards, when James V died only days after the birth, she ruled as Queen regent on behalf of their infant daughter Mary, Queen of Scots. She ended up having to send her daughter to France to avoid Henry VIII’s violent attempt to marry infant Mary (to add to the oddity, she was his great-niece) to his own infant son, Edward VI of England. During the strange episode known as The Rough Wooing, Henry’s quest was to wed the two infants and “unite” Britain after hundreds of years of warfare between the Scottish and English. Henry VIII’s attempt to force the marriage, although unsuccessful, resulted in several violent skirmishes.
Linlithgow Palace was where infant Mary was born and lived for seven months before being moved to Stirling Castle, a nearby bona fide fortress. She was moved to France at age 5 and spent the next 12 years there. She had been proclaimed Queen of Scotland when she was just nine days old. It is ironic to note Mary, Queen of Scots, would have likely first married a sickly prince either way: Francis of France, whom she did marry, died prematurely, resulting in her early widowhood. Henry VIII’s son Edward lasted only six years on the throne before succumbing to illness.
Linlithgow Palace offers quite a contrast after visiting another Mary Queen of Scots location in Edinburgh, Holyroodhouse Palace, which I spoke in brief about here. Apart from being born here as an infant, she did stay here several more times. The last occasion was in 1567 two weeks prior to her marriage to her third husband, Lord Bothwell, and her first of many years of imprisonment.
The admission fee is considerably cheaper than similiar attractions at 7.20 pounds, and can be included in the Scottish Explorer pass available to tourists visiting or citizens of the United Kingdom alike. The palace may lack the tapestries of castles and palaces not in ruins, but you can imagine how it would have impressed courtiers at the end of the 15th century! It still features the famous King’s Fountain, with its detailed carvings of the Stewart dynasty, as well as towering spiral staircases. The Palace overlooks the loch of its name, and the greenery surrounding the palace, known as the Peel, is a frequent place for tourists and townspeople alike to picnic.
Do note that there are certain sectors that may occasionally be closed off, and with it being ruins, it often has places where you can easily lose footing as you wander around the interior and corridors. A large chunk of it was closed for presumably some renovation work to keep the ruins as stable as possible for visitors. This, like other castles and palaces of Scotland and England, can be subject to closure in inclement weather, so monitor Scottish Heritage on social media for any potential closures or hour changes here.
There was a lake there years ago an old local told meFrancis Duggan
It is now a shrubby valley where Lake Linlithgow use to be
The creeks that did flow into it stopped flowing years ago
Yes climate change it is for real as we have come to know,
The old bloke into his seventies has enjoyed a long life span
He used to swim in Lake Linlithgow when he was a young man
And only puddles of water in linlithgow despite the recent heavy rain
And boats sailing where the lake once was will not be seen again,
The old bloke he seemed sprightly though the years had left him gray
He said about Linlithgow thought I’d never see the day
That where a great lake once was only scrub now grow
I used to fish with my mates there but that was years ago,
Only shrub grow in Linlithgow the old bloke shook his head
It used to be a great lake when I was young he said.
A Most Magnificent Church: St. Michael’s Parish
On my way out of Linlithgow Palace and its grounds, I was struck by a church just adjacent to the entrance with architecture that melded old and new. I nearly abandoned visiting as I was starting to get hungry by this point, but something compelled me to take a peek inside without having known the history of it at the time. In an odd way, the top of St. Michael’s Parish Church reminded me of St. Gile’s Cathedral . When I took a step inside for a visit, I was immediately blown away by the sheer magnificence of the nave and the stained glass. It is funny that sometimes the places we don’t plan on visiting are some of the most memorable.
It is named after the patron saint of Linlithgow, St. Michael. Its proximity to Linlithgow Palace made it a frequent location where kings and queens of Scotland prior to Mary, Queen of Scots would have worshiped. This church was where the infant Mary was baptized. The church was much the same until around 1560 in which reformers destroyed some of the statues on the inside and outside. They accused the church of being papist in sympathies, and this made the former Catholic church a target for pillaging during the religious wars that continued through much of 16th century in Scotland and England alike. The beautiful nave existing today is also where Oliver Cromwell’s troops, comprised of Puritans and Catholics alike, briefly stayed and worshipped. The modern interior is by in large mostly done from the reconstruction following the religious wars that plagued Britain. This church is also not to be confused with the nearby St, Michael’s Roman Catholic Church, which is also a short walk from the palace grounds.
This was a church that fell victim to some rather dark history. It was ransacked during the height of the religious movement in the early to mid 16th century. It also the site of where James Stewart, Earl Moray, Mary Queen of Scots’ half brother and regent to her son (not to be confused with her son of the same name, the future James VI of Scotland/James I of England), was assassinated. As regent, he became the first head-of-state of Scotland to have the misfortune of being assassinated and by yet another James, James Hamilton.
Linlithgow: The City
“St Michael is kinde to strangers”.Linlithgow’s Town Motto (St Michael is Patron Saint)
Linlithgow is a lively town in West Lothian of about 19,000. Its palace is but one of several very lovely things there, and the street art I discovered along the side wall of a post office proved there was more than meets the eye. There is a fountain in the city center that intentionally resembles the fountain in the courtyard of Linlithgow Palace in the city center. The city was founded by King David of Scotland in the early 14th century and was originally designed to be a military base with wooden fortifications. Those same wooden fortifications made a fire that destroyed much of the town all the more destructive when a fire destroyed much of the village and the wooden walls in the early 15th century. The city’s main attraction is still the Palace and a stop between several castles in West Lothian for tourists to visit, but curiously the Loch makes it an attraction for outdoor visitors as well. The swans that are said to roam about are said to be “left over remnants” from when Cromwellian troops took over Linlithgow.
One story that peaked my interest stemmed from me noticing on lampposts and the very crest of Linlithgow itself, the symbol of a black dog, which is referred to in another term. It is said a man once from the area was sentenced to death by starvation on a nearby island, but his resolute black greyhound canine decided to swim out to the island resolutely to give him food. Regardless of the truth of it or not, residents to this day to still refer to this legend both in verbiage and in imagery as The Black Bitch and supposedly refer to themselves as such.* There is even a local pub named after that legend. I cannot attest to having met anyone that volunteered themselves as such , but it makes for a good town story and supposedly residents identify as the plural moniker. For some curious insight into what Linlithgow has evolved to in more modern times, I would suggest to check out the History Scotland website here and shares photos from the 19th and 20th century Linlithgow. In 1919, it was dubbed as the Royal Burgh of Linlithgow.
Lunch in Linlithgow: The Four Mary’s
I found this an absolutely charming small town to walk around. The locals with whom I interacted both at the palace and in the town were friendly, warm, and engaging, and although there are several options, I elected to eat at The Four Mary’s pub. The name is a reference to the four handmaidens of Mary, Queen of Scots, all named Mary: Mary Barton, Mary Seaton, Mary Fleming, and Mary Livingston who had accompanied Mary on her journey from the French to the Scottish court in 1560. For beer fans, there are always eight beers on draft and an ample selection of ciders in which I elected a Thistly Cross. They also have a menu that offers lunch and small plates to pair with a delicious brew, or perhaps one of the many local whiskies served here. I ordered fish and chips, as well as a small order of chicken tikka, for a reasonable amount. It is a very comfortable place for lunch although from what the locals said it can get quite busy during the evening and primary commuting hours. Everything is within comfortable walking range – the main attractions, the Church, the train station, and the downtown historic sector and post office.
All together, I would heartily recommend at least a stopover in Linlithgow especially if searching for something to do in between Edinburgh and Stirling. There are certainly other parts of it I would have loved to walk around should I have had more time, but I opted to next visit Stirling nearby. The train station in Linlithgow is centrally located and only has two platforms and has frequent service to Stirling, Edinburgh, and Glasgow although I would suggest monitoring the ScotsRail website and mobile app. Both of those do a great job at informing travelers if there are delays. Visiting a smaller town is a wonderful way to experience an authentic experience of a location not always overrun with tourists and a good way to see a glimpse where people work and live.