Bellenden’s translation of Boece
tells us that Agricola “come to Striuelyng....
and nocht lang efter he byggit ane bryg ouir Forth...”. The 16th century chronicler
is not renowned for reliability ; no other historian mentions this
bridge. The definitive source should be the Roman historian Tacitus, but he records no such
event. However, he does write of the Roman army “crossing into Caledonia” (The Agricola 10) and
that the country beyond “...might be called another island ” (The
Agricola 23). Certainly, the geographical and military
significance of this particular river crossing continued throughout medieval times and on until
the eighteenth century. Movement between the north and south of Scotland was vitally
influenced by the topography of the Forth valley. It was always the
‘great junction of Scottish traffic.’
The first century Roman road approaches from the south-east. Very recent archaeological findings at Beechwood (279286 691995) appear to confirm the general direction shown on the 1856 edition Ordnance Survey, which traces the road from Torwood through the (now) Pirnhall roundabout and on down into the town. Excavations in the 1970’s confirmed the road in the gardens of houses in the the King’s Park area (279169 692735) which lie on an extension of that line, and also just within the main gate of the Park itself (279129 692926). This last confirmed finding is still one mile short of the river. The crossing was most probably at the ancient ford of Kildean (278523 695021), but despite field observations and excavations, nothing has been found to confirm this. Equally the road might have veered west or east of the castle in the direction of today’s bridged crossing. Kildean and Bridghaugh are a little more than a mile apart. There is nothing Roman to be found at either, nor is there any evidence of the road immediately on the north bank. It first re-appears some 6 miles away beyond Dunblane at 279424 70457 on the south bank of the Allan Water. From there it progresses up into Perthshire.The road was consolidated and repaired in the Antonine period (circa 140AD) and since we know it was still in use in medieval times it is reasonable to presume that it was used in the Roman Severan invasion of 208AD.
Dio Cassius describes the Severan campaign in some detail and tells us that time was spent by this enormous army ‘in cutting down the forests, levelling the heights, filling up the swamps, and bridging the rivers.’ It is interesting that a coin celebrating the emperor’s successes in Scotland, in 208, features a bridge over a river.
Early medieval period and the oldest bridge.
Boece also records that in 855 AD Scotland was invaded by two Northumbrian princes, Osbrecht and Ella, who had united their forces with the Cumbrian Britons in order to defeat the Scots. Having secured the castle, they threw a stone bridge over the Forth, and on the top, raised a crucifix with an inscription: -"Anglos a Scotis separat crux ista remotis . Hic armis Bruti: Scoti stant hic cruce tuti." Bellenden’s translation was in poetry. Later historians appear to avoid a translation but an approximation seems to be : "The cross separates English from Scots, distancing them. Britons stand protected by force of arms. Scots by the cross"
Fordun (14th century) makes no record of this event and nor do medieval English historians. Its limited authenticity comes only from the 13th century seal of the Burgh of Stirling. This 9cm round seal impression shows a bridge, apparently of wood, with eight piers of stone, a crucifix and the last part of the same motto surrounding it: “Hic armis Bruti: Scoti stant hic cruce tuti." It seems possible that Boece’s 16th century narrative started with the 13th century seal and dubiously worked backwards to the 9th century. Whether or not there was a bridge at various times through the early medieval period is not known. However, in the 1980s sewage workers next to the river uncovered an apparent ford-bottoming at a point just downstream of the present New Bridge. It seems that initially they covered it up to avoid delays in the work programme. In 1838 Stevenson reported seven more ancient fordable spots in the 10 river-mile distance between Stirling and Alloa. No doubt these were all in regular use throughout Scotland’s long history of cattle trading. William the Conqueror was known to have crossed a ford at Stirling in 1072, when on his way to sign a peace treaty with Malcolm III. However, too much should not be concluded from this as every bridge was intermittently dangerous and in need of repair.
Later medieval Period.
The Stirling Burgh Seal does at least tell us that there was a bridge in 1296 and the fact that it appeared on a town seal suggests it had been there for some time. William Drysdale claims to have seen a document, dated 1211, referring to the seal, in the Edinburgh Advocates’ Library. We have further corroboration: Mathew Paris’s map of 1247 ( left) appears to show only one bridge in the whole of Britain, at Stirling on the River Forth (London Bridge,1209, was certainly obscured by the city detail and perhaps others were similarly hidden) . The ‘Pons Estruelin' is clearly a bridge of substance. The geography is inaccurate and distorted - maps of this age are impressionist rather than realistic - but the impression it gives clearly reflects the perception that the Forth and Clyde Valleys were an enormous barrier. They appeared to effectively create an island beyond Stirling and this isolated area is prominently labelled Scocia Ultra Marina (Scotland beyond the sea). In medieval times the Forth estuary was indeed called ‘The Scottish Sea’ . It seems that in the 13th century an extensive carse marsh combined with a large estuary to limit access to the country beyond Stirling. Passage was wholly dependent on Paris’s bridge. That might suggest that the bridge was not a temporary or recent feature on the landscape. The map also gives significance and credibility to Tacitus’s first century observations about crossing into Caledonia.
The Pons Estruelin was destroyed in 1297 at the Battle of Stirling Bridge. This Scottish military success in the Wars of Independence is the stuff of legend, inspiration and often propaganda. The story has been told and retold over 700 years. William Wallace’s role was minimised initially and then enhanced and romanticised over the centuries. It seems that resentment of a heavy handed English regime had been focussed by crippling wool taxes applied by Edward I ‘s agents. England was about to wage war in France and many Scottish nobles expected to be conscripted. There is historical consensus that the insurgence started in the spring in two distinct areas, led by Wallace in the South and Moray in the Northeast. For six months both rebellions enjoyed success, particularly in Aberdeen, where an interim government was established. An English army was dispatched in response, led by the Earl of Surrey and supported by Cressingham, Edward’s agent in Scotland, who had raised additional troops in the North of England. A combined Scottish force assembled north of Stirling in the August and faced the English army across the Stirling Bridge in September. There is disagreeement about the size of the respective armies: on balance, probably fewer than 10,000 on either side. It is very clear from all sources that the English high command committed a tactical disaster; they started the long process of taking their troops across the bridge which was probably no more than 9 ft wide. It has been suggested that this strategic blunder arose from an over-confident view that they merely had to turn up in order to achieve success. Cressingham had rejected advice that a flanking manouevre via a nearby ford would be more prudent. The Scots waited until the English were suitably divided in strength before engaging. The bridge was collapsed, probably deliberately. Half the English army was killed, entirely on the north bank. Cressinham died. Surrey fled to Berwick. The wheeled cargo and baggage train were abandoned, and shortly afterwards, the castle was conceded. None of the ancient historians is helpful about the precise location of the bridge although the advice given to Cressingham about the existence of a nearby ford may be important. (If this implied Kildean then the battle may have been at Bridgehaugh.) One attractive post-script to the legend is the role of John Wright, a Scots foot-soldier who reputedly was delegated to pull out the series of pins that caused the wooden bridge to collapse. Following the battle he was nicknamed ‘Pin Wright’. The first-born of the Wright family was given the name ’Pin’ thereafter, and the last Pin Wright died in 1900, the family having kept alive the tradition for over 600 years.
Nineteenth century historians argued relentlessly about whether the ancient crossing and ancient bridge had been at Kildean or at Bridghaugh. It still seems probable that the Romans crossed at Kildean, but there are several other possibilities for Roman crossing further to the west. However, the matter of the ‘Wallace’ bridge now seems to be settled. In 1905, the remains of two ancient bridge piers were revealed at Bridgehaugh, lying below water level some 60 yards upstream of the present medieval bridge. They were 8m long by 4m wide. Their existence was confirmed in the drought of 1955.
In 1996 and 1997, using sonar and subaqua probing, Ronald Page along with teams from St. Andrews University, Stirling University and the British Geological Survey collaborated to locate and survey these piers. Two additional piers were found, of equal size and spacing. The whole layout strongly suggests that four more may yet remain to be discovered; perhaps they have been swept away. These bridge remnants therefore suggest an eight piered wooden structure similar to the one depicted on the 13th century Stirling Burgh Seal. At least some of the stones which made up the newly found piers appeared to be of dressed masonry. Unfortunately, although some fragments of wood were recovered, they were unsuitable for dendrochronology.
The angle of these remnants to the flow of water is peculiar. The line lies at 60° to the river and at a 30° angle to the present medieval bridge, which itself has its cutwaters off-line from the flow. Bridges are rarely constructed in this way as the cutwaters are too important . Inglis, in 1913, had made a suggestion that the river may be slowly changing course over centuries, which could explain the discrepancy with both bridges. Most old maps do not provide enough detail to study this possibility, although some do suggest a more right-angular relationship of the river with the later medieval bridge.
The Scottish success in 1297, was short-lived and Edward I had reoccupied the castle within a year. There were references to a ferry in 1304 and Edward issued a writ for repair of the bridge in 1305 but it seems this did not occur. Certainly, through most of the fourteenth century, boats were used to cross the river, but Treasury documents referring to ferries cease after 1392. This conflicts somewhat with a record that in 1407 a very old bridge was was in existence; Pope Benedict wrote from France that “….it is in a very ruinous condition on account of its great age….”
Work on a new bridge was started by Robert III and completed in 1415. In 1424 an English spy reported to Henry VI that the bridge was ‘broken’; the implication is that it was still constructed of wood. In 1430 more wood was transported to the bridge, for repairs. In 1488 rebels defended the bridge a few days prior to the Battle of Sauchieburn at which James III was killed. In 1501 a hospital was built at the south end of the bridge. In 1528 the young King James V escaped from ‘guardianship’ at Falkland, to be given refuge and protection, as he crossed at Stirling.
The bridge was completely ruinous again in 1598. An extensive rebuild was probable.
Seventeenth Century and later.
A significant structural improvement followed. We know that by 1600 there were large masonry over-arches at both ends of the decking with an iron gate at the northerly arch which was part of the town defence. In this period there were over-arches at both ends and the central pier buttress rose up as high as the parapet and was fashioned into a guardhouse. There were tolls at this point and customs for import into the Royal Burgh. In the later 17th century these tolls were franchised-out for around £1000 per year which would amount to more than £3M if expressed relatively to todays GDP-per-capita. Throughout the 17th century there are many references to repairs for the bridge.
From 1600 onwards, the narrow corridor at Stirling became a key location in Scotland’s most important economic activity: cattle. The most striking aspect of Haldane’s map of drove roads is that his labyrinthine tree comes to a single bottleneck at Stirling before widening out again to the south. Trysts at Crieff and at Falkirk dominated the market and huge droves had to brought down through Stirling on their way to Falkirk and then to England. The Scottish Highlands were viewed as the grazing fields of England.
In terms of later military importance, the bridge was garrisoned and fortified by Covenanters in 1644 to defend against the Duke of Montrose. A little later the entire Covananter army crossed over it. In the 1715 Jacobite rebellion the Hanovarians occupied the bridge to prevent the rebels proceding South to meet up with reinforcements. In the latter part of the Battle of Sheriffmuir, Government forces were chased back to the bridge by the Earl of Mar. Despite this, the outcome of the engagement was uncertain. The bridge was a key component of the military road to Crieff , built by Major William Caulfield in 1741. In the 1745 rebellion, Prince Charles’ army, going south, was forced to cross the river by the marshes at Frew, 15 km to the east, because the Stirling bridge was occupied and defended by Government troops. On their retreat north again, the Highlander army was closely pursued by Cumberland. They brought down the south arch of the bridge behind them, to protect their retreat towards Crieff. Cumberland’s soldiers threw wooden beams across the breach in order to follow them and avoid a long detour. The arch was not repaired until 1749. The repair to the breach can still be seen and at low tide, beneath the southernmost arch, dressed stone rubble is still lying around, possibly from the original damage. The south over-arch was lost at this time and in 1773 the north over-arch with its iron gate was removed.
Today Stirling Old Bridge is a pedestrian way. There are four unribbed semicircular arches with varying spans of 38ft, 55ft, 56ft and 48ft, from south to north.
There are two orders of ashlar voussoirs with well dressed opposed chamfering. The spandrels are also in very weathered ashlar although the approaches at both ends are in eighteenth century uncut uncoursed rubble.
The bridge has enormous piers and huge cutwaters on both sides. There are large buttresses on the downstream side of the north approach. The decking is cobbled and not only humped but has a slight downstream bowing and a double defensive twist at the north approach, to obstruct charging horsemen. In fact, the springing of the arches is off-centre on each pier and consequently the parapets are marginally out of alignment. This is best seen at the central refuges. The additional twist was deliberate: a poorly understood association with preventing witchcraft. There are pilasters and pilons at each end of the bridge and unusual stepped castellated parapet coping. The 18th century south arch repairs can still be seen on spandrels and intrados.
Although it is often considered to be a 15th century bridge, Inglis presents an argument that the present structure is more probably from the late 16th century: perhaps a rebuild at the time it was deemed ruinous in 1598. We know it was radiant once more in the early 1600s with overarches, a large iron gate and a toll imposed; the varying span of the arches is a later dating feature; Gothic arches would be expected on a fifteenth century bridge and ribbed soffits would be more likely; the bridge is is 13ft wide, parapet to parapet, which is more than might be expected for 15th century structure. There is no historical evidence for this, but it might be important that the Old Bridge of Earn was remarkably similar in style and structure, almost suggesting the same architect. It too, was ruinous in 1592. Perhaps both were rebuilt around the same time by the same team.
In 1806 the town petitioned the Government for £6000 to widen the old bridge. Happily, nothing was done, and instead, Thomas Telford was consulted and offered plans providing a new bridge altogether. His plans were rejected, however, and the contract was given to Robert Stevenson (grandfather of the author of Treasure Island). Stevenson's creation was built in 1829, some 100m downstream. This is a beautiful five-span ashlar bridge with stilted segmental arches and rounded cutwaters. Particularly attractive is the way the courses of the spandrels follow the lines of the voussoirs.
The old medieval bridge closed to traffic in 1831 to become a pedestrian pathway and tourist attraction. It is now managed by Historic Scotland.