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A visit to Stirling Castle. 9, May 2012

Posted by Iphigenia in Historical Attractions.
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As part of my training at work my boss kindly arrange for me and a couple of other staff to visit Stirling castle today. The idea was that we’d chat to a couple of the Historic Scotland stewards and experience a guided tour. We do give guided tours at my work but we’re a much smaller operation. It’s rare that we have to go to the lengths of planning that must be required to keep a Historic Scotland attraction ticking over. They schedule 40 minute tours every hour on the hour. That’s 40 minutes to cover the entire history of the castle, which spans a handful of centuries. It’s quite a daunting prospect having to deliver such a lengthy time span in a concise yet still informative way.

For the first part of our visit we chatted to a steward called Gary. Even though we didn’t experience a full tour I could tell that his tours were probably good fun. He did mention that sometimes he has to edit his tours if groups don’t respond to humour or don’t have English as a first language but in the main I felt like he strikes the right balance between facts and being light hearted.He explained each step of his tour to us and how to tackle common problems, namely visitors distracting other patrons by talking or messing about.

Afterwards we attached ourselves to a tour by a steward who I think was called Michael. It was quite a big group and Michael was softly spoken so it was difficult to hear him sometimes. However, he knew his stuff and it was interesting to see there’s an obvious contrast between how different stewards take a tour. I’ve always known that reciting facts you learned from a sheet isn’t going to turn into a good tour. It was nice to have it confirmed that you just need to do what feels natural. Personally I preferred Gary’s style because I aspire to give tours that are funny and almost casual enough to feel like I’m having a conversation with visitors. Obviously in bigger groups this isn’t always possible so I appreciate the more heavily fact based style of tours by people like Michael.

When I was little I always dreamed of working in a place run by organisations like English Heritage. Since moving to Scotland my inner child set her sights on Historic Scotland. I know I’ve got a long way to go before I’ll hit the standard they require. Whenever I visit places like Stirling castle I am always struck by the age of the frontline staff. They’re not ancient but they’ve obviously got a decade or two on 20something me. It seems like working for Historic Scotland, at least front of house, is one of those careers that you remain in for years, even decades. And I’m not surprised. The amount of people they deal with daily, the amount of tours they need to give and the amount of information they need to learn – it’s all well above what I need in my current job. That’s no disrespect to my job at all. It’s just a different visitor base and has a different level of demands. But in a bigger tourist attraction you probably have to spend a lot more time preparing yourself, training yourself. Of course you’re not going to be there for a short time.

I used to work in York which of course is a busy tourist city. We did get busy on occasion but I didn’t have the added pressure of giving guided tours. I had to be available to answer questions of course but a lot of the time people just wanted to quietly browse. It’s a similar environment in my current job although I will always talk to visitors if they are open to it. I’ve had some great conversations with people from all over the world during the past couple of years. If there’s one good reason to work front of house in a museum it’s the fact you’ll meet so many different people. You also get a lot of amusing questions from children. I’ve learned that to keep children happy there’s a handful of topics they’ll love. Dinosaurs seem to get a reaction, so do the stars and planets. Then there’s the more visceral stuff like poo and blood.

Anyway, I digress.

After finishing our tour we wandered around the refurbished royal palace. I last visited Stirling castle in December 2008 when I hadn’t been with my boyfriend very long. At that time the palace was closed. It opened again last summer. Can it really be three and a half years since I was last there? I think I need to go back and get another look at the palace and indeed the rest of the castle. By the time we’d wandered around for another hour we were all ready for lunch. I get to a point where I’m so hungry that I can’t think about anything else. Unfortunately, that point had been reached!

So I probably go back to the castle some day soon. I still enjoyed my time there today but as with a lot of things…one day often isn’t enough to see it all.