The story of Mary, Queen of Scots, is stranger and more tragic than the most sensational fiction. Though it is more than 400 years since the beautiful queen was beheaded on the orders of her cousin, Queen Elizabeth I of England, her name has resonances not just in her native country but throughout the world.

And, it was in the once-grand Palace of Linlithgow that it all began. This was where Mary, who inherited the throne as an infant, was born in 1542. As we stand in front of the castle with the waters of the loch (lake) beside it sparkling like a diamond-speckled carpet, we seem millennia away from the turbulent times of the ill-fated queen.

We recall the incidents in the life of the thrice-wed and thrice-widowed Mary — married as a child to the Dauphin (prince) of France, then to her cousin Lord Darnley with whom she had her only child James, and, after his murder, to the Earl of Bothwell (was the Earl wholly responsible for killing Darnley, or did Mary have a hand?).

The murder made Mary very unpopular and she had to fight for her throne. Forced to flee her country, she sought the protection of Queen Elizabeth in England.

But, Elizabeth had her imprisoned as she thought Mary was a threat to her life and throne. Mary was shunted from one gloomy castle to another and finally executed — she was just 44.

Linlithgow, a small town, is a half-hour train ride from Edinburgh, the capital of Scotland. The ruined palace — it was burnt down in a fire in the 1740s — is just a few minutes’ walk from the station.

The coat of arms above the Eastern gateway is a bit too assiduously painted. But, when you go beyond the impressive entrance walls, you immediately get the feel of the passage of centuries. The richly-ornamented Renaissance period fountain in the courtyard is believed to be “the oldest surviving fountain in Britain”.

Well-preserved

The Palace, initially a manor house, was used as a fortification when Edward I of England conquered it. After the Scots recaptured it, a succession of royal Stewarts added to the structure. We cannot help admiring the work of Historic Scotland, a government agency which takes care of the numerous forts, palaces and historic places of the country. It does the job meticulously.

The pleasant Scottish gentleman at the ticket counter queries: “From India?” When we nod, he looks pleased. “I was born in India,” he says. “My father was in the Army before Independence, and my wish is to visit India, especially ‘Bombay’.” He then waves us in with a smile.

As we descend the stairs to reach the cellars, climb up to the spacious galleries and wander though the rooms, we feel the presence of the Stewarts. And, everywhere, there are pictures and signs that have been put up by as clues by the local Historic Society.

This is a treasure hunt for schoolchildren, in order to educate them on facts relating to Scottish history and the palace. Children accompanied by their parents are busy unravelling the clues and shouting with glee once they have succeeded. What a wonderful way to teach history!

Up the narrow stairs, we enter the State apartments. The impressive hall and the chapel were built by James V. In the kitchen, quaint details of the inventory of the 16th Century are put up. The Western corridor of the palace houses the artefacts found here during excavations.

Waiting for her warrior

The youngsters in our group have one more place to explore. They go up the winding stairs to the turret known as Margaret’s Tower.

This is where the sister of Henry VIII and wife of James IV of Scotland, is said to have waited — in vain — to sight her husband’s return from the Battle of Floddenfield in which the Scots fought the English. We emerge from the ruins of the palace to take a walk on the lush grass that borders it. Facing us are the clear waters of Loch Linlithgow that abounds in wildfowl.

On the way back to the railway station, we pass the inn “The Four Marys”. It is named after Mary Seton, Mary Beaton, Mary Fleming and Mary Livingstone, all of whom accompanied Mary Queen of Scots as her ladies-in-waiting to France, and were her constant companions till her death.

The inn seems interesting to explore but the family hurries me along “for the train will soon be here”.

Also, I suspect because they do not want me to hold forth on the return journey on not just one, but five Marys! We soon leave the picturesque town behind. But can Mary’s haunting story of love, loss and betrayal, be forgotten? And finally who was the real victor? Elizabeth? Or Mary, whose son James VI inherited the joint thrones of both England and Scotland?