Edinburgh Castle is a silent witness to many of the events that shaped Scotland’s history. Although its walls no longer ring to the sound of battle it remains, in the hearts of many Scots, a potent symbol of their country’s internal struggle and fierce resistance to its more powerful southern neighbour.
Edinburgh Castle History
Even the briefest exploration of the castle’s better-known ‘places of interest’ allows a valuable insight into Scotland’s past but to peer into a some of the castle’s less well-known and sometimes overlooked nooks and crannies allows a much more intimate picture of life within these ancient walls.
Those with a particular interest in the origins of Edinburgh Castle might consider an early historical reference to Din Eidyn (Dunedin) – a fortress on the rock, worthy of further study. The reference found in an Old Welsh poem of c 600 AD was attributed to the Gododdin, a Celtic tribe that wielded power between the River Forth and the River Tees in the north east of England. Howeverby 638, in the ebb and flow of the Dark Age struggle for power, the Gododdin were defeated by the Germanic Angles and Din Eidyn became Edinburgh.
By the middle of the 11th century the development of Edinburgh Castle, still only a hunting lodge, the precursor to a more substantial castle, became clearer. Following the defeat and death of Macbeth and his stepson Lulach, Malcolm Canmore (Mael Coluim mac Donnchada) became King Malcolm III. Unlike Macbeth’s kingdom, with its predominately Highland Gaelic culture, Malcolm, raised in the harsh Anglo-Scandinavian environment of northern England brought new political, social and cultural change to his kingdom.
St Margaret’s Chapel
Although Malcolm played a significant role in Scotland’s development it is his second wife Margaret that is better remembered thanks to the chapel that bears her name. St Margaret’s Chapel, which stands high on the castle’s Upper Ward, is the oldest surviving building in the Scottish capital.
Following the Norman invasion and the Battle of Hastings in 1066, Margaret and other members of England’s royal family fled north to the Scottish court to seek protection. Her subsequent marriage to Malcolm in 1069 began a dynastic process that would bring great change both to Edinburgh’s fortress on the Castle Rock and to a wider Scotland.
It was her son King David I who built the little chapel in his mother’s memory. In many ways David, who came to the throne in 1124, was a remarkable man, pious like his mother, a qualitythat earned him the epithet “Saint David” for his generous gifts to the church. He is remembered too for establishing the Augustinian Abbey of the Holy Rood, (Holyrood) which later developed as a royal residence much preferred to the cold and draughty Edinburgh Castle.
Writing on the life of Margaret, later St Margaret, Thomas Owen Clancy and Barbara E Crawford argued that she was one of the noble and royal women,” who made their mark on the religious and cultural scene of their countries.” Clancy and Crawford continued by saying that her, “Personal contribution to Scotland’s standing and reputation is quite inestimable. She brought enormous prestige to the Scottish standing and propelled it to the forefront of European royalty.” Historian Michael Fry added, “She [Margaret] raised the life at court far above its previous uncouth level to a magnificence that Scotland had never known before.”
Following the Reformation St Margaret’s Chapel was converted to a gunner’s storehouse and only returned to its former glory in 1845. Today a couple intent on tying the knot in the exquisitely preserved building might take the cobbled path that leads through the quaintly named Foog’s Gate, perhaps so named because of the swirling sea mists and fog, that on occasions, envelop the higher reaches of the ancient Castle Rock, says Historic Scotland.
They may stop and take the time to wonder at the mighty medieval siege cannon Mons Meg, cast in 1449, which sits close to the Chapel staring silently across the Middle Ward to the city below.
Mons Meg, designed to hurl 330-pound balls at uninvited visitors saw action in the siege of Roxburgh Castle in 1460 where James II was killed by another exploding piece of medieval ordnance. The gun was removed temporarily from the castle to the Tower of London following the introduction of the Disarming Act, an attempt to demilitarize Scotland after the 1745-46 Jacobite rebellion and only returned in 1829.
Directly below Mons Meg, close to the Argyle Tower, the upper section of the Portcullis Gate, a visitor would come across possibly the most unexpected of all the castle’s attractions. Incongruous perhaps but the Dog Cemetery reflects the love that many British people have of their pets. The headstones which mark the final resting place of regimental mascots and officers’ pets are inscribed with evocative prose that remind us of the role that dogs played in a soldier’s life. “Jess the band pet of the 42nd Highlanders (Black Watch) who died in 1881” and Dobbler who died in 1893 after following his master to many of the world’s most troubled places.
Today a visitor to Scotland’s capital who stops to wonder at the austere and imposing bulk that is Edinburgh Castle might be forgiven for believing that such a structure must have been impregnable. Certainly early 17th century traveller John Taylor, perhaps influenced more by romance than actuality said, “The castle on a loftie rock is so strongly grounded, bounded and founded, that by force of man it can never be confounded: the foundation and walls are impenetrable, the rampiers impregnable, the bulwarks invincible…”
History of course has provided ample evidence to show that Taylor was wrong in his assessment of Edinburgh Castle, far from being unassailable; Edinburgh’s guardian fortress changed hands many times although not always as a result of military action.
In 1174 for example English forces captured Scotland’s William I (William the Lion) at Alnwick in Northumberland. The price of his freedom was high, for England’s Henry II demanded feudal overlordship of Scotland and insisted that Scotland’s king pay homage to him. If that was not enough the great castles at Stirling and Edinburgh were also surrendered to Henry, it was 1186 before they were returned to Scottish control.
Maid of Norway
The death of Alexander III in 1286 and his daughter Margaret, the Maid of Norway four years later left Scottish nobles squabbling over succession and the invitation to England’s King Edward I to adjudicate did nothing to resolve the crisis, it led instead to the Scottish Wars of Independence. During this period between 1296 and 1341 that Edinburgh Castle changed hands four times.
More Scottish History
Recognizing the castle’s vulnerability to attack King Robert the Bruce, only months before his victory at Bannockburn in 1314, gave the order to destroy much of the infrastructure to prevent it being used again by the English. It lay derelict for the following two decades before once again being occupied by the English in 1335.
Edinburgh Castle Great Hall
For many the Great Hall, completed during the reign of James IV in 1511 is the most impressive part of the castle. Tucked away in Crown Square close to the Half Moon Battery it was only restored during the reign of Queen Victoria many years after Oliver Cromwell, determined to remove any association with royalty, turned it into a barracks in 1650.
While the restoration work is impressive, the original hammerbeam roof, one of only two remaining medieval roofs in Scotland, surely takes pride of place. For the historical sleuth the Great Hall has some other, easily missed, reminders of another age. A number of superbly decorated corbels, which support the roof, have a story to tell. One for example proudly displays Scottish thistles and French fleur-de-lis, a potent symbol of the Auld Alliance with France. Another, in a rare example of cross-border unity shows a vase with both roses and thistles in commemoration of the marriage of James IV to Margaret Tudor, sister to Henry VIII.
There is certain inevitability that the name of Mary Queen of Scots should be associated with the castle. It was1566 when the young queen took up residence there to prepare for the birth of her child, the future James VI of Scotland and I of England. It was only six years before that her mother Mary of Guise, Regent of Scotland, had taken refuge and subsequently died in the castle during the Siege of Leith and the growing tumult of the Scottish Reformation.
An easily missed plaque, dedicated to Sir William Kirkcaldy of Grange, sits high on the Portcullis Gate. It reads, “…Justly reputed to be one of the best soldiers and most accomplished cavaliers of his time he held this Castle for Queen Mary from May 1568 to May 1573 and after its honourable surrender suffered death for devotion to Her cause on 3rd August 1573.”
Although by 1568, following her defeat by Regent Moray at the Battle of Langside, Mary who by this time had abdicated in favour of her infant son James fled to England in the hope of protection from her cousin Queen Elizabeth I.
Despite her absence from Scotland, Kirkcaldy, the Governor of Edinburgh Castle was determined to continue his support for her by refusing to surrender to Moray. What followed became known as the “Lang Siege.”
Siege of Edinburgh Castle
In November 1572 the Earl of Morton succeeded Moray as Regent. Insisting on a strong alliance with England he was determined to establish law and order in Scotland. To this end he began the siege of Edinburgh Castle. Finally, with the support of Elizabeth a battery of 20 heavy guns was sent north from Berwick and following 10 days of heavy bombardment, which destroyed much of the east side of the castle, Kirkcaldy surrendered and the Lang Siege, which had lasted over a year, came to an end. While Morton allowed the garrison to go free, Kirkcaldy was executed and his severed head was spiked and placed on the castle walls, a reminder that support for Mary would not be tolerated.
Following the Union of the Crowns in 1603 James returned to the castle in 1617. His “hame-coming,” his only visit to the country of his birth since 1603, encouraged a refurbishment of the Royal Palace, itself an extension the earlier David’s Tower. Some of these changes are still visible today.
Close to the Royal Palace is the Half Moon Battery, the Great Half Bastion Round built by Regent Morton around the ruins of David’s Tower brought down in the Lang Siege bombardment.
The story of the building of the Half Moon Battery, designed to defend the castle’s vulnerable east front, is an interesting one. Robert Chambers writing in The Ancient Domestic Architecture of Edinburgh considers, not the value of the construction to the castle’s defences but the cost of them and the effect on the Scottish purse. Chambers makes the point that the building work was the cause of him [Morton], “debasing the national coin.” In order to more easily pay the workmen who received over £440 for work between August 1573 and May 1574.
It was a vast sum for the 16th century and when the £300 pound payment to Sir William McDougal, the Master of Works was taken into account it seems likely that the cost of the Half Moon Battery was a contributory factor in Morton’s decision to devalue Scotland’s currency in order to balance the books.
The Argyle Battery
More cannons are located on the north side of the castle. The Argyle Battery originally installed after the first Jacobite rising in 1715 now display guns made around 1810 during the Napoleonic Wars. While the ordnance, each carrying the royal cipher of George III on its barrel is an interesting reminder of a difficult period in British history it’s two of the men originally involved in the building project that are worth pausing to consider.
Major General George Wade, the man who gave the order to build the Argyle Battery, is perhaps best known as the builder of a network of roads throughout the Highlands which allowed a more effective military control of the region in the wake of the 1715 Jacobite uprising. The builder was one William Adam the renowned Scottish architect perhaps better known for the design of grand country houses of which Hopetoun House near Edinburgh is a prime example.
Battle of Dunbar
The defeat of the Scottish Covenanter’s army at the Battle of Dunbar in 1650 (part of the third English Civil War) left the road to Edinburgh open and Oliver Cromwell needed no second invitation.
His occupation of Edinburgh Castle marked a change of role for the fortress moving from a defensive structure to a military barracks and occasional prisoner of war camp particularly during the Jacobite uprising 1745-6, the Seven Years War 1757-63, the American War of Independence and the Napoleonic Wars.
As the castle now adapts to its role as a Historic Scotland tourist attraction all manner of events now take place including performances by some of the world’s best musicians attracted by the spectacular stage setting.
However for many the most important date in the castle’s busy calendar is the Edinburgh Military Tattoo which once again allows this lofty citadel to puff out its chest in pride as the massed pipes and drums parade on a windswept Esplanade, silently surveyed by the figures of Robert the Bruce and William Wallace, two of Scotland’s greatest heroes, who look down from the gatehouse façade.