Edinburgh Castle is one of Scotland’s best-loved and most important historic sites, it’s the number one paid-for tourist attraction. Over the centuries it has played an important part in the ebb and flow of Scotland’s history – as a royal residence and military fortress.
It’s the city’s most prominent landmark and part of the Old and New Towns of Edinburgh’s World Heritage Site designated by UNESCO in 1995.
Highlights of Edinburgh Castle
- The Great Hall was completed in 1511 for King James IV. Its wooden roof is one of the most magnificent in the UK.
- The Scottish National War Museum tells the story of Scotland’s long military history. Packed with artefacts once used by Scottish soldiers. The museum also has a small research library.
- Two regimental museums, the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards and the Royal Scots stand opposite each other. A collection of paintings, artefacts and medals tell their gripping story, from the date of formation to the present day.
- The firing of the One o’Clock Gun, originally a 64-pounder, dates to 1861 when ships in the Firth of Forth would set their maritime clocks. The gun, now a field gun, is still fired every day at 1 pm, except on Sundays, Good Friday and Christmas Day. The people on Princes Street below still stop to check their watch is at the right time.
- The Scottish National War Memorial tells the poignant story of Scots who died in WW1, WW2 and more recent conflicts.
- The Dog Cemetery, perhaps the castle’s most unexpected memorial has since 1840, in typically British fashion, been the final resting place for regimental mascots and honoured dogs.
History of Edinburgh Castle
An early historical reference that mentioned Din Eidyn – a fortress on the rock – was found in an Old Welsh poem of c. 600 AD.
This ancient text 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.
By 638, in the ebb and flow of the Dark Age struggle for power, the Germanic Angles defeated the Gododdin 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.
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 who is better remembered, thanks to the chapel, built by her son King David I in her memory.
St Margaret’s Chapel, which stands high on the castle’s Upper Ward, is the oldest surviving building in the Scottish capital.
In many ways, David, who came to the throne in 1124, was a remarkable man, pious like his mother, a quality that 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.
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 will take the cobbled path that leads through 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.
Mons Meg, a medieval siege cannon
The mighty medieval siege cannon Mons Meg, cast in 1449, 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 demilitarise Scotland after the 1745-46 Jacobite rebellion. It was only returned in 1829.
Edinburgh Castle Dog Cemetery
Directly below Mons Meg, close to the Argyle Tower the upper section of the Portcullis Gate, you 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 reminds us of the role that dogs play 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; the city’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 Edinburgh Castle changed hands four times.
James IV & the 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.
Edinburgh Castle, Great Hall
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.
Mary Queen of Scots
It was 1566, when Mary Queen of Scots took up residence in Edinburgh Castle to prepare for the birth of her child, the future James VI of Scotland and I of England. Only six years before her mother Mary of Guise, Regent of Scotland, had taken refuge and subsequently died in the castle during the Siege of Leith.
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.
Elizabeth I dispatched a battery of 20 heavy guns from Berwick and following 10 days of heavy bombardment, which destroyed much of the east side of the castle, Sir William Kirkcaldy, a supporter of Mary Queen of Scots surrendered. The Lang Siege, which 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.
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 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 guns are located on the north side of the castle. The Argyle Battery originally installed after the first Jacobite rising in 1715 now display cannon 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.
Two of the men originally involved in the installation are worth mentioning.
Major General George Wade is the man who gave the order to build the Argyle Battery. He is 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.
Also involved was William Adam the renowned Scottish architect, a man responsible for designing some of the country’s grand country houses. Hopetoun House near Edinburgh is a prime example.
Sir Walter Scott
During the first quarter of the 19th century, thanks in many ways to Sir Walter Scott, the castle started the long process of moving from a military fortress to a visitor attraction.
It was Scott who discovered the Honours of Scotland (the Scottish crown jewels) in a hidden room in the depth of the castle. They had lain there undisturbed since 1707 and the Union of Parliaments. Today they are on display in the Crown Room.
For many visitors, the most important date in the castle’s busy calendar is the Edinburgh Military Tattoo an occasion 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.
Looking on are from the gatehouse facade are the figures of Robert the Bruce and William Wallace, two of Scotland’s greatest heroes,
How to get to Edinburgh Castle
Edinburgh Castle is situated at the top end of the Royal Mile which is at the heart of the Old Town. It’s clearly visible from most parts of the city centre so it’s not hard to find.
If you’re walking, and that’s the best way to get around Edinburgh, it’s around a mile from Waverley Station. It’s an uphill journey and the streets are crowded in the summer so leave a bit of extra time to get there. There is no public parking at the castle unless you are a Blue Badge holder and then it’s first come first served. if you’re on a tour bus you can get fairly close to the entrance.