Edinburgh Castle is one of Scotland’s best-loved and most important historic sites.
Over the centuries the castle 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 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An early historical reference that mentioned Din Eidyn – a fortress on the rock – was found in an Old Welsh poem of c. 600 AD.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 and the precursor to a more substantial building, 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.
Although Malcolm played a significant role in Scotland’s development, it’s his second wife Margaret who is better remembered, thanks to the chapel, (St Margaret’s Chapel) built by her son King David I in her memory.
battle of Hastings
Following the Norman invasion and the Battle of Hastings in 1066, Margaret and other members of England’s royal family fled north to seek protection from the Scottish court.
Her subsequent marriage to Malcolm in 1069 began a dynastic process that would bring great change both to Edinburgh’s fortress and to a wider Scotland.
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.”
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 a cold and draughty citadel.
St Margaret’s Chapel
Following the Reformation, St Margaret’s Chapel was converted to a gunner’s storehouse and only returned to its former glory in 1845.
It stands high on the Upper War and is the oldest surviving building in the Scottish capital.
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 structure
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 to the Tower of London following the introduction of the Disarming Act, an attempt to demilitarize Scotland after the 1745-46 Jacobite rebellion. It was returned in 1829.
Directly below Mons Meg, close to the Argyle Tower which is the upper section of the Portcullis Gate there is a little garden cemetery.
Incongruous perhaps but this quiet corner reflects the love that many British people have for 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 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 rises above the city 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,
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 king William I (William the Lion) at Alnwick in Northumberland. The price of his freedom was high.
England’s Henry II demanded feudal overlordship of Scotland and insisted that William pay homage to him.
If that was not enough, the great fortresses at Stirling and Edinburgh were also surrendered to Henry, it was 1186 before they were returned to Scottish control.
Death of Alexander III
The death of Alexander III in 1286 and his daughter Margaret, the Maid of Norway four years later left Scottish nobles squabbling over succession.
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.
Recognising its 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 from 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 estate.
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 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 a certain inevitability that the name of Mary Queen of Scots should be associated with the fortress.
It was 1566 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:
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.”
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.
Finally, with the support of Elizabeth I, a battery of 20 heavy guns was sent north from Berwick.
After 10 days of heavy bombardment, much of the east side of the building was destroyed.
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 in prominent view, a reminder that support for Mary would not be tolerated.
Edinburgh Castle: Royal Palace
Following the Union of the Crowns in 1603, James returned to his place of birth in 1617.
His “hame-coming,” his only visit to Scotland since the Union, encouraged a refurbishment of the Royal Palace, itself an extension of the earlier David’s Tower.
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 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 its 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.
More cannons are located on the north side. The Argyle Battery originally installed after the first Jacobite rising in 1715, now displays 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 more effective military control of the region in the wake of the 1715 Jacobite uprising.
The builder was 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.
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 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.
With centuries of conflict behind it, all manner of more peaceful and entertaining events now take place.
That includes performances by some of the world’s best musicians often attracted by the spectacular stage setting.
However, for many, the most important date in the 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.
Surveying the scene are the figures of Robert the Bruce and William Wallace, two of Scotland’s greatest heroes, who stand, in perpetuity, high on the gatehouse façade.
How to get to Edinburgh Castle
The most prominent of the Scottish capital’s historic buildings 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 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.