You can’t imagine Edinburgh without its castle - it is one of the City’s landmarks, dominating the skyline, perched on a seemingly impregnable, daunting, volcanic rock at the end of The Royal Mile. On a bright day, perhaps at festival time and viewed through the colours of Princes Gardens, it is ambiguous, even beguiling; when it’s a dreich day, there is no doubt that this mighty, brooding, fortress does exactly what it says on the tin.
In Roman times the rock was occupied by a Celtic tribe known in Latin as the Votadini, whose territory spanned modern south-east Scotland and north-east England. The descendents of the Votadini were known in Celtic as the Gododdin, with a stronghold they called Din Eidyn, or Eitin. In 638 AD Din Eidyn was captured by the Angles (or Anglesc, ancestors of the English), whose Germanic language changed the ‘din’ (stronghold) to ‘burgh’ – hence Edinburgh. By the 11th century or earlier, Scots – originally a tribe from Ireland – were dominating south-east Scotland. The Battle of Carham (in modern England) in 1016 secured Scottish sovereignty at that time over this part of the world. But, it’s amusing that the ancestors of the English got to Edinburgh before the ancestors of the Scots did. Lol. These days, of course, we’re all hybrids.
By 1093, Edinburgh Castle was a royal Scots residence – though it was occupied by the English for 12 years in the 12th century. At that time, it was mostly built of wood – stone walls were erected in the 13th century. The castle fell to England’s Edward I after a siege following the Battle of Dunbar in 1296, and the English hung onto it until 1314. Then, in one of the most daring assaults in history, Scots forces loyal to Robert the Bruce recaptured it by climbing up the rock at night. Led by the Earl of Moray and guided by a young man called William Francis, who used to live in the castle and sneak out to visit friends, they completely surprised the sentries – and the castle was once again in Scottish hands. A few months’ later, Robert the Bruce decisively beat the English at the Battle of Bannockburn. For awhile, Edinburgh Castle lay abandoned – but in 1335 it was retaken by the English, only to be captured again by Scots posing as sailors bringing provisions, led by Sir William Douglas; the English garrison was massacred.
Edinburgh Castle was rebuilt under Kings David II and Robert II, becoming Scotland’s premier royal stronghold. In 1440, the infamous ‘black dinner’ took place there, when William, Earl of Douglas and his brother David were invited to dine, then murdered. In 1479, King James III’s brother Alexander, imprisoned for intriguing against his king, escaped on a rope dangling from his cell – and returned with an English army.
By the 16th century, the castle was increasingly being used as an arsenal and the Stewart kings were spending more time at the infinitely less draughty and more comfortable Palace of Holyrood at the other end of town.
However, security demanded that Mary Queen of Scots gave birth to her son, the future King James VI of Scotland and I of England, within the strong walls of the castle. After Mary was forced to abdicate in favour of her infant son, the Governor of Edinburgh Castle, Sir William Kirkaldy, refused to surrender what he saw as Mary’s castle to her enemies – which resulted in what is known as the Lang (long) Siege - of 1571. With the help of guns on loan from the English, the besiegers finally prevailed and poor loyal Sir William was dragged to mercat cross in the city and hanged. His head was subsequently displayed on the castle’s walls.
All was relatively peaceful until 1639, when Presbyterian Covenanters, unhappy with Charles I’s religious policies, occupied the castle a couple of times. Then came the Civil War. The Scots proclaimed Charles II king following the execution of his father, Charles I, in 1649 and the influential Covenanters switched sides in support. English Parliamentary forces under Oliver Cromwell moved into Scotland. The Covenanters were defeated at Dunbar in September 1650 and, once again, Edinburgh Castle found itself under siege; it surrendered in December.
Thereafter, the castle essentially became a garrison fortress. The Jacobite rebellions of 1715 and 1745 largely passed Edinburgh Castle by, and now it is claimed to be the most popular paid entry tourist attraction in Scotland, with more than 1.4 million visitors each year.
It isn’t just a mighty fortress, packed full of history and wonderful stories. There are state rooms, built for and fit for kings, as well as several museums. You can very easily spend a day at Edinburgh Castle. Highlights include:
- Rows of cannon line the battlements, from which there are stunning views of the city – and beyond.
- Mons Meg, a 15th century siege gun – made in Mons, Belgium, a gift to James II from the Duke of Burgundy in 1457. It was used at various sieges, but could only travel 3 miles a day. Mons Meg was fired in 1558 in celebration of Mary Queen of Scots’ wedding to Francis, the Dauphin of France.
- The oldest building (not just in the Castle but in Edinburgh) is the lovely St Margaret’s Chapel, built c1130 by King David I and dedicated to his mother.
- There are two regimental museums – The Royal Scots Dragoon Guards (cavalry) and the Royal Scots museums. Included in the former is the French Eagle Standard, captured by the Scots Greys at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. The roots of the Royal Scots date back to 1633 – the oldest infantry regiment in the British Army – and the museum tells tales of battle honours won all over the world.
- Edinburgh Castle is also home to the National War Museum (of Scotland) and the Scottish National War Memorial. 20% of all Scots who enlisted in the British armed services during World War I did not return home.
- Vaults where French, American - and other - prisoners of war were held – absolutely fascinating - and the Victorian military prison.
- The Royal Palace – sumptuous apartments where James VI of Scotland and I of England – the first monarch of both countries – was born.
- The Honours of Scotland – essentially, Scotland’s crown jewels – and the ancient Stone of Destiny. Scottish kings were crowned on the Stone of Destiny since time out of mind, until it was removed by the English in 1296 and subsequently used in the coronations of most English and, since 1714, all British, monarchs. The Honours were locked away after the Act of Union between England and Scotland in 1707. The author Walter Scott obtained permission to seek them out in 1818 and they were put on public display. They are absolutely amazing – and there is a fascinating exhibition to go with them.
- The Great Hall – built in 1511, with a wonderful hammerbeam roof, and lined with armour and ancient weaponry.
And, of course, if you’re lucky enough to be in Edinburgh in the summer, you can experience the festival in the city and the military tattoo held on the esplanade in front of the castle. The backdrop of the fortress is a dramatic setting to a magnificent display.
When you’ve done it, treat yourself to a wee dram – you deserve it.
Visit Edinburgh Castle’s website for more information.