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You can’t imagine Edinburgh without Edinburgh 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 Street Gardens, it is ambiguous; fearsome yet beguiling: but when it’s a dreich day, there is no doubt that this mighty, brooding, fortress does exactly what it says on the tin and discourages unwanted visitors. That, obviously, does not include the tourists who flock there in their thousands from all over the world.
In Roman times the castle 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 638AD Din Eidyn was captured by the Angles (or Anglesc, ancestors of the English), whose Germanic language changed the din (stronghold) to their own 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 Scots’ sovereignty at that time over this part of the world. So, it might amuse you that the ancestors of the English got to Edinburgh before the ancestors of the Scots did; or it might not. 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 King 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 taken again by the English, only to be recaptured a further time 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 (1329-71) and Robert II (1371-90), becoming Scotland’s premier royal stronghold. In November 1440, the infamous Black Dinner took place, which was such a hideous event that I need to tell you about it. If you are of faint heart, or already know the story, skip the next paragraph or so.
James II of Scotland was just six years old in 1437 when he became king following the assassination of his father, James I. These were violent times, with rival factions vying for political control. Fearful that the Douglas clan, specifically the Black Douglases, were becoming too powerful, the Chancellor of Scotland, Sir William Crichton, and his ally Sir Alexander Livingstone of Callendar, invited the 6th Earl of Douglas, William, and his brother, David, to dinner with the ten-year old king at Edinburgh Castle. The Earl of Douglas was just sixteen and his brother only twelve. By all accounts, the three youngsters had a grand time, enjoying the food and each other’s company. Then someone brought in the head of a black bull and thumped it down on the table; this, apparently signified the end of the Douglas. Ignoring the distraught young king’s pleas, the two Douglas boys were dragged outside, declared guilty of treason, and beheaded. ‘Tis said that William begged for his brother to be executed first, so that the younger lad wouldn’t have to see his older brother’s decapitation.
Allegedly, this incident partly inspired Game of Thrones author George RR Martin to write the shocking Red Wedding scene. The author Sir Walter Scott wrote:
Edinburgh Castle, toune and towre,
God grant thou sink for sin!
And that e’en for the black dinner
Earl Douglas gat therein.
So many stories: 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, Edinburgh 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 Edinburgh 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 fortress 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, by St Giles’ Cathedral, 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 oddly named English Civil War, in which Scottish troops were often decisive – including when they handed Charles I over to Parliamentary forces in 1647. In Scotland, Charles II was proclaimed king in 1649 following the execution of his father, Charles I, and the influential Covenanters switched sides in support. English Parliamentary forces under Oliver Cromwell swiftly moved north. The Covenanters were defeated at Dunbar in September 1650 and, once again, Edinburgh Castle found itself under siege; it surrendered in December.
The Jacobite rebellions of 1715 and 1745 largely passed Edinburgh Castle by – though briefly besieged by Jacobite forces, they failed to overcome its defences. Thereafter, the castle essentially became a garrison fortress and also housed American and French prisoners of war.
These days, Edinburgh Castle is generally the most popular paid entry tourist attraction in Scotland, with more than 1.7 million visitors annually at the last count. It isn’t just a mighty stronghold, packed full of history and wonderful stories. There are state rooms, built for and fit for kings, as well as several museums. In all seriousness, it is almost too much to take in. Historic Scotland recommends a minimum of two hours will be needed to see the major attractions at Edinburgh Castle; quite frankly, you could spend a day there and still not see everything properly. Highlights include:
- Rows of cannon line the battlements, from which there are stunning views across the City to Calton Hill, Leith – and beyond.
- The One o’clock Gun – a field gun fired every day except Sundays, Christmas Day and Easter Day. The tradition dates back to 1861 when it was introduced to enable ships in the Firth of Forth to set the maritime clocks they needed to navigate the world’s oceans.
- 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 the great King David I and dedicated to his mother. Queen Margaret of Scotland was an English princess, Margaret of Wessex, who married Malcolm III of Scotland in 1070. She was a pious woman who, amongst other charitable works, established a ferry across the Firth of Forth – thus giving us the towns of North and South Queensferry. She died at Edinburgh Castle in 1093 after hearing of her husband’s death in battle – fighting the English.
- 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, including the stories behind six Victoria Crosses on display.
- 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.
- There are vaults where American, French and other prisoners of war were held – absolutely fascinating – and the small Victorian military prison.
- Then there is the Royal Palace – sumptuous apartments including the room 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 – are held at Edinburgh Castle. Scottish kings were crowned on the Stone of Destiny at Scone 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, including the present Queen. The Stone of Destiny was returned to Scotland in 1996. The Crown, Sceptre and Sword of State were first used together for the coronation of Mary Queen of Scots in 1543. The Honours were locked away after the Act of Union between England and Scotland in 1707. However, 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.
- Do not miss the Great Hall – built in 1511, with a wonderful hammerbeam roof, and lined with armour and ancient weaponry.
When you’ve done it, treat yourself to a wee dram – you’ll deserve it. Or maybe two…
And, of course, if you’re lucky enough to be in Edinburgh in August, you can experience the festivals 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.