In the city centre of Edinburgh, the Scottish capital, a fortress sits atop an extinct volcano. Edinburgh Castle has long been of huge importance to the city, so what has happened here?
Celtic Hill Fort
Long before the Kingdom of Scotland was established, there were early settlers in this part of the world from 12,000BC. Then, possibly around the 7th century BC, during the Iron Age, the Celts came to the British and Irish Isles, travelling from Europe. They had a distinct culture and heritage, and today it is the Scots and Irish who still have strong connections to it. Some of their languages still survive today, such as Gaelic in Scotland. Much of what we know about the Celts comes from Roman sources, combined with archaeological evidence, as the Celts didn’t leave any written records of their own.
The geology of Edinburgh makes for the perfect defensive location to build a hill fort. Castle Rock, the crag, is sheer rock face on three sides, and the long tail-like ridge of the Royal Mile is the only access route. It’s thought that there has been a fort on Castle Rock since 900BC, almost 3000 years ago! But it is only around 250BC, that records appear of a Celtic tribe, the Votadini, living in this area. They named their town ‘Din Eidyn’, which was later anglicised as Edinburgh. The Votadini held power in the region for several centuries, until the English captured the fort in 638AD, and Edinburgh became part of the Kingdom of Northumbria. Later, in the 9th century, Kenneth MacAlpin retook the region, bringing it into his Kingdom of Scotland.
The Reign of David I
King David I was pretty important in the history of Edinburgh, during his reign from 1124-1153. First of all, he made the town a royal burgh, giving it much greater status. Although, it wasn’t yet the Scottish capital – that honour fell to Perth, in the north. But during David’s reign, many of Edinburgh’s most important buildings began to appear, including St Giles’ Cathedral and Holyrood Abbey. And from 1130, he began replacing the simple hill fort on Castle Rock, with the larger, stronger, stone Edinburgh Castle! It officially became a Royal castle, used by the King as his residence when visiting Edinburgh.
Despite its excellent defensive location, on Castle Rock, Edinburgh Castle has been attacked and destroyed dozens of times over the centuries, as you’ll soon see. In fact, with 23 recorded attacks, it is the most besieged castle in Britain! So much of what existed during David’s reign is long gone. The most notable building still standing though, which is actually the oldest building in all of Edinburgh, is St Margaret’s Chapel. David built and named it for his mother, Queen Margaret, who died in the Castle, in 1093. She was later made a saint, because of her religious dedication, and great charitable work.
Wars of Independence
A big part of Scottish history are the many long, bloody battles between Scotland and England. Most of the attacks on Edinburgh Castle came courtesy of the English! The biggest and most famous though, are the Scottish Wars of Independence. These started in the late 13th century, after a succession crisis led to John Balliol being crowned King of Scotland – but he was controlled by King Edward I of England. The Scots were angered by Edward’s interference, and deposed Balliol, prompting an English invasion. For the next few decades, the English successfully occupied much of Scotland, while the Scots fought to retake their country. Robert the Bruce led the Scottish rebels (succeeding William Wallace, after his execution in 1302), and set about retaking many castles. His tactic was to destroy them, leaving nothing for either side to defend.
Edinburgh Castle was very important, in a tactical location, being quite far south, near the English border. The English had held it since 1296, until Bruce sent Sir Thomas Randolph, Earl of Moray, to retake it. His plan was either genius or lunacy. Rather than approach from the obvious route up the Royal Mile, Moray and 30 men scaled Castle Rock itself! In 1314, in the middle of the night, with no fancy climbing equipment! By some miracle, they survived, defeated the English troops, and destroyed the Castle – except St Margaret’s Chapel, which Bruce had ordered to remain untouched. However, the English later took the Castle back again in 1334, and refortified it. And then, the Scots took it back once and for all in 1341.
Reconstruction & Expansion
After the Wars ended, the Scots now set about rebuilding Edinburgh Castle, as well as expanding the town itself. Bruce’s son, King David II, oversaw much of the work, and David’s Tower was named after him in 1370. This was the most impressive structure the Castle had had to date. It was three stories high, and served as the royal residence within the Castle. Its size and strength also had a defensive advantage. After being taken by the English so many times, the Scots wanted their Castle to be as strong as possible, to avoid such an event happening again!
The fortress-like nature of the Castle meant the royals started to use it less frequently when visiting Edinburgh. Instead, they favoured the comfortable Holyrood Abbey guesthouse at the other end of the Royal Mile instead. In the 15th century, Edinburgh became the capital of Scotland, giving greater importance to the Castle as its fortress. During the reign of King James IV (House Stuart), from 1488-1513, he began to create more comfortable royal residences in the capital, firstly by building Holyrood Palace. He also added the Royal Palace inside Edinburgh Castle, replacing David’s Tower as the residence. Most notably, he built the Great Hall, for hosting lavish banquets, which was completed around 1511.
The Lang Siege
In 1566, Mary Queen of Scots gave birth to her son, James VI, inside Edinburgh Castle. The father was her second husband, Lord Darnley, but he was murdered the following year. Three months later, Mary married her third husband, James Hepburn, Earl of Bothwell. However, the two were suspected of being involved in Darnley’s death – the truth of that is still unclear! Their marriage sparked outcry and uprisings though, and Mary soon had to abdicate and flee to England. Her son was crowned king, and Scotland was ruled by his Regents until he came of age.
Mary still had many supporters though, known as the ‘Queen’s Men’. These included Sir William Kirkcaldy, Governor of the Castle. He managed to hold on to Edinburgh Castle for a full year, during the Lang Siege of 1573. He was up against James Douglas, Earl of Morton, who was the Regent at the time. Kirkcaldy and the Queen’s Men eventually lost when Morton’s troops managed to destroy David’s Tower. This caused the water supply to be cut off, and they lasted only a few more days before surrendering.
After the Lang Siege, the Castle was in the hands of the Regency and the King again, but it had to be rebuilt yet again. Although some buildings – including St Margaret’s Chapel and the Great Hall – still remained this time! The Half Moon Battery was built at this time, where David’s Tower once stood.
After the Union of Crowns
In 1603, James VI moved to London to be crowned James I of England, after the death of Elizabeth I. Edinburgh Castle lost its royal significance, and Charles I was the last monarch to reside there, in 1633. Oliver Cromwell later executed him, during the English Civil War, and captured the Castle in 1650. It was manned by English troops for decades, and used to house their prisoners of war. In 1715 and 1745, the Jacobites (rebel supporters of the deposed Catholic monarchy) tried to retake the Castle, but failed both times. The first time was because their rope ladder was too short!
After a mass prison break, the Castle was no longer suitable to house captives. Instead, in 1814, it became a national monument, and was used for military ceremonies. In the early 19th century, the writer Sir Walter Scott led a ‘Scottish Renaissance’, reintroducing tartan, kilts, and bagpipes to the public. As a result, the Prince Regent (later George IV) gave permission to search the Castle for the Scottish Honours (Crown Jewels). They had gone missing after the Wars of the Three Kingdoms, but were found locked in the Crown Room. In 1822, George IV became the first monarch to visit Scotland in almost 200 years.
In 1996, a huge procession up the Royal Mile brought the Stone of Destiny to Edinburgh Castle. The Stone is the ancient coronation seat of Scottish monarchs, dating back over a thousand years. Once housed in Scone Abbey, Edward I of England stole it in 1296, and it remained in London for the next seven centuries. Its return to Scotland resulted in much celebration, and it is now displayed next to the Scottish Honours. Today, Edinburgh Castle is the most popular attraction in the city, with over two million visitors per year.
You’ll enter Edinburgh Castle through the Esplanade, the wide open space in front of it. On either side of the gate are statues of Scotland’s great heroes of the Wars of Independence, William Wallace and Robert the Bruce. The ticket checks happen before the Portcullis Gate. You can either take the 70 steps up the Lang Stairs on the left to reach the upper levels of the Castle, or follow the longer, gentle spiral uphill. To the north, is the Argyle Battery, lined with cannons. Look out for the One O’Clock Gun, fired daily at 1pm (except Sundays) as a signal for ships at sea. Nearby is the Governor’s House, which is still in use and therefore not open to the public.
As you wind around the spiral, you’ll pass by the New Barracks, and several military museums. There is the National War Museum first of all, and then others dedicated to specific regiments, the Royal Scots and the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards. In the western corner, you can visit the Prisons of War exhibition, to see how the captives once lived. Continuing to the upper level, on the summit of Castle Rock, you’ll find Mons Meg. This colossal six-tonne cannon was given to James II in 1457, but is no longer in use now! Look down from next to it and you’ll see the Dog Cemetery, where the loyal regimental mascots and governors’ pets are buried. At the top of the Lang Stairs, you’ll see the cannons lining the Forewall Battery and Half Moon Battery, the latter built where David’s Tower once stood.
The Royal Palace
The Royal Apartments can be found in the upper portion of the Castle. Next to Mons Meg, you’ll find St Margaret’s Chapel, the oldest building in the Castle. While this church looks very small and plain from outside, inside you can see the stained glass windows that were added in the 20th century, alongside the original arches. Opposite the chapel is the National War Memorial, which was created and opened in 1927. It is to remember those who fought in World War One and Two, and you can browse huge books full of their names inside. The entrance to the memorial is on the other side, within Crown Square.
The rest of Crown Square is surrounded by the Royal Palace. On the north side is the Queen Anne Building, once military barracks for the officers, and now is available to hire for wedding and private events. On the west side is the Great Hall, built by James IV for state ceremonies and banquets. Inside make sure to look up at the original hammerbeam roof, and check out the weapons and armour on display. Finally, the Royal Apartments are on the south side, a series of small rooms where the royals actually lived. They are now empty of furnishings, but the original fireplaces remain. And don’t miss the small room where Mary Queen of Scots gave birth to James VI. Climb the tower above the apartments to see the Scottish Honours and the Stone of Destiny, as well as the exhibitions about them.
On-site – Adults £19.50, Children £11.50, Concessions £16
Online – Adults £17.50, Children £10.50, Concessions £14
Children under 5 go free. It’s recommended to buy tickets online in advance, to guarantee entry on your chosen date & time, as it can sell out on the day.
April-September, 9.30am-18.00pm, last entry 17.00pm
October-March, 9.30am-17.00pm, last entry 16.00pm
The Castle is closed on 25th-26th December
The Castle is at the very top of the Royal Mile, and you will usually have to walk the last part uphill. However, you can take a bus to various stops nearby. The closest car parking is on Johnston Terrace and Castle Terrace, however disabled blue badge holders can request one of the limited spots available on the Esplanade. Taxis can also drop off visitors at the Esplanade.
The ticket offices are beyond the first gate, to the right. You can also hire an audio guide, available in several languages. The Castle has two cafes and three gift shops inside as well. Be aware that it can get quite cold and windy in the Castle, as you’re largely outdoors. There is a mobility vehicle available to help visitors who need it, but as this is a historic building, many areas have uneven ground, and some are not accessible without using stairs.
Have you visited Edinburgh Castle before? Leave a comment about your experience!