Famous Castles of Scotland : A Short History of Edinburgh Castle
They may be decommissioned relics of a more violent era but the castles of Scotland are now shrouded in romance and history.
Edinburgh Castle is the most famous in the country and has stood in one form or another for over 650 years.
The rock upon which it rests has been there for far longer and is a curious natural phenomenon given that it sits in a modern urban environment.
Both the rock and the many fortresses that have looked down from it have shaped the city in more ways than one.
The shaping of the city
The rock upon which the castle sits helped to shape the topography of the city. It is actually a volcanic plug of the remains of a volcano that was active around 340 million years ago and which was around three times the current height.
The cityscape was created 12,000 years ago during the Ice Age when a huge glacier approached from the west and cut a swathe through the land. However when it encountered the extremely hard igneous basalt of the rock it could not progress any further.
The irresistible force had met the immovable object. Therefore the ice gradually circumvented the obstacle and gorged out two valleys on either side, north and south. On its way it stripped the softer outer skin of the volcano leaving exposed the basalt we see today.
It carried this debris as well as the surrounding earth and softer rock in its path. All this sediment was eventually deposited and stretched along the eastern side of the volcano. This created the classic 'Crag and Tail' effect as termed by Geologists and which became a steep ridge descending to the ground. On this ridge is now situated the famous Royal Mile thoroughfare.
The birth of the Edinburgh name
The castle is a symbol of Edinburgh and perhaps also the nation of Scotland. Described as "among the most visually potent symbols of any country in the world" by architectural critic Jonathan Meades.
The ancient sites on top of the rock are what gave Edinburgh its actual name. It derives from the expression 'Din Eidyn' or 'Dun Edin' which was how the Votadini people of the Iron Age called their settlement. It was converted into 'Aidensburgh' in English much later by the Angles. All expressions mean 'The Fortress on the Hill' and reflect the fact that there have been settlements on the rock since the Bronze Age.
The Roman chronicler Tacitus speaks of a 'pallisaded hill' in 98 A.D. during their turbulent occupation of the land. It was also marked on Ptolemy's 2nd century map of the Roman Empire as 'Castrum Alatum' supposedly due to its similarity in shape to that of an outstretched eagle.
It is widely believed that the Picts held the rock until 452 A.D. whereafter the Saxons took control. It changed hands frequently through subsequent history. A Welsh poem 'Gododdin' recounts a 6th century King feasting within the fortifications at Dun Edin before commencing battle with the Angles.
Home of the Royals
After the departure of the Roman invaders the fort resumed its role as a defensive fortress. It also became the seat of the Scottish Monarchy.
At the end of the 11th century there was a Royal residence in the castle during the time of Queen Margaret, wife of King Malcolm III.
She died in 1093 and in commemoration her son King David the First had a chapel built in her honour. She was later canonised by the Vatican in the 13th century.
A very small Romanesque style church from that Norman period it only holds 20 people. Today any women in Edinburgh called Margaret can join a society that looks after the chapel.
It stands today as the oldest building in the city and can still be used for services. Although during its lifetime it has been used as a gunpowder magazine. A refurbishment as well as a rededication took place in 1934.
Occupation of the fortress alternated between the Scots and the English from the 12th century onwards. In fact it was almost completely destroyed in 1314 during the First Scottish War of Independence. But not at the hands of the English troops. It was Scots under the command of Robert the Bruce who levelled the fort to prevent it falling into enemy hands.
This was after they had performed the monumental feat of climbing the treacherous north face of the rock. All that was spared the destruction was St Margaret's Chapel which explains why it still exists today.
But it is really in the middle of the 14th century that the castle began to properly take shape. In 1356 King David II returned from captivity in England and set in train a 200 year long construction programme including a 60-foot high tower. This was eventually destroyed in the 1570's by English cannon.
The Stewart Dynasty
The assassination of King James the First at Perth in 1437 increased the status of Edinburgh since the castle was the most secure in Scotland. It was under one of his successors James III that Edinburgh was declared the most important town.
Construction on the site of the castle has been ongoing for centuries throughout the period of modern history. James IV oversaw the building of the Great Hall in the early 16th century and it was subsequently used for banquets and state occasions. However it was not only used for social and ceremonial events as it was the home of the Scottish Parliament until 1640.
However in 1501 he also ordered the creation of the Palace of Holyroodhouse at the lower end of the Royal Mile in the city. Therefore the castle was no longer the prime residence of the Royal Household. After James' death at the disastrous Battle of Flodden in 1513 his successor James V took little interest in Edinburgh Castle.
However the castle could provide a safe refuge in times of danger that the palace could not.
That is why it was the location of the birth of young James in 1566 by his mother Mary Queen of Scots.
He would later succeed Mary and become King of Scotland as 'James VI'.
In 1603 with the Union of the Crowns he then became 'James I' of England too and the royal court moved south to London. The last reigning monarch to reside at the castle was Charles the First in 1633 for his coronation as King of Scotland. However this was only for one night.
The Royal Apartments where the birth took place are still there today and are quite distinctive with their gold decoration around the windows. The classical style windows were added in 1615 and 1617 for James VI.
The battles for the castle
To the right of the Royal Apartments in the picture above is the Half-Moon Battery. This was built after the 'Lang Siege' in the 1570's and served to provide more defensive strength for the weak point of the eastern defences facing the Royal Mile.
The castle came under siege again on two occasions during the 17th century. First in the 1630's and 40's by Covenanters who were loyal to the Presbyterian Church against the interference of King Charles II in religious matters. Then again in 1650 by English forces under Oliver Cromwell after his victory at the Battle of Dunbar.
But the many centuries of intrigue and war were gradually coming to a close. In 1707 the Act of Union was signed which joined Scotland and England politically. However battle continued in civil conflicts and Edinburgh Castle came under attack on two more occasions.
The Jacobite rebellions of the 18th century meant that the castle became a target for hostile forces. On the first occasion in 1715 the Jabobites attempted to emulate Robert the Bruce by scaling the rock-face. It ended in failure. The second rebellion of 1745 was led by Bonnie Prince Charlie and although he conquered the city his forces never seized control of the castle.
The Jacobites proved to be the last combatants to try to take the site. Ever since there has been a permanent military presence by the British Army. It ceased to be an active garrison in 1923 and is now largely used for administrative and ceremonial duties of the services.
The current Esplanade at the entrance to the castle was originally laid out as a parade ground in 1753 for soldiers to drill. Modern visitors can also view military exhibits in the museums of the Royal Scots and Royal Dragoon Guards regiments.
Since Cromwell the only enemy forces to have entered within the walls were Prisoners of War. These include those captured during The Seven Years War of 1756-63, the American War of Independence and then the Napoleonic Wars in the early 19th century. However a mass prison break in 1811 convinced the British forces that the castle was no longer suitable for incarceration. Nevertheless it was used again for the last time during the Second World War to hold Luftwaffe personnel.
In peaceful times the gaol was converted into barracks, stores, a bakehouse and an arsenal. Today it is a walk-through museum space re-creating the prison scenes with iron bars, bed-bunks and mannequins. But more original exhibits can be found in the old graffiti scratched on the walls by the French captives.
The Honours of Scotland
The great Edinburgh writer Sir Walter Scott was instrumental in the restoration of the castle and the Honours of Scotland.
The crown jewels of the nation are the second oldest in Europe after the Hungarian honours.
Incredibly they lay neglected and hidden for many years in an oak chest within the bowels of the castle.
This was until Scott discovered them in 1818 and campaigned for them to be displayed. The crown, sword and sceptre are still there today within the castle for visitors to admire.
But it was not until 1996 that the Stone of Destiny was returned to Scotland and put on display in Edinburgh Castle.
It was the ancient stone upon which Scottish Kings were crowned at the Palace of Scone in Fife back in ancient times.
It had been stolen as the spoils of war by King Edward the First in 1296 after an English invasion. It was actually stolen back in 1950 by some Scottish students before its return to England several months later.
Despite its official return to Scotland it will still be transported down to London and used for future Coronations whenever a new King or Queen takes the British throne at Westminster Abbey.
The Gatehouse and the Great Hall
The 19th century brought the recognition that the castle should be preserved as an historic monument. Therefore improvements were introduced to restore important buildings and raise its profile on the skyline of the Old Town district of Edinburgh
One 19th century lady who was less than amused by Edinburgh Castle was Queen Victoria.
She thought it did not exactly look the part expected of a splendid castle and ordered more military style embellishments.
This had the effect of making the site more castellated in its appearance although entirely cosmetic in purpose.
Important additions included the 1888 work on the impressive gatehouse with its statues of William Wallace and Robert the Bruce which flank the entrance to the castle.
The statues are 20th century as they were emplaced in 1929 and the portal drawbridge was the last ever built in Scotland.
Ramparts were also added and ornamental cannons that never fired a shot in anger were put in place aimed over the city. There are several on the north side at the Six Gun Battery pointing out over the Princes Street Gardens.
Another alteration that took place during the reign of Victoria was the restoration of the Great Hall which had fell into decline. Funded by publisher William Nelson the work took place from 1887-91 and the impressive hammer-beam roof was once again revealed.
Within the Great Hall is an array of arms and armour for enthusiasts of historical weaponry.
It also holds the 'key' to the castle which is symbolic and has been used for ceremonial occasions such as the visit of the Queen.
The hammerbeam roof is one of only two medieval roofs that have survived in Scotland.
It is supported by carved stone corbels which are the oldest Renaissance decoration in Britain. On the south side there is a also a curtain wall dating from the 14th century.
During opening times oral history presentations take place conducted by costumed staff who will explain the weapons and also the origins and uses of the kilt for example.
Famous artillery at the castle
Notwithstanding the ornamental cannons nearby there is one artillery piece that is fired, albeit with blank ammunition. That is the timepiece of the One O'Clock gun.
This is also situated over at the north side of the castle ramparts on the Mills Mount Battery
Although a modern weapon is used nowadays the practice began back in 1861 as an audio time signal for sailors on the Forth Estuary to set the chronometers on their ships.
It now purely serves a ceremonial purpose that delights tourists and can still be seen and heard firing at exactly 1pm on six days a week. The exception being Sundays as it was considered unseemly to shatter the peace on the Sabbath Day.
However uninformed tourists may easily mistake another famous cannon for the One O'Clock gun.
Also on display out on the open grounds of Edinburgh Castle is the medieval monster Mons Meg.
This dates from 1457 and was built in Belgium before being presented to King James II by Phillip the Duke of Burgundy.
It consists of wrought-iron bars welded into a cylinder around a wooden core and bound with iron hoops. Weighing 13,200 pounds it was so powerful that it could fire a 330-pound stone over 2 miles in distance. It was the state of the art weapon of its day. After a spell in exile in London it was returned at the behest of Sir Walter Scott in 1829.
The Military Memorial and Museums
The Scottish National War Memorial was created after the carnage of World War One. Over 150,000 Scottish soldiers died in the trenches of the fields of France and Belgium during the conflict.
The architect Sir Robert Lorimer transformed the interior of the building with a vaulted hall. The walls are lined with stained-glass by Douglas Strachan and it was opened in 1927 by the Prince of Wales. It has been poetically described as "A piper's lament in stone" and commemorates Scottish soldiers killed in wars and conflicts ever since.
Although there is an entry charge to the castle as a whole anyone wishing only to visit the memorial to view the names of the fallen can do so for free.
Not much later in 1933 the Scottish United Services Museum was opened. This is now called the National War Museum. This houses uniforms and insignia, medals, artwork and photographs. These are on display for the public and the collection is also available for research into military history.
For visitors on a tour of the castle it is good advice to begin at the top of the site and then work your way down the slope.
Therefore the starting point would be Crown Square which is a focal point for the gathering of sightseers.
Crown Square was laid out in the 15th century and was originally the main courtyard of the castle during the reign of James III.
The square is bordered on all sides by the most significant buildings. The Royal Palace is on one side and which contains the old Royal Apartments. It now hosts a museum which contains the Honours and the Stone of Destiny.
Overall the Royal Palace consists of a compilation of styles due to different modifications over many years. The central turret for example was built much later in the early 19th century. The other sides of the square hold the aforementioned Great Hall, the National War Memorial and the Prisoners of War Museum.
Edinburgh Castle has constantly been evolving and developing now for centuries. It has rarely stood still and in fact the latest building to be added was in 2006 on the northern ramparts. It has grown from ancient settlement through Royal Household and military garrison to its present status as the most popular historical site in Scotland.
The modern stage
Over a million visitors walk the stones of Edinburgh every year and it can be thronged with crowds soaking up the past.
In August each year it is especially busy during the Edinburgh Festival when the whole city is taken over by international cultural events and entertainment.
The summer months also bring the old walls into the modern age when Rock and Pop concerts take place on the Esplanade.
Many superstars of music have performed in front of the spectacular backdrop of Edinburgh Castle. Artists such as Pink, Bryan Ferry, Leonard Cohen, Mike Oldfield and Rod Stewart have appeared. Also bands ranging across Status Quo, Simply Red, Blondie, Simple Minds, Arcade Fire and Crosby, Stills and Nash have performed on the old parade ground.
However the temporary stands that are built during the summer are really there for another event. The Edinburgh Military Tattoo began on the Esplanade in 1950 and takes place as part of the Edinburgh Festival. It is the most popular event on the calendar and is always sold out far in advance.
The bagpipes and drums of the Scottish regiments take centre stage but there are military ceremonies by armed forces from all over the world. Included is a fly-past from a fighter aircraft which thunders across the Edinburgh sky. The silence is broken again at the finale when fireworks are fired from the castle and burst above in a crescendo of colour and explosion.
Perhaps they are a metaphorical reminder of the turbulent past of the castle.
John Smith from New York on August 07, 2018:
A great lesson of Scottish history, Shinkicker! I thank you for that!
Shinkicker (author) from Scotland on June 02, 2013:
Thanks very much Lurana, I'm glad you enjoyed it.
There's is certainly a lot of history connected with the castle and the city.
MrsBrownsParlour on May 27, 2013:
This is such a thorough, well-researched and fascinating article! I visited Edinburgh Castle on vacation with my family when I was young, but do not remember much except the canons. There is so much interesting history! Very well-written. :-) Lurana
Ginger Ruffles on June 05, 2012:
Thoroughly enjoyed that Shinkicker. In my genealogy research in the last year I've found a few different links to both Malcolm III & Margaret (which may well be hooey) but it's fascinating hub all the same.
Shinkicker (author) from Scotland on March 24, 2012:
Thanks for the tweet amillar, so kind of you to do that.
I think the glacier did less damage to the landscape than the tramworks. At St Andrews Square I thought it was a new subway they were building because they dug down so deep :-)
Cheers for reading
amillar from Scotland, UK on March 24, 2012:
This is a very interesting and comprehensive history of Edinburgh Castle Shinkicker. I've tweeted and pinned it for future reference.
I seldom leave my Border hills but I must go and visit my capital city one of these days. Could you advise me (without being too rude) which would be quicker going by tram or by glacier?
Shinkicker (author) from Scotland on March 24, 2012:
Thanks for your kind comment Bob. Personally I think my Hub on Animal of the Muppets was better LOL But that's just me :-)
The castle is a great sight from Princes St, something we try not to take for granted here in Edinburgh.
I wish that pub Fairleys was still there, sounds like it must have been a great place.
diogenes from UK and Mexico on March 24, 2012:
The best article of yours I have read to date. A thorough and professional expose of this magnificent castle which looks just like what it is: part of the rock it is built upon.
Of great interest to me was your description of the volcanic plug which is the stuff of this great rock and the way even glaciers could not wipe it from the landscape. Something like the Scottish character.
I was stationed in Rosyth many years ago and often spent the night in Edinburgh viewing the castle (from the safety of Fairleys!)