Last Updated on January 13, 2020 by Sophie Nadeau
Scotland is a country full of amazing landscapes, mountainous peaks and rugged moorland. It’s also home to tartan, whisky and an incredible collection of art and numerous monuments. However, there’s perhaps nothing that encapsulates the very essence of Scotland more than the iconic Edinburgh Castle, home to the Crown Jewels, Stone of Destiny and the Scottish National War Memorial.
Editor’s note: If you’re looking to make the most of your time in Edinburgh and wish to avoid waiting in extra queues, not to mention glean a further insight into the history of the castle from a local expert, then you may well consider purchasing a skip the line guided tour ticket. Find full details here.
A Brief Description of Edinburgh City (a.k.a. Auld Reekie)
Affectionately known by the locals as Auld Reekie, which is Scottish for Old Smoky, Edinburgh has been the capital of Scotland since 1437. It’s basically divided into two halves – Old Town and New Town, separated by a long thin strip of land known as Princes Street Gardens.
Make no mistake – New is a relative term and in fact, refers to neo-classical and many beautiful Georgian buildings dating from the 18th and 19th centuries. So, you must be wondering, if that’s new how old is Old? Well, parts of it are Medieval with buildings such as the John Knox House constructed c.1490; and the Palace of Holyroodhouse (the Queen’s official residence in Edinburgh) gardens houses the ruined Augustinian Holyrood Abbey founded in 1128 by David I.
So, Holyrood Palace is situated at the bottom of the hill and the imposing Edinburgh Castle stands proudly at the top, hence the name Royal Mile which, in fact, was only dreamed up at the beginning of the 20th century. The approximately one mile in length area is chock full of historic sites, and unsurprisingly, the busiest tourist street in Edinburgh, and indeed the whole of Scotland.
Edinburgh Castle – An Impregnable Fortress.
Edinburgh Castle sitting high atop an extinct volcanic plug, known rather unimaginatively as Castle Rock, makes an impressive unforgiving fortress. Throughout history, the elevated spot has been recognised as a bit of prime land and has been inhabited since the Bronze Age and fought over numerous times throughout many centuries.
The only accessible area to the castle is from the eastern side which rises gently from the Old Town. All other aspects are sheer rocky cliff faces rising some 250 feet above the existing ground level and so making the site an impressive impregnable fortress.
There was just one problem with the site, a pretty major one, and this was the difficulty of storing enough water. The volcanic plug the castle is built upon is made of a type of hard basalt that is non-porous, unlike limestone or sandstone, and so the water runs off rather than soaks through the rock. Despite sinking a well nearly 100 feet in depth the water supply would often run dry especially during periods of drought or even worse, during a siege.
Death and Destruction
The castle has been caught up in numerous historical conflicts and seen its fair share of violence over the years; from battles, torture and hangings to numerous sieges. The most well known is probably that of the Lang Siege (1571-73) which lasted for two years until the occupants, staunch supporters of Mary Queen of Scots, finally surrendered after running out of water and the leaders met with gruesome deaths. Many of the castle buildings were totally destroyed during this period due to the continuous artillery bombardment that was carried out.
The castle is also where the brutal murder of more than three hundred women were burned at the stake during the 16th-18th century after having been found guilty of witchcraft; first being tortured and then being given a trial that was already a foregone conclusion.
Perhaps the most famous and heart-rending witchcraft trial was that of Lady Janet Douglas of Glamis (c.1498-1537) whose only crime was to get the wrong side of King James V. Scotland holds the dubious record for being the largest persecutor of witches from the 16th-18th centuries across the whole of Europe.
A Royal Residence
By the Medieval period Edinburgh Castle had become an important Royal Residence and in 1437 Edinburgh became the capital of Scotland. For a brief period, the castle became the powerhouse of the country, home to the Scottish Monarchs.
Mary Queen of Scots gave birth to her son, James VI of Scotland ( also James I of England and father of Charles I) within these very walls, in a closet of all places! However, it must be noted that from the 16th century the Royals officially moved residence to Holyrood where James IV had built a new, and probably imminently more comfortable, Gothic Palace (1501-1505) next to the old Abbey, of which little of the original building remains today.
The Royal Palace sits proudly in Crown Square which was the part of the main courtyard for the castle in the 15th century and was originally called Palace Yard. During the 17th and 18th Centuries when the Castle was used solely as a garrison the square became known as the Grand Parade. The present-day name Crown Square came into being after Sir Walter Scott’s discovery of the Crown Jewels in 1818.
The Honours of Scotland
It is appropriate, with its long illustrious royal connections, that the castle is the final home to the Honours of Scotland – the Crown, Sword of State and Sceptre. They are the oldest Crown Jewels in Britain and were created in the 15th and early 16th centuries but first used together in 1543 at the coronation of Mary Queen of Scots when she was just nine months old!
The Crown Jewels were hidden in various locations around Scotland in the 17th century to protect them from Oliver Cromwell as he sought to capture one of Scotland’s most potent symbol of sovereignty. At this point in time, the castle itself was under Parliamentarian control.
Perhaps an even more bizarre fact is that the jewels were placed in an oak chest at the castle and ‘lost’ for over a century at the time of the Treaty of the Union in 1707.
The Stone of Destiny
The Stone of Destiny is another crucial piece of Scottish Royal history that was finally returned to Scotland in 1996, after an absence of seven hundred years, and can be found in Edinburgh Castle – yes you read correctly 700 years!
Otherwise known as the Stone of Scone, this huge lump of stone is of major Scottish royal historical importance. For centuries the stone had been part of the coronation ceremonies of the early Picts and Scots and Edward I of England (also known as Edward Longshanks or Scottorum Malleus – Hammer of the Scots – definitely not good!) knew this and as part of his dastardly plot to try and relieve the Scottish people of their independence he stole it along with many other treasures.
Edward I had the Stone of Destiny incorporated into a Coronation Chair which remained in Westminster Abbey until the stone was finally returned to the Scottish people in 1996 under the proviso that it can be used at any future coronations at the Abbey.
The Oldest Building in Edinburgh City and the Hidden Gem of Edinburgh Castle
Edinburgh Castle is, in fact, a collection of numerous buildings dating from the 12th century to the present day. The majority of the structures seen today were built after the destruction of a large section of the castle during the protracted Lang Siege of 1571-73. There are only a few pre-17th-century buildings left and the most noteworthy of these are: the Royal Palace (15th C.) and the Great Hall (16th C.) and of course, St. Margaret’s Chapel (12th C.)
St. Margaret’s Chapel is not only the most ancient building in the Castle, but also takes the accolade for being the oldest in the whole of Edinburgh itself and is built on the highest part of Castle Rock
This diminutive building, incredibly plain from the exterior has an attractive Romanesque interior with five small stained glass windows created in 1922 by the renowned Scottish artist Douglas Strachan (1875-1950) depicting amongst others, Saint Columba and of course, St Margaret herself. The jewel-like quality of these windows are all the more stunning when viewed in this simple setting with little to distract the eye.
The Chapel was built by King David I in c.1130 and dedicated to his mother, Queen Margaret, an Anglo-Saxon princess who married Malcolm III. She was only canonised a century later in 1250.
The semi-circular chancel is separated from the rest of the church by a charming fine chevroned arch typical of the Romanesque period. When the Royal family relocated to Holyrood Palace in the 16th century the chapel fell out of use and became, of all things, a gunpowder store.
The Great Hall of Edinburgh Castle
The Great Hall was built for James IV and completed just a year before the Battle of Flodden (1513) where he was killed on the battlefield; the last British monarch to die in such circumstances.
The building underwent a number of uses over the centuries from barracks to military sleeping quarters. The interior of the building we now see is the creation of the Victorian architect Hippolytus Blanc in the late 19th century. The only original medieval remaining feature is that of the magnificent early 16th-century hammer-beam roof which was somewhat altered in the 18th century.
The Scottish National War Memorial
Situated in Crown Square opposite the Great Hall is the Scottish National War Memorial, which is a remodelling of the North Barrack Block. This was created between 1924-27 by the eminent Scottish architect Sir Robert Stodart Lorimer (1864-1929) in a Gothic Revival Style and was paid for by the people of Scotland.
This memorial was originally created to commemorate all Scots and those serving in Scottish Regiments that had died during World War I, of which there are over 147,000 names on the Rolls of Honour List. It has now become a memorial to all those who have lost their lives in all other conflicts, including a further 50,000 names added after the end of World War II.
The building is an amalgamation of eleven noteworthy 20th-century British artists and more than two hundred craftsmen and labourers. Two of the artists were the husband and wife team Morris and Alice Meredith William who, for over ten years worked on numerous war memorials across Britain.
Morris had served in the war from 1916 and as a trained illustrator had sketched hundreds of pencil drawings. His wife, Alice, was a sculptor and turned these into sculptures and friezes – a number of which can be seen at the Scottish National War Memorial.
Most of the stained glass windows at the Memorial are designed, like St Margaret’s Chapel, by Douglas Strachan. The long pale blue windows that flank the south wall help create a sense of peace and tranquillity despite the unsettling imagery within.
The Garrison Prison
A prison was built in 1842 whilst the Castle was still a garrison and was used to incarcerate soldiers who didn’t toe the line, perhaps being drunk and disorderly whilst on duty. The prison is just a smaller version of the typical civilian Victorian prisons. Convicted soldiers were kept in solitary confinement and had to endure hard labour. Definitely an incentive to not break the strict rules!
The Dog Cemetery
By the 19th-century pet cemeteries had become widespread across Britain particularly in the large Country Houses and there’s even a Victorian pet cemetery in Hyde Park, London. Like the rest of the country the military garrison at Edinburgh Castle created its own Dog Cemetery and from the 1840s this was used as a burial site for the regimental mascots and soldiers’ pets.
A Medieval Monster – Mons Meg
The enormous cannon was constructed in 1449 at the Belgian town of Mons and was gifted to James II of Scotland in 1457 by the Duke of Burgundy, who was the uncle of James’ wife, Mary of Guelders.
Weighing six tonnes and with a cannon diameter of nineteen inches, the cannon could fire cannonballs weighing nearly 400lbs (175 kg). There was, however, with its excessive weight, the slight problem of transporting it around the Scottish countryside. On a good day, it could only be transported a maximum of nine miles a day – not too practical or fast even by standards back then!
Mons Meg was used during the Lang Siege and was capable of firing up to two miles. During the Jacobite uprising of the 1750s, the cannon was removed to the Tower of London and it wasn’t until a campaign, spearheaded by Sir Walter Scott, during the 1820s that it was finally returned back to Edinburgh Castle.
Other places of interest at the castle
There are many other interesting places to see during your visit to Edinburgh Castle that has not been mentioned here and are well worth a quick look. Just a few of these are mentioned below.
The Vaults below the Great Hall and Queen Anne building that were used to house prisoners from the various wars including Americans captured during the War of Independence and French prisoners during the Napoleonic Wars.
The Regimental Museums of the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards and the Royal Scots (the oldest infantry regiment in the British Army formed in 1633) are housed within The New Barracks which were completed in 1799. The National War Museum giving an overview of the Scottish regiments from the 1600s.
The firing of the One o’ Clock Gun from the Mills Mount Battery. A tradition started in 1861 so that shipping in the Firth of Forth could set their chronometers. This was actually preceded by the time ball on the top of Nelson’s Monument at Carlton that was built in 1852 but had one major flaw. When there was either fog or haar (coastal mist) the visual aid was rendered useless.
How to Visit Edinburgh Castle
There’s no getting away from the fact that as Scotland’s top tourist attraction, Edinburgh Castle can get exceedingly busy. There were over two million visitors to the site in 2018 and many of these occurred during the summer months.
Edinburgh Castle is a large and rather sprawling affair with many uneven surfaces, steep climbs and numerous steps both inside the buildings and outside too, so, comfortable sensible footwear is essential as you will be doing a fair amount of walking.
With much of the walking being outside, it’s worth considering a raincoat or umbrella if the weather seems inclement. There are a number of venues where you can take a break and have a light snack or cream tea whilst visiting the Castle.
How to purchase a ticket for Edinburgh Castle
Bearing in mind the number of people visiting the castle you can imagine that the ticket queues can become rather long and tedious. There’s a solution to this and that is by purchasing your tickets in advance online, and this is also the slightly cheaper option.
The tickets are not cheap with Adults starting at £17.00 for advanced tickets and £18.50 at the door. Likewise, Children are £10.20 online and £11.50 at the castle. Concessions are £13.60 & £15.00 respectively. However, there are an amazing number of individual attractions to see within the Castle grounds with most visitors spending between 2-3 hours. If you really want to see everything it will take longer!
Children under the age of 5 are free and there are no family tickets at present.
Various members such as Historic Scotland, Scottish Heritage Pass and English Heritage Members (from the 2nd year of membership) go FREE. Buy an Edinburgh Castle skip-the-line ticket here.
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