Castle of the Week 34 – Edinburgh Castle

Edinburgh Castle, a motley collection of buildings from various periods of history, is spreadeagled on Castle Rock, an extinct volcano, 300 feet above the city. The site has been fought over for nearly 3000 years although most of the present castle dates from the 16th century and later. During its life, it has been a palace, a treasury, a refuge for Scottish kings and a prison. Now it provides a magnificent panorama of the city and surroundings.

There is archaeological evidence of a Bronze Age hill fort on the rock, which would have risen from dense forest, in about 1,000 BC. It would have been occupied by the local Celtic tribe, the Votadini. It was a thriving settlement during Roman times. When King Malcolm III expelled the Northumbrians from Scotland in the 11th century, he built a wooden fortress that he used as a hunting lodge. Among the few early buildings left is the small Chapel of St Margaret from the early 12th century. It has been much altered and repaired but still retains a few original features.

In 1174, when the Scottish King was defeated and captured he was forced to hand over four Scottish castles as security for his ransom, one of which was Edinburgh. However, it was recaptured by the Scots in 1186. Edward I of England captured it in 1296 and it was recaptured in 1314 by Robert Bruce’s nephew, the Earl of Moray, in a daring commando raid with only 30 men who scaled the cliffs and walls taking the large garrison by surprise. Robert Bruce was surprised at the ease with which it had been taken and so ordered Moray to destroy the fortifications but left the chapel. Edward III of England retook it and built a new castle in 1335 but only held it for six years when Sir William Douglas won it back for the Scots, tricking the garrison into thinking his men were merchants and decapitating most of the English garrison. The castle remained in Scottish hands after this until 1603 when the two kingdoms were united.

King David II returned from English captivity in 1356 and started rebuilding, including, in 1368, a new royal residence, David’s Tower, of which some remnants remain. It was an L-shaped 60 foot tower with a drawbridge. A new gate tower and Constables Tower were also built as was St Mary’s Church.

Crown Square, the main courtyard, came into being in the 15th century when the Great Hall was built with an impressive hammerbeam roof in 1434 and rebuilt in 1445 following a siege.

In the 16th century, Holyrood House was built and this ended the castle’s being used as a royal residence, except that in 1566 Mary Queen of Scots gave birth to the future James I of England (James VI of Scotland) in a tiny room in the castle which can still be visited. In 1571 the keeper of the castle, who supported Queen Mary in her bid for the English throne, refused to surrender to other Scots who were supported by the English. Heavy guns were sent and within ten days had completely demolished the eastern front. The keeper had to surrender when fallen masonry blocked the well, whereupon he was hanged for treason. Reconstruction began straight away. The Portcullis Gate replaced the Constables Tower and the Half Moon Battery was built around the remains of David’s Tower which had been largely destroyed.

In 1640 the castle was besieged unsuccessfully for three months by the Covenanting Army, but badly damaging the defences yet again. It was repaired just in time for another three months’ siege in 1650 by Oliver Cromwell who then established his Scottish headquarters there, converting the Great Hall into barracks and digging a dry ditch in front of the gatehouse. This led to the royal castle becoming a garrison fortress and in following years much building for the garrison such as barracks, officers’ quarters and storehouses which took place without any regard for the history or aesthetics of the castle.

In 1689 the Duke of Gordon held the castle for James II against the forces of William & Mary and in 1715 Jacobite forces broke in through the postern gate. After this, the defences were reconstructed once again. In 1745 Bonnie Prince Charlie tried to take the castle on his march south. This was the last time the castle saw military action.

In 1753 St Mary’s Church was demolished to make way for barracks and about this time the first prisoners of war were held in vaults beneath Crown Square. Initially the prisoners were Jacobites but by 1763 500 Frenchmen were imprisoned there. The vaults later housed prisoners from America, Spain, Holland, Germany and Italy. In 1769 the Great Hall was converted into a military hospital.

A prison was built in 1842, a guardhouse in 1853 and in 1887 the hospital moved to converted storerooms, allowing the restoration of the Great Hall to begin. A new gatehouse and drawbridge were built, giving the castle a slightly more picturesque appearance.

During the 20th century, the North Barracks were remodelled to become the Scottish National War Memorial and another building was converted into a military museum.

It is still a working garrison, being the home of the Scottish Division, the Royal Scots and Royal Scots Dragoon Guards with a guard on the main gate. Members of the garrison have the right to be married in St Margaret’s Chapel.

In the Crown Room the crown from the time of Robert Bruce, sceptre and sword of state of Scotland can be seen. Their rediscovery, hidden in a locked chest in 1818, signalled the beginning of the castle’s function as a tourist attraction. Now the Stone of Scone (Stone of Destiny) can also be seen, having been returned from Westminster Abbey on St Andrews Day 1996 after 700 years. Edinburgh Castle is the second most visited ancient monument in Britain, after the Tower of London, with over one million visitors every year.

A tradition which is still continued is to fire a 2nd World War 25-pounder gun at exactly one o’clock every day except Sunday as a time check for people in the city. Originally this was so that ships sailing up the Firth of Forth could check their chronometers.

Finally, it is the home of Mons Meg, a huge 15th century cannon, reputed to be able to fire a large stone cannonball two miles. It weighs over 6 tons and was made in Mons in Belgium to be presented to the Scottish king in 1457 by the Duke of Burgundy. It was used to defend the castle against the English and then taken at a rate of 3 miles per day to be part of a siege by the River Tweed. By the mid 1500s it was restricted to firing ceremonial salutes from the ramparts. It was last fired in 1681 when the barrel burst and it was dumped until taken to the Tower of London in 1754. It was returned to Edinburgh in 1829 and, since 2001, sits on the ramparts next to St Margaret’s Chapel.

Write-up provided by GillB. Pictures courtesy of Jayhawk and Castles of the World
If you look at the pictures closely, you may see a very young Jayhawk in one of them. Had he been any older at the time, he would have been writing this and not me!


Download Edinburgh Castle from Fileplanet, as part of the Excalibur Pack