Edinburgh Castle is an ancient stronghold which dominates the sky-line of the city of Edinburgh from its position atop Castle Rock. It is Scotland's second-most-visited tourist attraction. Human habitation of the site is dated back as far as the 9th century BC. As it stands today though, few of the castle's structures pre-date the Lang Siege of the 16th century, with the notable exception of St Margaret's Chapel, the oldest surviving building in Edinburgh, which dates from the early 12th century.
As with all castles, Edinburgh's fortress has been a centre of military activity. As an ancient fortress, Edinburgh Castle is one of the few that still has a military garrison, albeit for largely ceremonial and administrative purposes. The New Barrack Block is now home to the official headquarters of the Royal Regiment of Scotland and 52 Infantry Brigade, as well as home to the regimental museum of the Royal Scots and Royal Scots Dragoon Guards. The Governor of Edinburgh Castle is Major General David MacDowall, GOC of the British Army's 2nd Division. The Governor of the Castle has always been the head of the Army in Scotland. Direct administration of the castle by the War Office only came to an end in 1923 when the army formally moved to the city's new Redford Barracks. Nevertheless, the Castle continues to have a strong connection with the Army. Sentries still stand watch at the castle gatehouse after opening hours, with responsibility for guarding the Honours of Scotland.
The Castle is now run and administered, for the most part, by Historic Scotland. Historic Scotland is an executive agency of the Scottish Government and undertakes the dual (and sometimes mutually contradictory) tasks of operating the castle as a commercially viable tourist attraction while simultaneously having responsibility for conservation of the site.
Historic Scotland maintain a number of attractions for visitors. There are two cafés/restaurants in the castle, in addition to numerous historical displays. Historic Scotland have an educational centre in the castle which runs events for schools and educational groups, including re-enactors in costume and with period weaponry. There are also a number of re-enactors employed for the general public in portions of the castle such as the Great Hall.
The Castle stands upon the basalt plug of an extinct volcano which is estimated to have risen some 340 million years ago during the lower Carboniferous age. Standing 120 metres (400 ft) above sea level, the Castle Rock is a classic example of a crag and tail formation.
These geological foundations cannot be underestimated in their significance for the subsequent development of the Castle (and indeed the city) and the events which have defined its history. To the south, west and north, the castle is protected by sheer cliffs rearing some 80 metres (260 ft) from the surrounding landscape. This means that the only readily accessible route to the castle lies to the East, where the ridge slopes more gently.
But just as its location has rendered the Castle all but impregnable (it has never been taken by a direct assault against its gates), it has also presented difficulties. Not the least of these is that basalt is an extremely poor aquifer and therefore providing water to the upper ward of the castle in particular has long been problematic. Today this can be inconvenient, as the poor quality of the piped water which is now available in the Palace Block (where the castle's stewards have their mess room) means that bottled water has to be transported up from the lower ward. Historically, however, the inaccessibility of water was disastrous under siege conditions.
The origins of Edinburgh lie so deep beneath the mound of history that writing on the matter is largely speculative and often contradictory. It has been suggested that an early reference to occupation of the site of the Castle can be found as early as the mid-second century AD. Ptolemy refers to a settlement of the Votadini known to the Romans as Alauna (rock place).
More doubtful evidence of still earlier habitation is provided by Andrew of Wyntoun, an early chronicler of Scottish history. Wyntoun alludes to a king Ebrawce residing in the area 1,000 years before the Roman reference. If the story is to be believed, Ebrawce (from whom the name Edinburgh is, in this version of the story, said to have derived) had over fifty children by his twenty wives. On the site of Edinburgh castle he built a "Maiden's Castle" and "bygged Edynburghe wyth-alle". The name of this mythical King Ebrawce, however, is more cognate with the hypothetical name of the sub-Roman Kingdom of York, Ebrauc.
While there must be serious doubts about the veracity of Wyntoun's chronicle in this matter, an archaeological survey of the Castle in the late 1980s does lend credence to the idea of the site having been settled during the late Iron (or early Bronze) age. However, the extent of the finds was not particularly significant and was insufficient to draw any certain conclusions about the precise nature or scale of this earliest known phase of occupation. Whether this was indeed the hall of the fecund King Ebrawce can only be a matter of speculation.
The archaeological evidence becomes more compelling in the Iron Age. Traditionally, it had been supposed that the tribes which inhabited this part of central Scotland had made little or no use of the Castle Rock. Excavations at nearby Traprain Law, Dunsapie Hill, Duddingston and Inveresk had revealed relatively large settlements and it was supposed that these sites had, for some reason, been chosen in preference to the Castle rock. If the excavations of the late 1980s did not disprove this view, it at least demonstrated that the position was somewhat more complex.
The dig revealed clear signs of habitation from the first and second centuries AD (which is consistent with Ptolemy's reference to Alauna). Interestingly, these signs of occupation included a good deal of Roman material including pottery, bronzes and brooches. This may reflect a trading relationship between the Votadini and the Romans beginning with Agricola's foray north and continuing through to the establishment of the Antonine Wall when the Romans temporarily established themselves nearby at Cramond. From this point onwards there is strong evidence pointing towards continuous habitation of the site through to the present—albeit with fluctuations in population levels.
The castle does not re-appear in known historical records from the time of Ptolemy until around AD 600. Then, in the brythonic epic Y Gododdin we find a reference to Din Eidyn, "the stronghold of Eidyn". The poem tells of the Gododdin King Mynyddog Mwynfawr and his band of warriors who, after a year of feasting in their fortress, set out to do battle with the Angles in the area of contemporary Yorkshire. Despite performing glorious deeds of valour and bravery the Brythons were massacred.
How far this poetic account of events should be believed is debatable. Moreover, it is by no means universally accepted that the site of Edinburgh Castle and the Hall of Eidyn are synonymous. The archaeological evidence is equivocal; for the relevant period it is entirely based on analysis of midden heaps from which few conclusions can be derived about the status of the settlement during this period. Moreover, only the lower ward of the castle has been subject to thorough archaeological scrutiny.
What is known is that at some time after the events related in Y Gododdin, Din Eidyn was besieged by the Angles and fell to them. It is during this period of Anglian rule that Edinburgh acquires its name, made up from its ancient name Dunedin and Anglian burgh ("city"). Of the fate of the settlement on the Castle Rock during this period, however, little can be said.
It is not until the latter half of the 11th century that the castle begins to emerge from the historical accounts. John of Fordun's account of the death of King Malcolm III places his widow, the future Saint Margaret, at the "Castle of Maidens" when she learns of his death in 1093.
Although it is somewhat anachronistic to speak of royal capitals during this period of Scottish history, Dunfermline rather than Edinburgh was the primary royal residence during the reign of Malcolm III. This began to change though during the reign of his youngest son, King David I.
King David's largest contribution to the development of Edinburgh as a site of royal power undoubtedly lay in his administrative reforms. However, he is also credited with effecting more tangible changes to the fabric of the castle. Of these (for reasons discussed below) only St. Margaret's Chapel remains. But, knowing that the first meeting of the Scottish Parliament occurred at the castle around 1140, it seems there were other, large buildings occupying the rock at this time. Given that the southern part of the Upper Ward (where Crown Square is now sited) was not amenable to being built upon until the construction of the vaults in the fifteenth century it seems probable that these earlier buildings would have been located towards the Northern part of the rock; that is around the area where St. Margaret's Chapel stands. This has led to a suggestion that the chapel is the last remnant of a square, stone keep which would have formed the bulk of the twelfth-century fortification.
In 1296, King Edward I of England invaded Scotland, sparking the First War of Scottish Independence. Edinburgh Castle soon came under English control after a brief resistance. A large garrison was installed, 347 strong in 1300. After the death of Edward I in 1307, however, England's control over Scotland weakened. In the spring of 1314, a surprise night attack led by Thomas Randolph, 1st Earl of Moray, recaptured the castle. It was a daring plan, involving a party of thirty hand-picked men making a difficult ascent up the north precipice and taking the garrison by surprise. Robert the Bruce immediately ordered the destruction of its defences to prevent re-occupation by the English. Shortly after, Bruce's army secured victory at the Battle of Bannockburn.
After Bruce's death, another dispute of the rightful heir to the throne, which had its origins in the Great Cause, broke out, leading to the Second War of Scottish Independence; that eventually caused the castle to again come under English control. Major repairs were carried out, but these proved ineffective against another assault in April 1341, this time led by William Douglas, 1st Earl of Douglas. Douglas's party disguised as merchants bringing supplies to the garrison, and managed to drop its loads at the castle gate, preventing their closure. A larger force hidden nearby rushed to join them and the castle was ruthlessly retaken.
At the top of the Royal Mile, in front of the castle, is a long sloping forecourt known as the Esplanade, originally constructed as a parade ground in 1753. It is upon this Esplanade that the famous Edinburgh Military Tattoo takes place annually. From the Esplanade may be seen the Half Moon Battery, which is a dominant feature visible in Alexander Nasmyth's painting. This drum-shaped fortification, completed in 1588 after the Lang Siege, incorporates the ruined remains of the Keep of 1364, known as David's Tower.
The castle proper is entered through a Gatehouse in front of the Half Moon Battery. This structure was built as an architecturally cosmetic addition to the castle in 1888. Statues of Robert the Bruce and William Wallace flanking the entrance were added in 1929. The dry ditch and Drawbridge in front of the entrance, however, date from the time of the New Model Army's occupation of the castle in the 1650s. The road leads upward and around to the right of the battery and through an older Portcullis Gate built after the Lang Siege of 1571–73, replacing the ruined Constable's Tower.
David's Tower was commissioned in 1386 by Robert the Bruce's son, David II of Scotland. David's tower was enormous by standards of the time, standing on the site of the present Half Moon Battery at 30 metres in height, with three stories—twice as high as the Half Moon Battery. The tower initially served as the principal entrance to the castle, but by later years it was expanded to include many more rooms for guests and visiting nobility, and the original main entrance became boxed off by a guest room.
When the Catholic Mary, Queen of Scots, married James Hepburn in 1567, a large proportion of the (Protestant) nobility rebelled, resulting ultimately in the imprisonment of Mary in Loch Leven Castle. Although she eventually escaped and fled to England, some of the nobility remained faithful to Mary, retaining Edinburgh Castle. Sir William Kirkcaldy of Grange held the castle under the Lang Siege (Long Siege) for a year, until 1573, when the infant King James VI's regent, Regent Morton, requested assistance from Queen Elizabeth I of England. Heavy guns were dispatched to the castle from Berwick, and within ten days of the commencement of the stronghold's bombardment with these guns in May of that year, David's Tower collapsed.
The collapse of this tower blocked off the single source of water for the castle, the Fore Well, and within a few days the castle surrendered, around two weeks after the arrival of the new guns. Sir William was soon hanged, and much of the castle was subsequently rebuilt, including prominent new defences, such as the new Half Moon Battery. King James VI seldom visited Edinburgh Castle, however, preferring to stay at Holyrood Palace. His successor, King Charles I, visited only once, the night before his coronation as King of Scots in 1633, the last occasion that a reigning monarch has resided in the castle.
The Half Moon Battery was duly constructed on the site of the old David's Tower after the Lang Siege, as part of the reconstruction works supervised by James Douglas, 4th Earl of Morton. This magnificent set of defences, prominent on the East side of the castle today, sits over the old ruins, and several rooms from the ground and first floors of the tower still exist underneath the Battery, with windows facing out onto the interior wall of the Battery. Several of these are accessible to the public, although the lower (Ground Floor) elements are generally closed.
The inaccessible areas include a former master Guest Bedroom, and a three-story room outside the original David's Tower (with large portions of the exterior wall still visible) created by the imposition of the Battery formerly used to house Pigeons for consumption during the winter months. The walls of these sections are correspondingly pitted with chunks of stone removed to provide nesting places for the birds. The Half Moon Battery was completed in 1588.
Crown Square is the citadel at the top of the castle. It was created in the 15th century, during the reign of King James III, as the principal courtyard of the castle, at a time when Edinburgh finally emerged as the capital of the Kingdom of Scotland. The foundations were formed by the construction of a series of large stone vaults built into the uneven Castle Rock. The name Crown Square came into use after the recovery of the Honours of Scotland in 1818; before that time it was known as Palace Yard. The square is formed by the National War Memorial to the North, the Royal Palace block to the East, the Great Hall to the South and the Queen Anne Building to the West.
These are the former Royal Apartments, dating from the 15th century and were the residence of the later Stewart monarchs. It reached its peak of importance during the reign of Mary Queen of Scots and includes a small room known as Birth Chamber or Mary Room where King James VI of Scotland, who was to also become James I of England was born to Mary, Queen of Scots. Mary, who had a strong claim to the throne of England, incited the concern of her cousin, Elizabeth I of England, who Mary later sought the safety of after the Battle of Carberry Hill, imprisoned and eventually beheaded her. The building was extensively remodelled for the visit of King James VI to the castle in 1617.
This vaulted Strongroom is located on the first floor of the Royal Palace building and contains the Honours of Scotland. These are the Scottish Crown Jewels and Regalia. They include the Crown of Scotland, sceptre and sword of state. The crown dates from 1540, is made of Scottish gold and is set with 94 pearls, ten diamonds and 33 other precious and semi-precious gemstones. The Sceptre is also made of gold, and topped with a large Rock Crystal (Quartz). The most treasured possession of Scotland is also located among the honours. It is the Stone of Destiny, otherwise known as the Stone of Scone, upon which the monarchs of Scotland are traditionally crowned. It had been taken to England and incorporated into the Coronation Chair in Westminster Abbey but was returned to Scotland in 1996 on the understanding that it be returned to Westminster for subsequent coronations.
The Great Hall of the Castle was built in 1513 on the orders of King James IV as the chief place of State Assembly in the castle. It still has its original Hammerbeam roof, one of the most important timber roofs in Scotland. It was used for meetings of the Parliament of Scotland prior to the building of Parliament Hall next to St Giles Cathedral in 1639. During the Interregnum in the 1650s, the Great Hall was converted into a barracks by the New Model Army under General George Monck and was further altered in 1737 to house 312 soldiers. Following the construction of the New Barracks in the 1790s, it became a military hospital until 1887. It was then restored by the architect Hippolyte Blanc in the contemporary Victorian vernacular. The Great Hall is still sometimes used for ceremonial occasions and is often a popular venue on Hogmanay for BBC Scotland's Hogmanay Live programme.
In the Middle Ages, this area housed the kitchens serving the adjacent Great Hall. The present building was named for Queen Anne and built during the attempted invasion by the Old Pretender in 1708. It was designed by Captain Theodore Dury, military engineer for Scotland, who also designed the eponymous Dury's Battery on the south side of the castle in 1713. The building provided accommodation for Staff Officers. It was remodelled in 1933 as the Naval and Military Museum to complement the newly-opened Scottish National War Memorial.
St. Mary's Church originally stood on this site in the Middle Ages but this was converted into an armoury in 1540 and demolished in 1755 to make room for the new North Barrack Block. The barracks was vacated by the Army in 1923, who moved to Redford Barracks. It was then adapted by Sir Robert Lorimer as the Scottish National War Memorial, to commemorate Scots and those serving with Scottish regiments who had died in the First World War and subsequent conflicts. The conversion was formally opened on 14 July 1927. The stained-glass windows are by Douglas Strachan. As a mark of respect, photography is prohibited within this building.
Two stores for munitions were built on either side of a courtyard to a design by William Skinner in 1753. Skinner, a military engineer, is best known for his design of Fort George near Inverness. The main gunpowder magazine also originally stood on the west side of the courtyard. This was demolished in 1887 and the two storehouses remodelled as a military hospital, formerly housed in the Great Hall. The north storehouse now houses the National War Museum of Scotland. The museum forms part of the National Museums of Scotland. It was formerly known as the Scottish United Services Museum, and, prior to this, the Scottish Naval and Military Museum, when it was housed in the Queen Anne Building. It covers Scottish military history and wars over the past 400 years and includes a wide range of military artefacts, such as uniforms, medals and weapons. The exhibitions also place a lot of emphasis on explaining the history and causes behind the many wars Scotland has been involved in.
The oldest building in the castle, and in Edinburgh, is the small St. Margaret's Chapel, which dates to the start of the 12th century. King David I built it as a private chapel for the royal family and dedicated it to his mother, Saint Margaret of Scotland, who died in the castle in 1093.
Robert the Bruce had the Castle destroyed by his lieutenant, Thomas Randolph, 1st Earl of Moray, to prevent English capture in the event of an unsuccessful battle at Bannockburn; however, he relented over the chapel and ordered its restoration. In any event, the campaign was a success and Robert the Bruce defeated Edward II.
This building is still used for various religious ceremonies such as weddings and christenings, with a capacity of approximately 25 people.
On a ledge beneath St. Margaret's Chapel, there is a (Victorian) cemetery for the pets of soldiers and regimental mascot dogs residing at the castle which have died over the years.
After the Restoration in 1660, King Charles II opted to maintain a full-time standing army based on Cromwell's New Model Army, which maintained a continuous garrison at the castle until the end of the First World War. During that time the medieval royal castle was transformed into a garrison fortress, but was still subject to attack. In 1689, the Duke of Gordon unsuccessfully defended the castle for King James VII after he was exiled in the Glorious Revolution. After the castle was almost taken in the First Jacobite Rising in 1715, major fortifications were carried out. Throughout the 1720s and 1730s, most of the artillery defences and Bastions on the north and west sides of the castle were built under the instruction of Field Marshal George Wade and designed by William Adam; these include the Argyle Battery, Mills Mount Battery, Low Defence and Forewall Battery. The last military action the castle saw was during the 1745 Jacobite Rising, when Bonnie Prince Charlie failed to take the fortress. Over the next century, the castle vaults were used to hold prisoners of war during several conflicts, such as the Seven Years' War, the American War of Independence and the Napoleonic wars. The military prison was built in 1842 for the castle garrison and was extended in the 1880s. It was last used in 1923, when the garrison moved to Redford Barracks.
Although the castle is now largely a tourist attraction, it still has a function as a military headquarters of the British Army. The Governor's House was built in 1742 and used until the post of Governor was abolished in 1860; it was then used by Nurses of the castle hospital. Today, it functions as an officers' mess and the office of the Governor, a Crown appointment restored for purely ceremonial purposes in 1935. The New Barrack Block, completed in 1799 to replace the outdated accommodation in the Great Hall, now houses the headquarters of the 52nd Infantry Brigade, the Regimental Headquarters of the Royal Regiment of Scotland, and the regimental Headquarters and museum of the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards (Carabiniers and Greys). Also nearby, at the former Royal Scots drill hall, constructed in 1900, is the regimental museum of the Royal Scots (The Royal Regiment). Both the museums are open to the public and entry is free for those already within the castle.
A series of spectacular performances known as the Edinburgh Military Tattoo takes place on the Esplanade each year during August. The basis of the performance is a parade of the pipes and drums of the Scottish regiments, but after more than fifty years, the Tattoo has developed a complex format which includes many invited performers as diverse as (in 2006) a Choir of Ugandan orphans and a Kung Fu troupe. The climax of the evening is the haunting sound of a lone piper playing a pibroch in memory of dead comrades in arms from the castle battlements, followed by the tremendous noise of the massed bands joining in a medley of Scotland's most rousing tunes. Because of the enormous popularity of the Tattoo it is broadcast in Canada, New Zealand, Australia and Germany.
The One O'Clock Gun is fired every day (except Sunday) at precisely 13:00, allowing citizens and visitors to check their clocks and watches. The origin of the tradition lies in the days before accurate timepieces, when sailing ships in the Firth of Forth needed a reliable time signal to check their marine chronometers.
At one o'clock the ball drops giving the signal to sailors, but this meant that someone would have to be looking out for it and it often could not be seen in foggy weather.
So, in the same year the gun was fired simultaneously to the time ball dropping. It was originally an 18-pound muzzle loading cannon, which needed four men to load; fire was fired from the Half Moon Battery.
The gun could be easily heard by ships in Leith Harbour, 2 miles (3.2 km) away. The cannon was replaced with a 25-pound Howitzer in 1953, and more recently by the L118 Light Gun. It is now fired from Mill's Mount Battery on the North face of the Castle by the District Gunner from 105th Regiment Royal Artillery (Volunteers). Because sound travels slowly (approx. 343 m/s), maps have been produced to show the actual time when the sound of the gun was heard at various locations in Edinburgh.
Although the gun is no longer required for its original purpose, the ceremony has become a popular tourist attraction. One of the District Gunners, Staff Sergeant Thomas McKay MBE—popularly known as "Tam the Gun"—was the longest-running District Gunner to fire the One O'Clock Gun, from 1979 until his death in 2005. He also opened a small museum about the Gun in the castle and was seen every Hogmanay signalling the new year by firing his gun.
The Gun is also fired to mark the arrival of the New Year as part of Edinburgh's Hogmanay celebrations.
The great fifteenth-century siege gun Mons Meg can be seen today outside St. Margaret's Chapel. The six-ton bombard faces North across the city. From this vantage, modern visitors to the castle will be able to see the city's Botanic Gardens, which lie roughly 3.2 kilometres from the castle (almost 2 miles). It was on this site that one of the cannon's 150-kilogram (330 lb) gun stones was found to have landed, when it was fired from the Castle in celebration of the marriage of Mary, Queen of Scots, to the French dauphin François II in 1558. Mons Meg has been defunct since her barrel burst on 14 October 1681 when firing a birthday salute for the Duke of Albany.
In 1621, King James VI granted Sir William Alexander the land in North America between New England and Newfoundland as Nova Scotia ("New Scotland"). To promote the settlement and plantation of Nova Scotia, the Baronetage of Nova Scotia was created.
Under Scots Law, baronets could receive their patents in Edinburgh rather than London. They had to "take sasine" by symbolically receiving the "earth and stone" of the land of which they were baronet. To make this possible, since Nova Scotia was far distant, a part of Edinburgh Castle was deemed granted to Sir William as part of Nova Scotia, and was declared Nova Scotian territory for this purpose. In return, the prospective baronets undertook to pay Sir William 1000 merks for his "past charges in discoverie of the said country". The law has never been repealed and the small part of Nova Scotia now lies under the Esplanade.
Driscoll & Yeoman Excavations within Edinburgh Castle in 1988-91 ISBN 0903903121
Harpers Handbooks Harpers Handbook to Edinburgh (1981) ISBN 0907686001
Harris, Stewart The Place Names of Edinburgh: Their Origins and History ISBN 1904246060
Historic Scotland Edinburgh Castle : Official Guide ISBN 1903570336
Scott-Moncrieff Edinburgh ISBN 0050018299