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Issue 3 - The palace of Holyroodhouse

History & Heritage

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Scotland Magazine Issue 3
July 2002


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The palace of Holyroodhouse

Through the years, so many turbulent events have taken place within its walls... Charles Douglas visits Scotland's very own royal residence

There are many fine and romantic castles in Scotland, but there is nowhere quite like the Palace of Holyroodhouse. It may not be the grandest of Europe’s Royal residences, but what makes Holyrood so special is that very same atmosphere of gloominess which confronted the 19-year-old Mary Stuart when she returned home to Scotland from France; that same haunting, romantic melancholy which the young Queen Victoria noted in her diary.

And in many ways it is not so very surprising that the Palace of Holyroodhouse should fire the imagination, for so much has taken place within and out with those stone walls over a span of time approaching 900 years.

First there was the abbey church founded by the devout King David I who utilised all of the great abbeys he built around Scotland as instruments of government.

The 13th century was a golden age for Scotland, but from 1322 onwards, the abbey church of Holyrood was constantly under attack from invading English armies. The Stewart kings favoured Holyroodhouse as a royal residence, its close proximity to Edinburgh’s Flodden Wall and the gates of the city being of strategic importance. King James II was born here in 1430, and extensions to the domestic accommodation were well underway by the time of his marriage in 1449.

Then when King James IV became betrothed to Princess Margaret Tudor, sister of King Henry VIII of England, he decided that a residence of suitable proportions should be created to rival any in England. Indeed, the surrounding gardens at this time, with the bear and lion parks, were considered some of the finest to be seen anywhere. Between 1529 and 1532, King James V built the tower-like residence which stands at the north-western corner. The range on the west to complete the palace came later and was to be occupied by his daughter Mary with her second husband, Lord Darnley.

Mary Queen of Scots’ short reign was by any standards dramatic. She had been married off at an early age to the Dauphin of France, who had died when she was 18. On her return to Scotland the following year, she had to face the religious difficulties surrounding her being a Catholic when almost all of her subjects had embraced the Protestant faith.

There followed the brutal murder in her presence of her private secretary David Rizzio; then came Darnley’s own violent end when a bomb exploded in his nearby residence at Kirk o’ Field. Fleeing from Holyrood under the protection of the Earl of Bothwell, whom she later married, Mary was to be driven out of Scotland by forces led by her own half-brother and unwisely sought the protection of her cousin Elizabeth of England. She was only 26, and was to spend the next 19 years of her life in captivity.

However, Mary’s experiences at Holyrood did not deter her son from making full use of the palace, but having departed to London to be crowned King of England in 1603, he only returned for one brief visit.

Some improvements were made at that time, but it was his grandson King Charles II (crowned King of Scots at Holyrood in January 1651) who truly established this as Scotland’s Royal Residence.

On his authority, major reconstruction work was undertaken by the celebrated architect Sir William Bruce with assistance from master mason Robert Mylne. Charles was determined to consolidate the credibility of the Stuart Royal line (the spelling of the Scottish Royal family’s name was changed from Stewart to Stuart with Mary’s departure to France where, for phonetic reasons, the ‘ew’ was replaced with ‘u’). To this end, Charles commissioned the Dutch painter Jacob de Witt to create images of the 111 monarchs of Scotland – all based on the likeness of Charles himself. Eighty-nine of these remain and can be seen on the walls of the magnificent Great Gallery.

Ironically, Charles was never to see the results. Once established on the British throne, other matters preoccupied his attention. For a time his brother, the future King James VII & II took up residence and saw to it that the improvement work continued after his succession. But his children, Mary and Anne, and the incoming Hanovarian kings, showed little interest in Scotland until their security was threatened.

In 1745, Prince Charles Edward Stuart occupied Holyrood Palace in the early stages of the Jacobite uprising he led to reclaim the British throne for his father. The Palace came to life again and the ladies of Edinburgh flocked to the palace gates in the hope of catching a glimpse of the handsome 6ft tall prince.

Alas, Bonny Prince Charlie’s ambitions were thwarted the following year on the battlefield of Culloden, near Inverness, and Holyrood’s next Royal visitor was King George IV who held a levee at the palace in 1822, although he chose not to stay overnight.

For a period thereafter, Holyrood was left empty with only occasional overseas Royalty quartered there until their presence became an embarrassment to the British government. Even when Queen Victoria came to the throne in 1837, she tended to think of Holyrood as a stopping off place on the way north to her beloved Balmoral Castle, which she and her husband purchased in 1852.

So it was not until the reign of King George V in the last century that this ancient palace once again became a regularly used royal family home with major redecoration undertaken by Queen Mary, wife of King George VI.

Holyrood owes much to the attention of this wonderful lady who exercised great skill and taste in her improvements, sympathetically initiating and personally overseeing the repair of woodwork and plaster ceilings, and introducing wood panelling and some magnificent central lighting fittings. A large area of the newly refurbished palace was subsequently made available for public viewing.

Today, Her Majesty the Queen and her family make regular use of the palace when visiting Scotland. An annual garden party is held each year, and during May it becomes the official residence of the Lord High Commissioner to the Church of Scotland, appointed by the Queen to represent the British monarchy. Both the Prince of Wales and the Princess Royal regularly entertain visiting dignitaries and charitable organisers there, and it has been used for European summits. With the building of Scotland’s new parliament adjoining Holyrood Park, the palace’s future usage will become even more varied. Open to the public, it remains a major visitor attraction.

For those with expectations, it should be made apparent that the Palace of Holyroodhouse is not stuffed with the priceless furniture of other European royal houses, although there are certainly some fine paintings, and a number of important Scottish treasures to be seen. Holyrood does not share the breathtaking extravagance of Versailles or the opulence of Buckingham Palace, but that is to its advantage.

What it represents is something admirably Scottish. The Palace of Holyroodhouse is understated with great warmth and honesty, and although spacious, remains unpretentious. At the same time it is steeped in the history of its country and of its people. From the moment you step inside, you are made acutely aware of the sweeping passage of time: of James IV and his efforts to make Scotland a major European influence; of Mary Queen of Scots, the teenage Dowager Queen of France, holding court with her ladies; of the great ball held in 1822 for George IV, when all the chiefs of the Highland clans paraded before him in tartan.

That, to my mind, makes it profoundly impressive.

For further information, telephone: +44 (0) 131 556-7371. Open: Daily 9:30am-4:45pm, Sun 10:30am-4:40pm. Closed the last two weeks in May and three weeks in late June / early July (dates vary). Admission £5.50 adults, £4 seniors, £2.70 age 15 and under, £13 families (up to two adults and two children).

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