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Issue 46 - Defending the realm

Scotland Magazine Issue 46
August 2009

 

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Defending the realm

Roy Stevenson explores Edinburgh Castle's remarkable gun batteries and military museums.

Scotland’s military tradition is ancient and powerful, an inherent part of its national culture. It goes back centuries to the Scottish clans who preferred to settle their affairs, or defend their country by honest battle when all else failed.

Scottish Regiments, walking steadily into the smoke of battle accompanied by the stirring wail of bagpipes and deep rattle of the snare drums must have looked and sounded fearsome to the enemy. Who cannot be moved by such scenes in war movies such as Waterloo and The Longest Day?

There is nowhere better for a taste of Scotland’s proud military history than Edinburgh Castle. Military historians and artillery aficionados will have a feast in this blackened and weathered stone fortress, which houses five gun batteries and three military museums, including the National War Museum of Scotland.

More than a million people visit this towering black and grey stone edifice each year. Perched atop Castle Rock, this ancient fortress dominates Scotland’s national heritage as much as it does Edinburgh’s skyline. Regarded as Scotland’s national symbol, the castle contains the fabled Stone of Destiny. Dating back as early as the ninth century, the current castle’s structures were built in the 16th century, with the exception of St Margaret’s Chapel, constructed in the 12th century.

History is physically tangible here.

Hundreds of artefacts from times past keep your attention for hours as you wander around the castle’s uneven cobblestone courtyards and irregularly laid thick stone ramparts. You can explore the Scottish War Memorial, David’s Tower, Half Moon Battery, Crown Square, Governor’s House, New Barracks, the King’s Lodging, the Great Hall, the Royal Palace Crown Room, St. Margaret’s Chapel, the Mons Meg gun, and the 18th and 19th century Prisons of War exhibit, not to mention the superb views over Edinburgh from the castle ramparts.

Edinburgh Castle still has a military garrison, used for ceremonial purposes and is the headquarters of the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards, The Royal Regiment of Scotland, and the 5th Regiment Royal Military Police. For the artillery fan there are no less than five gun batteries to keep your attention.

The Argyle Battery The first battery you will come across as youwalk up some stone stairs to emerge on a courtyard called the Middle Ward is named in honour of the Duke of Argyll. Rebuilt in the 1730s, the Argyle Battery’s six guns, plus the adjacent Mill’s Mount Battery, formed the main artillery defense on the north side of castle. The battery was designed by Major General Wade, well known in Scotland as the designer of a network of military roads and bridges. The barrels of these black painted, cast- iron guns point ominously out through embrasures over superb views of Edinburgh.

These 18-pounder muzzle-loaders are from the Napoleonic era and built in 1810. If you look on the top of each barrel you can see the Royal cipher GR3 (for George III).

Just past the Argyle Battery stands the one o’clock gun, a 105 mm light gun that fires every day at exactly one o’clock. This tradition originated in 1853 when sea captains moored in the nearby port of Leith complained that people in Edinburgh had no idea of the time.

The Forewall Battery Continuing up some stone stairs behind you is the Forewall Battery, a long straight continuation of Half Moon Battery, as you face out over the ramparts. These batteries defended the eastern end of the castle.

Rebuilt in 1544 on the approximate line of the old medieval defenses, they were heightened in 1573. Reconstructed again in the 17th century, the Forewall Battery is now armed with six iron guns made in 1810 during the Napoleonic Wars. Excellent views of some of Edinburgh’s most historic buildings can be seen through the covered embrasures.

The Half Moon Battery Immediately to the right of the Forewall Battery is a curved half-moon shaped section of the Castle’s walls. This distinctive semicircular wall is very noticeable from the castle’s eastern exterior. Built on the orders of the Regent Morton after the Lang Siege of 1571-73, the Half Moon Battery was an impressive part of the castle’s defenses.

Sited on the castle’s principal line of defense until the 17th century, its curved bulwark gave the cannons a wide angle of fire from behind its tall, insurmountable sloping walls. The guns lined up perfectly here today are the ubiquitious 18-pounders built in 1810. The view up Princes Street below is inspiring.

Dury’s Battery Across the other side of the Crown Square courtyard behind the Queen Anne Building in the upper castle is Dury’s Battery. Its name was taken from the Captain Theodore Dury who rebuilt the castle’s south walls in the early 18th century. Nearby, the military prison once held recalcitrant prisoners from Scottish units and French and American prisoners who used the Dury’s Battery area as an exercise yard.

There is a good re-creation of prison life in the 1780’s here, complete with hammocks, prison clothes, animated shadows moving across the darkly lit rooms, even puddles on the floor. Look for the dated graffiti carved in the wooden doors and walls. And now for the three War Museums.

The National War Museum of Scotland Opened in 1933, this museum pays tribute to the three branches of the Scottish armed forces: the Army, Royal Navy and Royal Air Force. Standing in a building dating from 1708, this is the epicentre of Scottish military history, covering 400 years of warfare from early historic battles to the Falklands War. It will take you over an hour to do it justice.

Six themed galleries are crammed with displays of over 2,000 artefacts including an unimaginable array of military equipment, from photographs to weapons, uniforms, personal equipment, personal stories of the Scots at war and, on the home front, medals and memorabilia. Favourite items are the bagpipes, kilt, and beret, and army knife used by 21-year old piper Bill Millin on DDay.

As one of Lord Lovat’s commandos, he marched along Sword Beach to encourage his fellow soldiers. Most of them told him to go away as he seemed to be drawing the unwelcome attention of German marksmen.

The Royal Scots Dragoon Guards Museum This unit’s ancestors are traced back to the Royal Scots Greys, the oldest Cavalry Line in the British Army. Their large glass enclosed medals display is testament to their bravery in action. A Scorpion Tank parked outside will help you locate it.

The Royal Scots’ history includes almost every major war the British took part in: the Jacobite Risings, the Battle of Blenheim, the Napoleonic Wars, including Spain and Waterloo, the Crimean War, Balaclava, World War One and World War Two. The artefacts on display reflect these campaigns and include captured battle standards from Waterloo. Look for the diorama of a Scots Grey bayoneting a fallen enemy, and another of a soldier rescuing his wounded and bloodstained comrade in the midst of battle. This museum will take you an hour to inspect.

The Royal Scots Regimental Museum This historic unit, formed in 1633 under warrant from Charles I, made it the first and senior regiment of the line. Like their Royal Scots Dragoon cousins, these boys have fought in almost every campaign. Displays include silver, medals, uniforms, paintings, photographs, weapons and more.

The Scottish National War Memorial Continuing up the hill into the large Crown Square courtyard you will see the Scottish National Memorial—built in 1927 to commemorate Scotsmen and those serving with Scottish Regiments who died in the war and subsequent conflicts.

The Hall of Honour, a long sombre hallway with 12 stone columns supporting a barrel-vaulted roof contains 12 bays with a Regimental Roll of Honour, and a list of all servicemen and women who died serving their country, including 150,000 in World War One and 50,000 in World War Two. You learn that one in five Scotsmen who marched off to battle never returned – a bleak statistic that brings home the huge contribution the Scots made to so many wars in far off lands.

Some of the finest Scottish craftsmen and women worked on the stained glass, wrought steel, and stone and marble sculptures. The stained glass windows inside are superb. Look for the one high up in the Shrine of the Horseman from Revelations, 19, 15, with a swastika on his cloak. There is some grim irony here – the swastika was an ancient symbol of good fortune. Soon after the window was finished, Hitler’s warplanes appeared over Europe with the same symbol on their wings. Outside other evocative sculptures depict Courage, Peace, Justice, and Mercy.

This is one of the most powerful monuments you will ever see anywhere.

Silence is required, and no photography is permitted.

Exploring Edinburgh Castle is a splendid way to pass a day – your mind will be reeling from the variety of sights you have seen, and for days after, these places will pop into your head. Make sure you see the Honours of Scotland and the Stone of Destiny, the ultimate symbols of Scottish sovereignty, displayed in the Crown Room on the first floor of the Palace. The Honours are Scotland’s Crown Jewels, kept there for safekeeping since 1617. The Stone of Destiny, taken by the English during one of its many conflicts with those Scottish ruffians north of the border, was only returned to Scotland from Westminster Abbey in 1996, amid great ceremony.

Sundry historic cannon lie around for you to trip over including the King Charles II cannon in the Great Hall, and a mortar or two. And then there is Mons Meg. This massive medieval siege gun, built in 1449, is a muscular six-ton bombard made in Mons, Belgium, and sent as a gift from the Duke of Bergundy to James II.

If you time your trip to Edinburgh right (note: well in advance) you should book tickets for the Edinburgh Military Tattoo, a world famous military pageant which, once witnessed, you will never forget.