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Issue 49 - The Castle on the Hill

History & Heritage

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Scotland Magazine Issue 49
February 2010


This article is 8 years old and some information provided may be time sensitive. Please check all details of events, tours, opening times and other information before travelling or making arrangements.

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The Castle on the Hill

Charles Douglas visits Edinburgh Castle.

From its dominant position on the summit of a volcanic plug, Edinburgh Castle has witnessed all of the pivotal events of Scotland’s history over a thousand years. It was ever thus. Recent excavations have unearthed evidence of an Iron-Age fort, suggesting the site was occupied as far back as the ninth century and probably before, when the castle rock was one of a series of strategically manned summits strung across central Scotland from North Berwick Law and Traprain Law on the east coast, to Dumbarton Rock on the west and the town of Stirling to the north.

When times got tough during the eleventh century, it was on the castle rock that King Malcolm III (Canmore) and his Saxon Queen Margaret took up residence, and it was here in 1076 that Malcolm built the surviving small chapel and affectionately named it after his saintly wife. In the centuries that followed, Edinburgh served as a regular retreat for medieval Scottish monarchs who, in more peaceable times, primarily based themselves at Dunfermline, Linlithgow or Stirling.

Edinburgh then was in the forefront of enemy advances from the east coast and the Borders. Ships would land supplies at Berwick-upon-Tweed or Dunbar, and Edinburgh Castle, next to the smaller Dirleton and Luffness castles, was the first substantial fortification before Stirling and the Kingdom of Fife. It therefore took a pounding And after five centuries of repelling invading armies, it is all the more remarkable that so much of the original stronghold survives.

Remember that with the exception of the stone fortifications and Queen Margaret’s Chapel, much of the early medieval castle consisted of timber which was easily set alight.

This was especially apparent during the Lang Siege at the end of the sixteenth century. From then on, every occupant either modified or added to the original structure so that what exists today is a rich architectural mix of palace, fortress, barracks, chapel and war memorial.

Across the modern drawbridge and past the gatehouse, the visitor is confronted by the great parapet of the Half-Moon Battery, built in 1574. The path then leads to the Portcullis Gate, constructed in the sixteenth century by the Regent Morton on the ruins of the fourteenth century David’s Tower.

Follow the cobbled street and within the castle walls is the Scottish United Services Museum which houses six themed galleries featuring different aspects of Scottish military history. Next door to the Queen Anne Barracks is the Scottish National War Memorial, designed in 1927 by the architect Sir Robert Lorimer. On the south side of the square here is the sixteenth century Great Hall with its hammerbeam ceiling. This is still used for ceremonial occasions.

Also located in the square is the thirteenth century Palace in which Mary Queen of Scots gave birth to the future James VI (James I of England). The Crown Room on the first floor houses The Honours of Scotland. The Scottish Crown is one of the oldest in Europe, said to date from the reign of Robert I, but with arches belonging to an older crown. The sceptre was a gift from Pope Alexander VI to King James IV in 1493, and the sword of state was a present to that same king from Pope Julius II.

When Oliver Cromwell invaded in 1651, the Scottish Regalia was hastily taken for safekeeping to Dunottar Castle on the coast of Kincardineshire. When Dunottar in turn came under siege, a servant girl smuggled the Honours out in her flower basket and they lay hidden in a churchyard until after the Restoration.

On eventually being returned to Edinburgh Castle, they remained sealed up in a room for over one hundred years.

Then, when King George IV made his triumphant visit to his Scottish kingdom in 1822 (the first time a reigning British monarch had set foot on Scottish soil for over a century), the writer Sir Walter Scott suggested that the Honours be put on public display. By then the majority of Scots had forgotten all about them and their rediscovery caused considerable excitement.

Similar excitement was expressed in 1996 when they were joined by the Stone of Destiny, the biblical Jacob’s Pillow upon which early Scottish kings had been crowned from the ninth century. This had been taken to London by Edward I of England after his invasion of Scotland in 1296. There it remained for seven hundred years until it was agreed that it should be returned and housed in Edinburgh Castle.

It is said that you can always recognise a citizen of Edinburgh because at one o’clock, no matter where they are in the world, they will automatically glance at their watches in keeping with the gun fired daily from the castle battlements. On the left hand side of the New Barracks on the west side of the castle is the Military Prison and castle vaults which contain Mons Meg, a massive cannon employed at the siege of Norham in the fifteenth century. Weighing five tons, it is capable of firing an iron ball a distance of one and a half thousand yards.

To the right of the New Barracks are the Ordinance Storehouse and Hospital. The Governor’s House in the Middle Ward dates from 1742 and was built as the Castle Governor’s official residence. It currently houses the Army Officers’ Mess.

Although Edinburgh Castle is today maintained by the Government agency Historic Scotland, there is still a small British military presence in the castle. One of the principal visitor attractions of the Edinburgh International Festival in August is the Edinburgh Military Tattoo which annually takes place on the castle esplanade and this year celebrates its Diamond Jubilee.

To say that Edinburgh Castle is one of Scotland’s greatest icons would be an understatement. It dominates the surrounding cityscape. No visit to Scotland’s capital would be complete without seizing an opportunity to stand on the careworn battlements and marvel at the vistas to the north across Edinburgh’s New Town and Port of Leith, over the Firth of Forth and towards the distant hills of the Kingdom of Fife. Not even Camelot could have provided a finer prospect.

Information Edinburgh Castle, Castlehill, Edinburgh EH1 2NG.

Open daily from 0930 to 1800.

For general queries: Tel. +44 (0) 131 225 9846 For disabled parking: Tel.+44 (0) 131 310 5114 Group Bookings: Tel. +44 (0) 131 668 8831 Email: Web