Edinburgh Castle sits at the other end of the “Royal Mile” of Edinburgh from the Palace. The Royal Mile is the traditional name for the roadway between the Palace of Holyroodhouse and the castle. Once travelled by kings and queens, its daily name now is High Street as it runs through Old Town.
Nowadays, High Street changes names in the last tenth of a mile, but the road into the castle winds up the hill, across the esplanade, through the gate, and leads visitors deep into the castle’s heart. At the very top is the center of the castle. Parts of the castle have been destroyed then rebuilt, and other parts have simply been built on top of, so one must abandon any effort to make chronological sense of the road’s progress.
The wide view of the surrounding countryside from the hilltop is why this spot has been used for defence for over a thousand years. It was used as a gathering place in 638 AD, as mentioned in “Y Gododdin,” an ancient Welsh poem that includes the earliest reference to “Din Eidyn,” a precursor to “Edinburgh,” which is pronounced, “edinburra.”
Around 1140 AD, King David I ordered the nobles and clergy to gather at Edinburgh Castle to enact laws and pass judgements, a forerunner of the current Parliament that now meets in a very modern building near the Holyrood Palace.
During the Wars of Independence, the castle changed hands several times between the Scots and the English, most famously in 1314, when Robert the Bruce led a small force in a stealth attack. The group climbed up the northern rock face on a moonless night, surprising the English defenders. Robert ordered the castle to be “slighted,” a term that means to destroy or damage an asset – building, boat, farm – so it cannot be used by the enemy.
Edinburgh Castle is a living castle. Royalty no longer lives here, nor do they make overnight visits to the palace. But events are held in the Great Hall, and the Scottish War Memorial, the One O’clock Gun, and the National War Museum, all attract visitors, both native and foreign. The local military governor lives in a house in the castle, and two military units have museums there besides the ones above.
In a less stable time, Edinburgh Castle was the royal residence. Its walls wound around the hill, protecting the palace and the other buildings required to maintain the monarch and impress friends and enemies with the futility of challenging said monarch.
There were four cannon batteries that defended the castle. Dury’s Battery is no longer there. It was built around 1710, after the 1708 Jacobite uprising, but was dismantled after 1757 and the area became an exercise yard for prisoners of war. The oldest battery was built in 1544 by James V – the Forewall Battery – along the line of the medieval defense. The Half-Moon Battery was built after the “L’ang Siege” of 1571-73. It’s located on top of the remains of the residential tower (destroyed during the L’ang Siege) built by David II in the 1300s. The fourth battery, the Argyll Battery, was built around 1730. All of the cannons that are presently in these three batteries date from the early 1800s.
There are two more cannons. One is a current design: the One o’Clock Gun, pictured below. It is fired daily at precisely one o’clock, a tradition that began in 1861 to provide the ships in the Leith port an accurate time setting for navigation. It was silenced only during WWI when soldiers recovering from battle fatigue were being cared for in the castle’s hospital.
The other is Mons Meg, below, a huge cannon that was given to James II by Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy. It was made in the city of Mons, Belgium, in 1449, designed to smash castle walls. She was moved to different locations, despite weighing more than six tons, using horses or oxen. The path in front of her had to be levelled by gangs of laborers, and a timber-framed winch was used to remove her from the cart and into position.
The Palace was built on the upper courtyard, guarded by Foog’s Gate, which was the main entrance until the outer wall was looped around the hill to accommodate both cannons and musketry by King Charles II. Early kings of Scotland used the castle as a residence. Even though Queen Mary I, better known as “Mary, Queen of Scots,” lived primarily at Holyrood Palace, she gave birth to James VI here, probably because she felt more secure at such a vulnerable time, given the turmoil during her brief reign.
The only room open in the palace when I visited was Laich Hall, a lovely room that was restored for James VI when he returned in 1617 after a 14 year absence, having become also James I of England in 1603. He hosted a banquet there, then left and never returned. The last royal presence here was James’ son, Charles I, who stayed here before his Scottish coronation in 1633. After the Act of Union, there was no separate coronation.
The Great Hall was built for King James IV, who wanted it for ceremonial occasions. This was a constant theme that ran through my visits to castles and palaces – nobility and monarchs used their buildings to advertise their wealth and power. The Great Hall is a good example. The walls are panelled, the ceiling is high and elegantly constructed, the windows are stained glass with displays of coats of arms embedded among other decorations.
The Great Hall was completed in 1512. Mary Queen of Scots held a banquet here on her return to Scotland from France in 1561.
Between ceremonial uses, the Great Hall is filled with displays of weaponry and armor from various periods and places. Some of the suits of armor are battle trophies rather than vintage Scottish armor.
In 1650, Oliver Cromwell converted the hall into soldiers’ barracks. The hall was restored in 1887 by Queen Victoria, and is still used for state functions today.
Sitting across the courtyard from the Great Hall is the Scottish War Memorial. Carved over the main door are the years 1914 – 1918, so presumably it began as a memorial to those lost in the “war to end all wars.” Sadly, there were more. On the inside – no photos allowed – were tributes to people from many wars or colonial conflicts, and included support personnel, such as medical units and engineering corps.
The Castle, like the history of Scotland, is a complicated set of many layers with diversions interspersed along the way, a great adventure to understand how Scotland became such a brew of creativity and beauty.