Edinburgh Castle

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.

You must cross the dry moat, to reach the gate, guarded on the left by William Wallace, and on the right by Robert the Bruce. Above is the Scottish Lion, and the motto, “Nemo Me Impune Lacessit,” dating from at least James VI. It means, “No one injures me without fear of punishment.”
Once you’re through the main gate, you cross the outer courtyard, and go through this second gate. The outer courtyard now holds tourist practicalities – ticket booths, audio tour handsets, and such.
When you’ve passed the second gate and turn around, the inside of the gate looks like this. The stairs on the right are the “L’ang Stairs,” which go up to the top courtyard. The gate building has different kinds of stone because the older upper part was destroyed during the “L’ang Siege” in 1571 – 1573, and was not fully rebuilt until the general restoration of the castle in 1887.

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.”

The broad view from the height of Edinburgh Castle made it an attractive place for defending the monarchs of Scotland.

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.

The Argyll Battery was built in 1730 – 1732, however, the cannons now occupying the battery date from 1810.
The Half-Moon Battery is spread across the front of the Castle, overlooking the Esplanade, the approach to the Castle from High Street.

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.

No one knows where the “Meg” part of her name came from. I think it was alliterative and a single syllable – it just fit, and the name stuck.

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 Castle palace with its tower, and the Great Hall is to the right.

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.

Laich Hall: You can tell this was restored for James VI, the first King of Scotland and England, because the coat of arms over the fireplace gives equal space to the Unicorn of Scotland and the Lion of England. The Red Scottish Lion has been relegated to the top of the shield, greatly reduced in size. The figures on either side of the coat of arms are stylized Adam and Eve.
The Great Hall in Edinburgh Castle

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.

The black square in the upper right is a “Laird’s Lug.” The laird of a manor had a place to stand behind the screen and hear – and perhaps see – what his guests were saying or doing without his presence in the hall.
Not all of the armor is Scottish. Armor captured in battle was displayed as a trophy of war. This armor was captured from a Spanish soldier.
The impressive ceiling of the Great Hall.

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.

“Twa-handed” swords weighed around 6 lbs., and had a “basket handle” to protect the user’s hands. The polearms on display were called “halberds,” a combination of axe heads, spikes, and hooks, to pull men from their horses. War has never been a pretty business.
These royal coats of arms are labelled. At the top, left to right, are King James III and King James IV. In the lower windows, left to right, are King James V, Queen Mary I, Regent Murray, and King James VI. Regent Murray was probably for James VI, since he became king at a very young age when Queen Mary was deposed. Given the arms represented, this was probably installed as part of the 1887 restoration of the hall. James VI was the last Stuart king that was King of Scotland alone, before he and the succeeding Stuarts became rulers of both Scotland and England.

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 main entrance: note the proud, but subdued, solemn stance of the Unicorn and the Lion.
The Mourning Unicorn
The recent observance of Veterans’ Day (U.S.) and Remembrance Day (U.K.) reminded me of this.
St. Margaret’s Chapel, the oldest standing building in Edinburgh.
The stained glass windows are beautiful, but not original. The windows date from about 1920.
A view of St. Margaret’s Chapel through Foog’s Gate. Mons Meg is just on the other side of the Chapel now. There is some speculation that the Chapel was, at one time, a room in a building that has been torn down around it.
The Argyll Tower is built on top of the medieval gate tower. It was supposed to be restored in the style of David II’s tower dating from the 1300s, but without any record of its original appearance, Hippolyte Blanc’s design ended up looking like baronial Scottish architecture. It sits on top of the second entrance gate, pictured near the beginning of the post. It housed important prisoners, similar in purpose to the Tower of London.
The National War Museum is devoted to the military history of Scotland – the Highlanders, the Wars for Independence, and the contributions of Scotland to the armed forces of the United Kingdom, which are many and notable. The museum is well put together and worth a visit. There is a very good short film that talks about Scotland’s history included in the museum.
“The Thin Red Line,” painted in 1881 by Robert Gibb, shows the 93rd Highlanders at the Battle of Balaclava, 1854, in the Crimean War. They formed a “thin line,” only two men deep, to repel an attack by the Russian cavalry. Despite the drama of this close encounter, historically, the cavalry was driven off much further away by the accurate fire of their modern rifles. The painting, coming as it did a full twenty-seven years after the incident, speaks more to the reputation of the Highland regiments than historical accuracy.
A very good display about the prisoners of war that spent time in Edinburgh Castle. Some were Americans! Naturally, the prison was located down in the depths of the castle, by my reckoning, some of it was under the Great Hall.
Where the prisoners lived, except when allowed up to the exercise yard.
How it fits together: View of the Castle from the esplanade in front. The turret in the left-center background is the residential part of the palace. The cannon batteries are arrayed across the front of the rounded tower and the right wall at the top. The peaked roof to the right side is the Argyle Tower atop the second gate. The National War Museum square is on the far left side of the Castle.

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.

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