Edinburgh Castle history: 900 years protecting Scotland’s capital

Early evening over Edinburgh Castle, Scotland. Edinburgh Castle history
Early evening over Edinburgh Castle, Scotland. Credit: Brian Jannsen / Alamy Stock Photo

Scotland’s biggest attraction still stands proud above its capital city 900 years after its inception

It’s estimated there were once around 3,000 castles in Scotland but one stands head and shoulders above the rest: Edinburgh Castle’s history is marked by violence, political and religious intrigue, and the rise and fall of monarchs.

Nevertheless, today, Edinburgh’s iconic fortress is the country’s number one paid-for tourist attraction. Inside you can view some of the nation’s most treasured possessions, including the Honours of Scotland, or Scotland’s Crown Jewels.

The origins of Edinburgh Castle

Sitting atop an extinct volcano, Edinburgh Castle offers an excellent vantage point across the city. It was a natural site for a building that combined defence, control and honour.

The oldest existing part of the castle – which is also Edinburgh’s most antiquated building – is St Margaret’s Chapel, which dates from the 12th century.

The chapel was built by King David I to commemorate his mother, Queen Margaret (later St Margaret).

In time, King David II added David’s Tower, which was residential and defensive in design. The grand Great Hall was the work of King James IV. Its key feature is a wooden roof with beams resting on stones engraved with symbols of Scotland and its monarchs. Today its walls glisten with an impressive display of swords, shields, suits of armour and weaponry.

Attacks on Edinburgh Castle

As a military stronghold and the most prestigious building in Scotland’s capital, Edinburgh Castle was captured and recaptured many times. In fact, it’s been besieged more than any other place in Britain, with 23 recorded attempts to ‘capture the castle’. Taking the castle wasn’t just a tactical coup for Scotland’s enemies but a blow to the morale of the Scots. Violent tensions, often between England and Scotland, are now consigned to the history books but conflicts were brutal and unforgiving.

Captured in 1296 by England’s King Edward I, the Scots reclaimed it with a night attack in 1314. The English successfully attacked again in 1335 before, in 1341, Scots disguised as merchants took it back. Cromwell’s forces occupied the castle in 1650. At one point it was even handed over to the English as a ransom payment. It was captured twice by Covenanters in the 17th century, fighting against King Charles I’s imposition of Episcopacy. Bloody battles ensued with the Jacobites in the 18th century.

The ascent of King James VI

As a thriving tourist attraction today, the Royal Palace within Edinburgh Castle is a big draw as it was the home of Scotland’s kings and queens. A highlight is a small room where events unfolded that changed British history. In 1566 the birth chamber saw the arrival of a little boy, son of Mary, Queen of Scots, who was made King James VI of Scotland just a year later.

Mary, Queen of Scots’ strained relations with England led her cousin, Queen Elizabeth I, to sign her death warrant. When Queen Elizabeth I died without issue, the bloodlines led back to Mary’s son James. In 1603 the crowns of England and Scotland were united and James VI of Scotland also became King James I of England and Ireland.

In 1617 King James I returned to Edinburgh Castle to celebrate his Golden Jubilee. His birth chamber was redecorated for the occasion: it’s still possible to see the gilded decoration.

Scotland’s Crown Jewels

Scotland’s Crown Jewels, or the Honours of Scotland, are on display in the Crown Room. These include a sceptre presented to King James IV by Pope Alexander VI in 1494; a sword, gifted in 1507 by Pope Julius II; and the crown, which was first worn for the coronation of Mary of Guise in 1540.

As potent symbols of the Scottish monarchy, protecting the jewels was paramount. In the 1650s, the Honours were whisked to Dunnottar Castle, in the northeast of Scotland, then onto the small village of Kinneff, to evade Cromwell’s Parliamentarian Army.

After the Union of England and Scotland in 1707, they were locked away and not seen again until 1818. During WWII the Honours of Scotland were tucked away below a medieval latrine closet in case of Nazi invasion.

Another key attraction is the Stone of Destiny. Present at the coronation of Scottish monarchs for centuries, the stone – while unassuming to look at – is powerfully symbolic. In 1296, King Edward I of England removed the stone from Scone Palace in Perthshire and had it built into his own throne at Westminster Abbey.

On Christmas Day in 1950, four Scottish students managed to steal the stone. Its disappearance caused uproar and its location was a mystery until it was found, draped in The Saltire, outside Arbroath Abbey in 1951. This was no random drop off point but the site where the Declaration of Arbroath – in which Scotland’s nobles swore their independence from England – was written in 1320. The stone was returned to London until, in 1996, it was given back to Scotland. It will only leave the country again for a coronation at Westminster Abbey.

Edinburgh’s military links

Edinburgh Castle’s colourful military past has created other poignant sites on the sprawling complex, which adds a brutal reality to the tales of invasion, duplicity and heroics. The National War Museum of Scotland first opened in 1933 and covers 400 years of conflict. The Prisons of War exhibition tells of the inmates who languished in the castle, from pirates captured off Argyll to a five-year-old drummer boy from the Battle of Trafalgar.

The Royal Scots Dragoon Guards still have a small military garrison at the castle, but it’s the National War Memorial that often stops people in their tracks. It opened in 1927, when the architect Sir Robert Lorimer and 200 Scottish artists and craftsmen first created a Hall of Honour and Shrine, which features delicate stained glass and sculptures dedicated to Scotland’s lost generations and the names of the fallen on the Rolls of Honour.

The One O’ Clock Gun

One of the greatest appeals of Edinburgh Castle is that it’s still part of the city’s daily life. The firing of the One O’Clock Gun, which once allowed ships in the Firth of Forth to set their maritime clocks, still marks time in ‘Auld Reekie’. The Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo and summer concerts are also huge draws.

And the biggest party of the year is, of course, Hogmanay, where new year celebrations see fireworks light up the skies, musicians performing and revellers partying as the nation – and the whole world – celebrate with the people of Edinburgh and its mighty castle.

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