A guide to Edinburgh Castle
The capital's most iconic landmark is a must-see for any visitor
This article is from 2011.
Edinburgh Castle is an iconic landmark on the city skyline. Its stunning location and rich history make it a must-see for any visitor
Castle Rock, the plug of an extinct volcano, is estimated to be 350 million years old. Archaeologists say that its grassy shoulders were the site of a settlement at least as early as 900bc, and by ad600 there was probably a feasting hall on the fortified summit, from which the heroes of the Gododdin tribe rode south to die in battle, inspiring the first great poem of the British Isles.
The oldest building that now survives is St Margaret’s Chapel, dating from around 1080. The rest of the early castle was destroyed to prevent the English occupying it in the early 14th century, although ancient stonework still remains in long stretches of the walls.
The castle was rebuilt by around 1360, only to be shattered by cannon fire in the Long Siege of 1570–73. Its great keep was converted into the drum-shaped artillery tower that now looks out over the town, but the ruined interior of the older tower still survives, hidden in the depths of the castle, and recently opened to the public.
Above ground, Crown Square contains the 16th-century Great Hall, and the Palace, which was remodelled for James VI after 1600.
This houses Scotland’s crown jewels and the enigmatic Stone of Destiny, in the oldest of the castle’s several museums.
On the far side of the square is the old gaol block, where an exhibition entitled ‘Prisoners of War’ tells the story of the military and political captives who have been held there over the centuries.
Round the corner is the National War Museum of Scotland, presenting weapons, uniforms and mementoes from 400 years of Scottish soldiering. This is also supported by regimental museums for the Royal Scots and the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards.
On the northern ramparts, you will find the tearoom, and two iconic artillery guns. Mons Meg is a huge medieval siege cannon, nearly 500 years old, while the One O’ Clock Gun is a more modern weapon, which fires a salute every day to mark the time.
All this makes Edinburgh Castle Scotland’s most popular tourist attraction, averaging around 3,000 visitors a day. There are often queues for tickets, making the online booking system very useful. During the Edinburgh Festival in August, the castle also hosts the Tattoo, a spectacular display of military music and ceremony on the esplanade, the parade ground in front of the main gatehouse. In 2011, the audience will have a brand new set of arena grandstands, but it’s still an open-air show, so remember to pack waterproofs.
As well as being a tourist attraction, Edinburgh Castle remains a working army base and retains a small garrison of soldiers. And in the centre of the castle, on the highest crest of the rock, stands Scotland’s monument to its war dead.
In 1914, at the start of the Great War the garrison left for the trenches. Many did not return. The main barrack building was converted into the National War Memorial, commemorating the name of every fallen hero of Scotland’s modern conflicts. Look up at the high ceiling. Above it is the empty upper dormitory, left unchanged since 1914 – still waiting for the soldiers to return.
Now look down. You are standing on almost the same spot as the first hall of Eidyn, from which the young warriors of Gododdin rode out to immortal defeat, at the dawn of Edinburgh’s written history.