Anyone who has ever visited Edinburgh will have seen Edinburgh Castle. It’s impossible to avoid, standing majestically as it does above the city, perched on Castle Rock. It’s glorious, and has also played a part in many of Scotland’s important historical events.
Castle Rock was formed by a combination of an extinct volcano and glacial movement during the ice age. If you’ve stood on the esplanade looking out at the amazing view, you won’t be surprised to know that there’s been some sort of lookout post there since at least the seventh century, and maybe before that. However, it was not until the eleventh century that it became what we now think of as a castle. By then it was a favourite residence of Scottish royalty.
The oldest surviving building is St Margaret’s Chapel, an unassuming construction without the adornments we’ve come to expect from mediaeval ecclesiastical buildings. It’s dedicated to the pious wife of King Malcolm II, who died in 1093. She died shortly after, and the chapel was probably built by her son, once he became King David I in 1124.
We don’t know very much about the other early buildings that formed the castle, which changed hands from Scotland to England several times in the following couple of hundred tumultuous years. In 1313 the Scots demolished the castle’s defence system themselves, as they didn’t want the English to use it against them.
Once King David II was released from English captivity in 1356, the walls were rebuilt, the castle being on the highest part of the Castle Rock. It was built primarily for strong defence, although there was a royal residence in David’s Tower, built near the southern end of the castle. Building work was continued by King David’s successors, but apart from in the building records, very little survives of these works today.
It wasn’t until the sixteenth century that rooms were built which still survive. James IV built the Great Hall for ceremonial use at this time, which was later used as a barracks and a hospital and then was finally somewhat romantically restored in the late nineteenth century. By the time of James IV Edinburgh Castle had become one of the primary castles of the kingdom, and was the seat of government. Artillery was also stored here. In 1544 the castle was attacked unsuccessfully by the English, and after this the defences were strengthened even more.
Although there was still a royal residence here, the castle’s purpose became increasingly military and political. The royal family now used Holyrood (at the bottom of the hill and subject of my next blog) for their royal residence.
Mary Queen of Scots’ decision to give birth to her son James in the castle was almost certainly a political one rather than one of comfort! The English Queen Elizabeth was unmarried, and in the absence of an heir, Mary’s son had a good chance of inheriting both Scotland and England’s crown, so his place of birth was a statement of his importance.
The castle has seen many other important events: in 1573 its walls were destroyed when Kirkcaldy of Grange attempted to hold the castle for Mary, and after this the defences were changed, the Half Moon Battery and Forewall Batteries being built. In the 1650s, during the Commonwealth period, the castle was occupied by Cromwell’s forces, who began to convert it to a military barracks.
In 1689 the Duke of Gordon held the castle for James VII when his son-in-law William invaded, heralding what has become known as the Glorious Revolution. Viscount Dundee, after declaring for James, climbed the Castle Rock to encourage the duke to hold firm before he went off to raise the north for the exiled Stuart king.
Later, when James’ grandson Bonnie Prince Charlie attempted to regain the throne for his father, riding triumphantly into Edinburgh and capturing it without resistance, the castle, commandeered by the elderly General George Preston, held out against him. This was the last military action that the castle would see, although the people didn’t realise that at the time, and new barracks were built, as well as a powder magazine, which were used for the soldiers fighting France later in the eighteenth century.
By the early nineteenth century its importance as a historical monument was being recognised, and efforts were made to ensure that any new buildings were in keeping with what was already there. Sir Walter Scott took part in ensuring this. There was a scheme proposed for high-flown romantic rebuilding of the whole structure, which had more to do with Victorian notions of what castles should look like than what the actual castle had evolved into due to historical events. Thankfully this was not actioned, although various restoration projects were completed, including the Great Hall mentioned earlier, the Portcullis Gate and the entrance front which overlooks the esplanade.
Visiting the castle is a wonderful look at how its current form has evolved due to historical events and human viewpoints throughout many centuries. No trip to Edinburgh is complete without a tour of this incredible building!