Edinburgh castle stands on a volcanic plug, a stub of hardened basalt that withstood Europe’s ice sheets. The ice flow divided around it, abraiding the edges and depositing debris in its wake. When the ice withdrew it left a flat area to the north with a crag (the castle rock) and a tail (today’s ‘Royal Mile’). The summit of the Castle Rock is 130 metres (430 ft) above sea level, with rocky cliffs to the south, west and north, rising to a height of 80 metres (260 ft) above the surrounding landscape. The only readily accessible route to the castle lies to the east, where the ridge slopes more gently, but where any approach can be seen for miles and where a defence could be concentrated. Climate and geology had combined to create a natural defensive position.
Edinburgh Castle from the south east showing the more gentle facing ‘tail’ slope with the southern rock face also in evidence
Archaeological investigation has yet to establish when the Castle Rock was first used for human habitation. There is no record of any Roman activity. Ptolemy’s map of the 2nd century AD, shows a settlement in the territory of the Votadini named “Alauna”, meaning rock place, possibly making this the earliest known name for the castle. It does not re-appear in historical records until around AD 600 however, when the epic Welsh poem Y Gododdin references “Din Eidyn”, (the stronghold of Eidyn).
The first documentary reference to a castle at Edinburgh is John of Fordun’s disputed account of the death of King Malcolm III. What is more widely accepted however is Malcolm’s youngest son, King David I, began to develop Edinburgh as a seat of royal power in the 1140’s. In 1174, King William “the Lion” (1165–1214) was captured by the English at the Battle of Alnwick. He was forced to sign the Treaty of Falaise to secure his release, in return for surrendering Edinburgh, Berwick, Roxburgh and Stirling Castles, to the English King, Henry II. The castle was occupied by the English for twelve years, until 1186, when it was returned to William as the dowry of his English bride, Ermengarde de Beaumont.
Edinburgh castle’s colourful history really begins to take off in March 1296, when Edward I launched an invasion of Scotland, so beginning the first War of Scottish Independence. Edinburgh Castle soon came under a three days long bombardment and surrendered to English control. Edward brought his master builders of the great Welsh castles to Scotland and Edinburgh was strengthened. After the death of Edward I in 1307, however, England’s control over Scotland weakened. On 14 March 1314, a surprise night attack by the 1st Earl of Moray recaptured the castle. A party of thirty hand-picked men were guided by one William Francis, a member of the garrison who knew a route along the north face of the Castle Rock and a place where the wall might be scaled. Making the difficult ascent, Randolph’s men scaled the wall, surprised the garrison and took control. Robert the Bruce immediately ordered the destruction of the castle’s defences to prevent its re-occupation by the English. Four months later, his army secured victory at the Battle of Bannockburn.
After Bruce’s death in 1329, Edward III of England determined to renew the attempted subjugation of Scotland. Edward invaded in 1333, marking the start of the Second War of Scottish Independence, and the English forces reoccupied and refortified Edinburgh Castle in 1335, holding it until 1341. This time, the Scottish assault was led by William Douglas, Lord of Liddesdale. Douglas’s party disguised themselves as merchants from Leith bringing supplies to the garrison. Driving a cart into the entrance, they halted it there to prevent the gates closing. A larger force hidden nearby rushed to join them and the castle was retaken. The English garrison, numbering 100, were all killed.
The 1357 Treaty of Berwick brought the Wars of Independence to a close. David II resumed his rule and set about rebuilding Edinburgh Castle which became his principal seat of government. David’s Tower was begun around 1367, and was incomplete when David died at the castle in 1371. It was completed by his successor, Robert II, in the 1370s. In the early 15th century, another English invasion, this time under Henry IV, reached Edinburgh Castle and began a siege, but eventually withdrew due to lack of supplies
Edinburgh Castle from the Prince’s Street Gardens. The castle never really developed the traditional turrets and towers that we might associate with Wales.
From 1437, Sir William Crichton was Keeper of Edinburgh Castle, and soon after became Chancellor of Scotland. In an attempt to gain the regency of Scotland, Crichton sought to break the power of the Douglases, the principal noble family in the kingdom. The sixteen-year-old William Douglas, 6th Earl of Douglas and his younger brother David were summoned to Edinburgh Castle in November 1440. After the so-called “Black Dinner”, both boys were summarily executed on fabricated charges in the presence of the ten-year-old King James II. Douglas’ supporters subsequently besieged the castle, inflicting damage, but construction continued throughout this period, with the area now known as Crown Square being laid out over vaults in the 1430s. Royal apartments were built, forming the nucleus of the later palace block, and a Great Hall was in existence by 1458.
In 1479, Alexander Stewart, Duke of Albany, was imprisoned in David’s Tower for plotting against his brother, King James III (r.1460–1488). He escaped by getting his guards drunk, then lowering himself from a window on a rope. Albany fled to France, then England, where he allied himself with King Edward IV. In 1482, Albany marched into Scotland with Richard, Duke of Gloucester (later King Richard III) and an English army. James III was trapped in the castle from 22 July to 29 September 1482 until he successfully negotiated a settlement
During the 15th century the castle was increasingly used as an arsenal and armaments factory. The first known purchase of a gun was in 1384, and the “great bombard” Mons Meg was delivered to Edinburgh in 1457. The first recorded mention of an armoury for the manufacture of guns occurs in 1474, and by 1498 the master gunner Robert Borthwick was casting bronze guns at Edinburgh. By 1511 Edinburgh was the principal foundry in Scotland, replacing Stirling Castle,
Mons Meg, the 13,000-pound (5.9 tonne) gun rests on a reconstructed carriage. Some of Meg’s gun stones, weighing around 150 kg, are displayed alongside her. On 3 July 1558, she was fired to celebrate the marriage of Mary, Queen of Scots to the French dauphin, François II. Soldiers retrieved one of her stones from near the River Forth, fully 2 miles from the castle
On 9 September 1513, the Scots were routed at the battle of Flodden. James IV was killed. Expecting the English to press their advantage, the Scots hastily constructed a town wall around Edinburgh and augmented the castle’s defences. Three years later, King James V (r.1513–1542), still only five years old, was brought to the castle for safety. Upon his death 25 years later, the crown passed to his week-old daughter, Mary, Queen of Scots. English invasions followed, as King Henry VIII attempted to force a dynastic marriage on Scotland, “The Rough Wooing” of 1543 – 1551. The town of Edinburgh fared badly in 1544 and was razed. Those who sought sanctuary in Edinburgh Castle remained largely unaffected. The fortress held as cannon fire was poured onto the Royal Mile. In June 1548 however, Musselburgh and Dunbar were razed and it was deemed necessary to evacuate Mary to safety, where she was betrothed to the Dauphin of France in August 1548.
Edinburgh Castle at night – (Just on a complete tangent, whilst exiled in France Mary continued to play golf. She was a natural target for English assassins and was assigned a bodyguard from the cadet corps from the nearby naval academy. She quickly discovered that her cadet bodyguard could be put to use carrying her clubs. The French word for cadet is of course pronounced Cad-Day. Hence her carrier of clubs became her cad-day. By the time she returned to Scotland, she’d adopted the idea of a club carrier. You’ve probably guessed by now where the word caddie comes from?)
Anyway, with military and financial assistance from France, the Scots were able to maintain resistance. Hostilities ended with Scotland with the Treaty of Boulogne in March 1550, which was primarily between France and England. James V’s widow, Mary of Guise, acted as regent from 1554 until her death at the castle in 1560, upon which the Catholic Mary, Queen of Scots, returned from France to begin her reign, which was marred by crises and quarrels amongst the powerful Protestant Scottish nobility. In 1565, the Queen made an unpopular marriage with Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley, and the following year, in a small room of the Palace at Edinburgh Castle, she gave birth to their son James, who would later become King of both Scotland and England. Mary’s reign was fated however, and brought to an abrupt end. Three months after the murder of Darnley at Kirk o’ Field in 1567, she married James Hepburn, 4th Earl of Bothwell, one of the chief murder suspects. A large proportion of the nobility rebelled, resulting ultimately in her imprisonment and forced abdication. She escaped and fled to England. Edinburgh Castle was initially handed by its Captain, James Balfour, to the Regent Moray, who had forced Mary’s abdication and now held power in the name of the infant King James VI. Shortly after the Battle of Langside, in May 1568, Moray appointed Sir William Kirkcaldy of Grange Keeper of the Castle
Grange was a trusted lieutenant of the Regent, but after Moray’s murder in January 1570 his allegiance to the King’s cause began to waver. Under the influence of William Maitland of Lethington, Mary’s secretary, Grange changed sides, occupying the town and castle of Edinburgh for Queen Mary, and against the new regent, the Earl of Lennox. The stand-off which followed was not resolved until two years later, and became known as the “Lang Siege”. Hostilities began in May, with a month-long siege of the town, and a second short siege in October. Blockades and skirmishing continued meanwhile, as Grange continued to refortify the castle. The King’s party appealed to Elizabeth I of England for assistance, as they lacked the artillery and money required to reduce the castle, and feared that Grange would receive aid from France.
A truce expired on 1 January 1573, and Grange began bombarding the town. His supplies of powder and shot, however, were running low, and despite having 40 cannon available, there were only seven gunners in the garrison. The King’s forces, now with the Earl of Morton in charge as regent, were making headway though. Trenches were dug to surround the castle, and St Margaret’s Well was poisoned. By February, all Queen Mary’s other supporters had surrendered to the Regent, but Grange resolved to resist despite water shortages within the castle. The garrison continued to bombard the town. In April, a force of around 1,000 English troops, arrived in Edinburgh. They were followed by 27 cannon from Berwick-upon-Tweed. The English troops built an artillery emplacement on Castle Hill, immediately facing the east walls of the castle, and five others to the north, west and south. By mid May these batteries were ready, and a bombardment began. Over the next 12 days the gunners dispatched around 3,000 shots at the castle. On 22 May, the south wall of David’s Tower collapsed, and the next day the Constable’s Tower also fell. The debris blocked the castle entrance, as well as the Fore Well, although this had already run dry. On 26 May, the English attacked and captured the outer fortification of the castle. The following day Grange emerged, calling for a ceasefire. When he failed to obtain terms however, he resolved to continue the resistance, but the garrison threatened to mutiny. He therefore arranged for Drury and his men to enter the castle on 28 May, preferring to surrender to the English rather than the Regent Morton. Edinburgh Castle was handed over to George Douglas of Parkhead, the Regent’s brother, and the garrison were allowed to go free. Much of the castle now needed rebuilding. The task fell to the Regent Morton. The ‘spur’, the new Half Moon Battery and the Portcullis Gate, were added.
James’ successor, King Charles I, visited Edinburgh Castle only once, hosting a feast in the Great Hall. This was the last occasion that a reigning monarch resided in the castle. In 1639, in response to Charles’ attempts to impose Episcopacy on the Scottish Church, civil war broke out between the King’s forces and the Presbyterian Covenanters. The Covenanters, led by Alexander Leslie, captured Edinburgh Castle after a short siege, although it was restored to Charles after the Peace of Berwick in June the same year. The peace was short-lived. The following year the Covenanters retook the castle, this time after a three-month siege, during which the garrison ran out of supplies. In May 1650, the Covenanters signed the Treaty of Breda, allying themselves with the exiled Charles II against the English Parliamentarians, who had executed his father the previous year. In response to the Scots proclaiming Charles King, Oliver Cromwell launched an invasion of Scotland, defeating the Covenanter army at Dunbar in September. Edinburgh Castle was taken after a three-month siege, which caused further damage.
The next wave of turbulence wasn’t long coming though in 1688, when James VII was deposed and exiled by the Glorious Revolution that installed William of Orange as King of England. Not long after, in early 1689, Scotland accepted William formally as their new king, and demanded that the Duke of Gordon surrender Edinburgh Castle. Gordon, who had been appointed by James VII as a fellow Catholic, refused. In March 1689, the castle was blockaded by 7,000 troops against a garrison of 160 men. On 18 March, Viscount Dundee, intent on raising a rebellion in the Highlands, climbed up the western side of the Castle Rock to urge Gordon to hold the castle against the new King. Gordon agreed. Despite winning the first battle at Killiecrankie, Dundee was fatally injured. Without his leadership the rebellion lost its direction. The battle of Dunkeld descended into an inconclusive outcome. Some of the rebels began to abandon the cause and returned to the Highland glens. Back in Edinburgh Gordon began to realise he wasn’t going to be relieved and surrendered on 14 June, due to dwindling supplies and loss of 70 men during the three-month siege.
The Ross Fountain with Edinburgh castle above it looking down
The castle was almost taken in the first Jacobite rising in support of James Stuart, the “Old Pretender”, in 1715. On 8 September, just two days after the rising began, a party of around 100 Jacobite Highlanders, led by Lord Drummond, attempted to scale the walls with the assistance of members of the garrison. However, the rope ladder lowered by the castle sentries was too short, and the alarm was raised after a change of the watch. The Jacobite’s fled, while the deserters within the castle were hanged or flogged.
The last military action at the castle took place during the second Jacobite rising of 1745. The Jacobite army, under Charles Edward Stuart (“Bonnie Prince Charlie”), captured Edinburgh without a fight in September 1745, but the castle remained in the hands of its ageing Deputy Governor, General George Preston, who refused to surrender. After their victory over the government army at Prestonpans on 21 September, the Jacobites attempted to blockade the castle. Preston’s response was to bombard Jacobite positions within the town. After several buildings had been demolished and four people killed, Charles called off the blockade. The Jacobites themselves had no heavy guns with which to respond, and by November they had marched into England, leaving Edinburgh to the castle garrison. The uprising would eventually perish on Culloden field in April the following year
Over the next century, the castle vaults were used to hold prisoners of war during several conflicts, including the Seven Years’ War (1756–1763), the American War of Independence (1775–1783) and the Napoleonic Wars (1803–1815). After a mass escape of prisoners in 1811, it ceased to be used as such from 1814
The castle gradually began to assume a different role as a national monument. The palace began to be opened up to visitors during the 1830s. St Margaret’s Chapel was “rediscovered” in 1845, having been used as a store for many years. Works in the 1880s, saw the Argyle Tower built over the Portcullis Gate and the Great Hall restored after years of use as a barracks. A new Gatehouse was built in 1888. The permanent garrison moved out in 1923, although the castle was briefly used again as a prison during the Second World War, for captured Luftwaffe pilots. The castle passed into the care of ‘Historic Scotland’ when the agency was established in 1991, and was designated a Scheduled Ancient Monument in 1993. Today it serves a combination of ceremonial, tourist, and administrative functions, as the military still have a presence
It is probably best known today for Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo which takes place on the Esplanade each year during August. The basis of each performance is a parade of the massed pipes and drums of the Scottish regiments, and since its inception in 1950 the tattoo has developed a complex format which includes a variety of performers invited from around the world, although still with a largely military focus. The climax of the evening is the lone piper on the castle battlements, playing a pibroch in memory of dead comrades-in-arms, followed by massed bands joining in a medley of traditional Scottish tunes. The tattoo attracts an annual audience of around 217,000 people, and is broadcast in some 30 countries to a television audience estimated at 100 million.
The military tattoo is a pageant of colour with visiting display teams coming from all over the world
Another tradition that visitors are able to observe is the discharge of the One O’Clock Gun, a time signal, fired every day at precisely 13:00, excepting Sunday, Good Friday and Christmas Day. The ‘Time Gun’ was established in 1861 as a signal for ships in the harbour of Leith and the Firth of Forth, 2 miles (3 km) away. The original gun was an 18-pound muzzle-loading cannon, which needed four men to load, and was fired from the Half Moon Battery. On Sunday 2 April 1916, the One O’Clock Gun was fired in vain at a German Zeppelin during an air raid, the gun’s only known use in war
Edinburgh Castle remains the most popular paid visitor attraction in Scotland, with over 1.4 million visitors in 2013. Historic Scotland maintains a number of facilities within the castle, including two cafés/restaurants, several shops, and numerous historical displays. An educational centre in the Queen Anne Building runs events for schools and educational groups, and employs re-enactors in costume and with period weaponry