After walking the Royal Mile, we visit Edinburgh Castle. Overlooking the city from the grassy hilltop of the Castle Rock, the fortress itself looks as though it has been carved from the very stone upon which it sits. It is powerful yet elegant, lavish yet wholly inviting to anyone fortunate enough to find themselves standing at the castle gate. These are doors and walls and windows that have seen kings and queens, saints and sinners, voyagers from all corners of the world. And now us.Jacqueline E. Smith
There will be no shortage of sights and wonders when traveling to Scotland to take your imagination to new heights. One of the first things that come to mind when thinking of Scotland is castles, but we do not usually think of a large capital city as a place to find one. We have seen castles in cities before, but 90% of them what we see are well into the countryside. In the case of Edinburgh, you are in luck if you are sticking to the city.
In the heart of Edinburgh, high on top of an extinct volcano, proudly sits Edinburgh Castle. It is hard to miss as it seems to be a crown adorned on top of royalty, as it should rightly be.
The Path to Edinburgh Castle
Edinburgh Castle is one of the oldest fortified castles in Europe. It is perched above its equally unique and vibrant home of Edinburgh. This majestic castle deserves to have its surroundings full of great ambiance and magic that will keep you continuously engaged. Edinburgh absolutely delivers.
The castle was the main draw that brought us to Edinburgh. We only had a short time to enjoy it before moving on to Ireland. This remarkable destination deserved more of our time. Luckily we chose to walk from our hotel to the castle. That path alone had so much to experience and only solidified our return one day. In the meantime, let us focus on what there is to see close to the castle.
On the East side of the castle is the perfect area to make your way throughout the city and up to Castle Hill, which is Victoria Street. Nothing says magic quite like Harry Potter, so walking streets full of colorful shops sets the magical mood filmed in those beloved movies.
Another option is to start on the Northwest side before heading through the street and up to the castle. There are two churches along this route that are well worth a visit. St. John’s Church, built-in 1816, is a beautiful Neo-gothic style church with some modern updates in recent years. It is a peaceful place to calm yourself from the hustle and bustle of big city life. Another great place for calm and reflection is The Parish Church of St Cuthbert, which sits beside St. John’s. This Renaissance, Baroque-style church built in the last decade of the 1800s has a long history and beauty you will treasure. Make sure you look up before you leave; there are incredible views of Edinburgh Castle from this location, well worth a few photographs.
The North Side
As you head East on the Northside of the castle and walk through the Princes Street Gardens, there are many more treats to see. These sights include a 19th century Ross Fountain and Ross Band Stand where you can sit outside for live summer music. The gardens have many impressive statues and monuments to enjoy. The smaller East Prince Street Gardens, with its own set of monuments, are quite lovely as well. The Royal Scottish Academy and Scottish National Gallery are great visits for art lovers if you continue a bit further.
The most well-known and visible of the monuments in this area is the Scott Monument. This wonderful gothic spire memorial is in honor of the writer Sir Walter Scott. It can be visited for a small fee. It is a 287 step climb to the top of the Scott Monument, but the stunning views make it all worth it. Don’t worry about the number of steps, though. Make the climb gradually as there are 68 statues to admire and study along your path. There are places to stop and sit along the way as well. The steps do get narrow at the top, which can be tricky to negotiate.
The East Side
Finally, you can make your way back to the Eastside to Castlehill. You will pass a few shops along the way, with The Scotch Whisky Experience being a must-do if you enjoy the occasional whisky. Grab some food, take a tour and maybe enjoy a few tastings. It’s a big hill, don’t forget, and you may get thirsty. With 4,000 whiskies on display, it is an impressive sight.
If you have the time, you can dig deeper and pay for their Scotch whisky training school. The class will be a one-of-a-kind experience that needs an entire day dedicated to it but is well worth it if you have the time. See the information box below for more details on what a day of whisky tasting entails.
The Castle Hill
When you climb Castle Hill, you will walk in the footsteps of soldiers, kings, queens, and even a pirate or two. It is alive with those voices as they recount the many exciting tales of the long, rich history as a royal residence, military garrison, prison, and fortress.
Download the official Edinburgh Castle map here
History of Edinburgh Castle
Edinburgh Castle’s origins reach back into prehistoric times. Now you stand where this mighty structure sits on its equally solid rock. If you could not understand its strategic advantage from below, you are sure to understand it once on top. People from the Iron Age constructed a fort on this towering rock which was the beginning of what it has become today.
Despite its formidable structure, the castle has suffered many sieges throughout history. In fact, the castle is the most besieged place in Britain. The castle changed hands many times during the Wars of Independence. The Scots retook the castle from the English in a night raid led by Thomas Randolph, nephew of Robert the Bruce, in 1314.
A Royal Residence
Edinburgh Castle was home to kings and queens for many centuries. Queen Margaret (who was anointed a saint) died here in 1093. The chapel built in her honor by her son, King David I, is Edinburgh’s oldest building. St Margaret’s Chapel still hosts weddings and christenings today.
The Great Hall, completed in 1511 for King James IV, hosted grand banquets and state events. But the King had little time to enjoy his new addition. James IV died at the Battle of Flodden in 1513, fighting English forces sent by his brother-in-law, King Henry VIII of England.
Entering the Royal Palace are the gilded initials MAH – for the infamous and romanticized Mary Queen of Scots and her second husband Henry Stewart, Lord Darnley. Mary gave birth to James VI in the Royal Palace in 1566. He became King of Scotland at 13 months old and united the crowns of Scotland and England in 1603.
Edinburgh Castle has a long history with a cast of characters that is astounding. We will follow the “tour” with even more details of the rich, and at times violent and tragic history the castle characters tell.
A Military Garrison
Following the ‘Union of the Crowns’ of 1603, Edinburgh Castle was rarely visited by the reigning monarch. After the 1650s, it became a significant military base and remained one to this day. Defenses were rebuilt and enhanced due to the Jacobite Risings of 1689–1746. New gun batteries such as Dury’s Battery were constructed, and new barracks were added to house the many soldiers and officers.
Some 600 troops were housed in the New Barracks, built during the Napoleonic Wars with France. Regiments often had a mascot, many of whom were dogs. There is a dog cemetery on the grounds to honor the passing of their canine heroes.
Not everyone who came to the castle enjoyed their stay, though. Even royals were sometimes known to complain about the drafts. In their case, efforts were made to improve it but not in later years. This once home to royalty became a prison. Life was miserable for the prisoners who were locked up in the vaults below Crown Square. Between 1757 and 1814, the vaults became home to many hundreds of prisoners of war. As a formidable stronghold, the castle was the most secure lock-up in all of Scotland.
Visiting the Castle
The Gate House – The main entrance and ticket booth
TIP* We strongly reccommend that you buy your tickets in advance online, it will save you time in line and save you money too. If you are in Scotland for several days the Scotland Explorer Pass gives you access to the castle as well. (during Covid this pass was not availble but that should hopefully change soon)
Now you have arrived at The Gatehouse. This is the first main structure you will get to enjoy as you make your way onto the grounds. Be sure to time it right as they still do a change of the guard here in full dress uniform. Always a powerful and beautiful display of pageantry and history.
We caught it on our way out of the castle. The video below is a snippet of the ceremony. They had press there that day so maybe what we saw was more of a spectacle than usual. The bagpiper played beautifully. The funny part was after we left the castle, we saw him on the street playing for coins. The castle gig must not pay too well, and he was in full garb, so why not make some extra pence.
Depending on the time of year, you may find many other events in this lower area, such as dance performances, bands, or even full concerts and shows. Head up the fortified road and make a stop in the gift shop before reaching the next gatehouse. Pass that, and you are finally at the central part of the castle.
Plan for at least two hours to do your visit to Edinburgh Castle justice. If crowded you should allow for more time
Now you are about to see the best of the best. Make your way east through another smaller gate to the main keep of the castle. Here you will find the 12th century St Margaret’s Chapel, which we talked about previously. There are views of the lower parts of the castle. Behind the chapel is Mons Meg, one of the most incredible medieval cannons ever made, given to King James II in 1457.
At this point, you will reach the heart of the castle. A large courtyard is surrounded by the Scottish National War Memorial, the Great Hall, and the Royal Palace. You will get to bask in the beauty of Scotland’s most prized possessions here, the Royal Jewels. Impressive and stunning, to say the least. Read on to learn.
What to see and do in Edinburgh Castle
St Margarets Chapel
The beautiful but tiny St Margaret’s Chapel is the oldest building in Edinburgh! It was built around 1130 in honor of Queen Margaret by her son, King David I, following her death. She was known for her many charitable actions and was canonized by the Pope in 1250. Amid the hoards of tourists at the castle, you find calm and reverence within these walls.
Mons Meg is an ancient cannon from 1457 which could send 330-pound shots as far as 2 miles away! The cannon sits on a terrace behind the St. Margarets Chapel. It was a medieval times weapon of mass destruction. Weighing 13,000 pounds, the cannon had to be transported with a team of horses, oxen, and men at a pace of 9 miles a day. It was used as a weapon and was fired in celebration of Mary Queen of Scot’s wedding.
If you think the picture makes it look huge, you will be even more impressive in person like we were. You can fit inside it!
One O’Clock Gun
Since 1861 at one o’clock every day, they fire the gun from the castle. This allowed ships in the Firth of Forth to set their clocks by it, and this tradition continues today. As you can imagine this is a popular event and draws lots of people. This tradition does not occur on Sundays, Christmas, and Good Friday.
Scottish National War Memorial
The Scottish National War Memorial occupies a converted barrack block on the north side of Crown Square. To this day, the castle has a robust military presence. It is only appropriate a museum would pay tribute to that. The exterior is decorated with gargoyles and sculptures, while the interior contains monuments to individual regiments.
The touching memorial commemorates Scottish soldiers who died in the two world wars and more recent conflicts. Upon the altar within the Shrine, at the highest point of the Castle Rock, is a sealed casket that contains the Rolls of Honor, which list over 197,000 names of those soldiers killed in the two World Wars. Names continue to be added as losses occur.
Planning a trip to Scotland? Check out our Scotland Travel Guide
The Great Hall
Crown Square is at the heart of the castle, where you’ll find the immense Great Hall commissioned by James IV and completed in 1511. It measures 95 feet by 41 feet. The incredibly preserved medieval wooden roof is a sight to behold. It is one of only two medieval halls in Scotland with the original hammerbeam roof. During a seizure of the castle in 1650, the great hall was used as a barracks.
The Great Hall was built to host banquets. The King was known to show off his great wealth with these elaborate events.
As you wander the Great Hall, you find an extensive collection of weapons on display.
The Prisons of War Re-creation
The Prisons of War re-creation depicts how gruesome prison life was. This is where prisoners of war and pirates would have been held captive in the 1700s and the 1800s. Many French and American prisoners were captured and kept at the castle during the American War of Independence. The exhibit is quite shocking but very well done.
The Royal Palace
The Palace and its Royal apartments were the official royal residence of the later Stewart Kings and Queens. The Palace is home to the Honors or Regalia of Scotland, the Scottish Crown Jewels. The jewels are on display in the Crown Room along with the Stone of Destiny, Scotland’s coronation stone returned to Scotland in 1996.
Mary Queen of Scots gave birth to the future King James VI (and 1st of England) on June 19, 1566, in a small chamber room known as Queen Mary’s Room.
The Palace took a heavy bombardment during the Lang Seige in 1571. In 1617, the Palace was fully remodeled to its present state for King James VI’s ‘homecoming from London.
The Crown Jewels: Why the big deal?
During your visit to Edinburgh Castle, absolute musts are the 15th century Scottish Crown Jewels and the Stone of Destiny (a sacred object used for the coronation of Kings). The Jewels are the oldest in Britain, even older than the crown jewels kept at the Tower of London. Made of gold, silver, and precious gems, the Crown Jewels were made in Scotland and Italy during James IV and James V’s reigns. They are magnificent to view in person.
The stunning scepter and the sword were made in Italy and were a gift from the Pope. The Crown Jewels were made with Scottish gold along with King James V’s melted-down crown.
The crown, scepter, and sword of state were first used together for the coronation of a monarch in 1543 when Mary Queen of Scots ascended to the throne. The iconic Stone of Destiny, used for centuries to inaugurate monarchs, is displayed in the Crown Room.
They were last used in the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II when they formed part of the coronation chair.
TIP* We suggest starting your visit with the Royal Crown Jewels as they can draw large crowds.
Oh the views!
Now that you have seen Edinburgh Castle, you can finish your tour and enjoy the rest of the grand sites with beautiful views of the city below. Walk around many of the ramparts while getting views of the city from all sides.
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The Cast of Characters of Edinburgh Castle
There have been some fascinating characters that makeup Edinburgh Castle’s history. Let’s delve into their stories.
Saint Margaret (1045 to 1093)
Margaret was an English princess. Born and raised in exile in Hungary, she returned to England aged about 10. Forced to flee after the Norman invasion of 1066, she took refuge at the Scottish court. Margaret and King Malcolm III (known as Canmore) were married in 1070, she was the mother of three Kings of Scotland.
Margaret was a very pious Christian and was known for her many charitable works. She has been credited for having a civilizing influence on her husband Malcolm, who was illiterate, by reading him narratives from the bible. She instigated religious reform and is attributed to a number of substantial changes to the Church of Scotland. With her husband and her sons’ upbringing, she emphasized that they should be just and holy rulers, which influenced many generations of Scottish rule.
At 48 years old, Margaret died at Edinburgh Castle on November 16, 1093, three days after receiving the news of her husband’s death in battle along with their eldest son Edward. Margaret was canonized in 1250 by Pope Innocent IV.
King David II (1324-1371)
David returned to Scotland in 1357 after 11 years as an English hostage. Upon his return, he took decisive steps to establish himself as King. He invested large sums of money in restoring Edinburgh castle and his crowning achievement of the lofty David’s Tower. At over 90 feet tall, the tower dominated the skyline.
The tower was one of the earliest of its kind in Scotland, inspired by examples he had seen while in exile in England and France. It formed the castle’s heart, providing elegant accommodations for the monarch, stores in the lower floors and battlements, and a fighting platform at the top. David’s tower came down during a heavy bombardment of the Lang Siege in 1573. The stump of the tower is still visible today, buried and enclosed within the Half Moon Battery.
King James IV (1473-1513)
James the IV was King of Scotland from 1488 until he died in the Battle of Flodden in 1513. He is known as one of the most successful monarchs of Scotland.
Much of the grandeur of Edinburgh Castle is as a result of James the IV. He completed work begun by his father to create the central courtyard and royal Palace around what is now Crown Square. The Great Hall in 1512 was complete, built as a ceremonial center for banquets, entertainment, and court affairs. Inside, beautifully carved stone corbels support the original hammer-beam roof.
Each stone depicts images and symbols that represent the monarchy and the marriage of James to his English wife, Margaret Tudor. The carvings include Scottish thistles and English roses, a Venus figure with Tudor roses on either side, and cherubs symbolizing love. Their marriage’s intentions were to aid in establishing perpetual peace between the two nations.
Mary of Guise (1515-1560)
She ruled as Queen Regent in Scotland from 1554 until she died in 1560, ruling on behalf of her daughter, Mary Queen of Scots. She was a central political figure respected for her intelligence and astute leadership during a period of great political and religious turmoil.
In 1560 Mary of Guise fell ill at Edinburgh Castle while the castle was under threat of siege. English forces held much of Edinburgh and Leith. She died on June 11, 1560, while the political situation remained very volatile. As a result, her body lay in a coffin in St Margaret’s Chapel for many months before moving to France in March 1561.
Mary Queen of Scots (1542-1587)
Mary was born at Linlithgow and famously executed at Fotheringhay, less than 45 years later.
Edinburgh Castle was the birthplace of her son James in 1566. The castle was less comfortable but more secure than her chambers at Holyrood, where armed intruders had recently assassinated her secretary. In February 1567, her husband Darnley was murdered. James Hepburn, 4th Earl of Bothwell, was accused of his murder but was acquitted. He married Mary within a month of his trial, but their marriage led to an uprising. Mary was imprisoned in Loch Leven Castle. On July 24, 1567, she was forced to abdicate in favor of her one-year-old son, and the infant James became King.
After an unsuccessful attempt to regain the throne, she fled southward, seeking the protection of her first cousin once removed, Queen Elizabeth I of England. Queen Elizabeth viewed Mary as a threat and imprisoned her over the next 18 1/2 years in various locations in England. Mary was found guilty of plotting to assassinate Elizabeth in 1586 and was beheaded the following year at Fotheringhay Castle.
Child King James (1566-1625)
The son of Mary Queen of Scots and Henry, Lord Darnley was the only monarch born at Edinburgh Castle. Mary was deposed 13 months later, and the child king became a political pawn. As a result, ambitious and greedy noblemen governed in his name. He was King of Scots from 1603-1625.
Reaching adulthood in the 1580s, he struggled to control his kingdom. Both his parents were descendants of Henry VII of England. James had a clear claim when Elizabeth I died without an heir. He became King of England in 1603. He soon departed for London, only returning once to Scotland in 1617. The castle underwent major refurbishment for the occasion, with the Royal Palace and the room of his birth beautifully restored.
Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658)
Born into the ‘middle gentry,’ Cromwell was a strong Protestant who was a gifted anti-royalist soldier and politician during the 1640s.
He was one of the men who signed the death warrant of Charles I. Subsequently, he led the invasion of Ireland, where he persecuted Catholics. In 1650, after the Scots crowned Charles II, Cromwell invaded Scotland.
Cromwell took occupation of Edinburgh Castle just before Christmas, after which he refused to celebrate the holiday. He had royal decorative displays destroyed and installed a garrison. The Great Hall was converted into a military barracks. Cromwell would shortly after that control the whole of Scotland.
Sir Walter Scott
Poet, novelist, and antiquarian Sir Walter Scott stirred the public interest in Scotland’s history and the desire to preserve its heritage. Since some of Scotland’s greatest triumphs took place at Edinburgh Castle, his writings led to public support to secure its place in history.
In 1818, Scott was granted royal approval to open the Crown Room, where Scotland’s Crown Jewels have been on display for over 100 years. The sealed oak and iron doors would open in dramatic form, and the lid of the wooden chest would lift to reveal the Crown Jewels. As a result of his efforts, the event swayed the hearts of the public. The visit of George IV in 1822 (well detailed by Scott) was a critical factor in making the castle the tourist attraction it is today.
Despite an unpleasant relationship with his clients, Hippolyte Blanc was a respected Edinburgh architect at the castle in the mid-1800s. It appears his talent won out.
By the 1880s, army life had taken its toll on the castle. Restoration plans were proposed to return the royal stronghold of the old. Blanc was brought on board by the project funder, William Nelson, to remodel the Great Hall and build the Argyle Tower. When Nelson died in September 1887, Blanc had to deal directly with the Army.
The architect and his new client did not get along. The Army accused Blanc of not informing them of progress, while Blanc felt that the Army lacked vision. When the Army wanted to turn the Great Hall into an armory, he refused to hand over the keys after restoring it as a medieval hall.
An English Ending – Well, tea of course
There it is, you have learned a lot about Edinburgh Castle, and there is one final stop. The Queen Anne Tea Rooms at Edinburgh Castle is a perfect way to end your time here. Grab another light snack, dessert, or a fine cup of tea.
High tea is available if you choose; they have a lovely one. (Joelle does love her High teas.) This will need to schedule in advance as it is pretty popular. You can relax while partaking in the proper English tradition. Reflect on all you have taken in before you make your way back down Castlehill to explore the rest of Edinburgh.
Now that you know almost everything there is to know about Edinburgh Castle, you should plan a trip to Scotland and don’t leave out this beauty. This castle has left a great impression on the city of Edinburgh and us. We have no doubt it will do the same to you, especially when you add the rest of the town filled with all those lovely Scottish people.
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