Photo: Kate Bielinski / Unsplash
From King Mynyddog to Mary Queen of Scots (and beyond), LuxuryEdinburgh Contributor Cameron Alexander delves into the storied history of Edinburgh Castle, the Scottish capital’s most visited attraction
The history of Edinburgh Castle, Scotland’s most famous landmark, really began with the formation of the rock on which the fortress stands.
Castle Rock, the famous hill on which the castle is perched, was formed over 350 million years ago, during the Earth’s Carboniferous period. Known as a ‘volcanic plug’, it formed after a volcanic pipe passing through the surrounding sedimentary rock cooled, forming dolerite. Much harder than the other softer rock in the area, it proved more resistant to the effects of glaciation, resulting in the iconic ‘crag and tail’ rock formation that so defines the city.
Today, Castle Rock’s summit stands some 430ft above sea level, its imposing, west-, south-, and north facing cliffs all but impenetrable at 260ft. As With the only easy route to the top being from the east, the natural defensive potential of the rock was not lost on the humans who first settled the area.
The Human History of Edinburgh Castle
While it’s not known exactly when humans first laid eyes on Castle Rock, archaeological excavations indicate that Bronze-Age man was living atop it around the 8th or 9th centuries BC. Evidence has also been found of an Iron Age settlement on the summit dating back some 2,000 years.
The first human history of the rock that we can be sure of stems from around 600 AD. At that time, legend has it some 300 men answered a call to arms and made their way to King Mynyddog’s stronghold of Din Eidyn – the very first mention of the place we now called Edinburgh.
Once assembled, King Mynyddog’s army prepared to attack the Angles, a large group of heathen invaders from mainland Europe. After pledging allegiance to their king, the group successfully repelled the Angles, pursuing them south as far as modern day Yorkshire. It was apparent, though, that this formidable force over-extended itself, and was all but destroyed during these southern raids. Shortly after, in 638 AD, Din Eidyn was besieged and taken by the Angles, after which it received the English name by which it’s still known to this day: Edinburgh.
Edinburgh Castle Down the Ages
While the human history of Edinburgh Castle has evolved a great deal throughout the centuries, it’s known to have been used as a royal castle from the reign of David in the 12th century right up to 1633. After this time, it was used predominantly to house troops.
Of the buildings you can see during a visit or castle tour today, only a handful survived the wars and sieges of the period leading up to the 16th century, when the old medieval defences were destroyed. The castle in fact holds the dubious title of the most besieged palace in Scotland, and has seen more conflict than most surviving fortresses worldwide.
Perhaps the oldest surviving structure is the well-preserved St Margaret’s Chapel. Dating from the early 12th century, it’s considered the oldest building in Edinburgh. Other medieval structures that can still be seen today include the Royal Palace, built in the 1500s, and the Great Hall, which was added in the early-16th century.
Broken Hearts and Sainthood
The castle has seen no end of history through the ages… and plenty of heartbreak, too. In 1093, for example, the wife of King Malcolm III, Queen Margaret, died broken-hearted in the castle after receiving news that Malcolm had died in battle in Northumberland, England.
In 1250, Queen Margaret was made a saint by Pope Innocent IV, and the small chapel we now know as St Margaret’s was renamed in her honour. For another Queen Margaret reference, pay a visit to the town of Dunfermline Scotland where you can still see the tomb where she and her husband are buried.
Later that century, in 1296, Scotland was invaded by Edward I of England, and the castle besieged and captured. But it didn’t remain under English rule for long. In 1314, Sir Thomas Randolph – a nephew of Scottish King Robert the Bruce – scaled Castle Rock’s steep north face with his men, effectively taking the English garrison by surprise.
With Robert the Bruce at its head, the Scottish army, just three months later, faced the English at the Battle of Bannockburn, and won the day.
‘Mons Meg’ Arrives
Since the time of Robert the Bruce, Edinburgh Castle has continued to play an important role in Scottish history.
In 1449, James II married Mary of Gueldres, an event that was to lead to the castle becoming home to the famous ‘Mons Meg’ siege gun. This mighty cannon – still on display at the castle – was given to the King and Queen as a gift, and later saw action against the English… as well as against Scots rebels.
However, weighing in at over six tons meant this immense weapon was of no real use militarily, and was relegated to firing ceremonial salutes. It was on one such occasion, during a celebration of a royal birthday in 1681, that the cannon’s barrel burst, leading to years of neglect before finally being restored and placed on view.
Royal Dissent and Disorder
Perhaps the castle’s most famous royal occupant, however, was Mary Queen of Scots. After marrying her second husband in 1565, Henry, she gave birth to her first child, Prince James, in the castle a year later. Forced into exile in England after her infant son was proclaimed King of the Scots, the castle once again came under siege by the English when its keeper, Sir William Kirkcaldy of Grange, openly proclaimed his support for the exiled Queen.
However, with the best artillery pieces located within the castle walls, the siege dragged on inconclusively for two years, for which it was dubbed the ‘Lang Siege’, or ‘Long Siege’. The stand-off only ended after English forces were able to finally send a large army equipped with heavy enough artillery to penetrate the castle’s defences. When it finally came, the end came swiftly in May 1573 after a devastating 11 day bombardment caused the collapse of the castle’s east defences.
After purging the castle if its defenders, the successful English set about rebuilding the castle, adding many of the features to be seen today. These include the impressive Half-Moon Battery, as well as the Portcullis Gate.
The Final Siege
Edinburgh Castle saw its last major military action just over 100 years later after Protestant King William of Orange landed in England. The Catholic king, James II, fled into exile.
At first undecided as to who to support, the Scots in control of castle – firm supporters of King James – readied the fortress once again for battle. The ensuing three month siege began in March 1689, during which time King William accepted the Scottish Crown. The castle’s garrison surrendered in June of that same year.
Minor skirmishes took place around the castle during the Jacobite Risings of 1715 and later in 1745, and the castle again made a brief appearance in the history books after supporters of Bonnie Prince Charlie picketed the fortress. Since then, the castle has stood watch over Edinburgh during a 300-year-lonng period of peace and calm that continues to this day.
The history of Edinburgh Castle as a tourist destination has been a relatively long one, too. Things really got started in the early 19th century after Sir Walter Scott forced his way into the sealed room in which the Scottish national treasures had been locked away after the union of Scotland and England in 707.
Undisturbed in an old trunk for over 200 years were the Scottish ‘Honours’, including the famous Sword and Sceptre, which have been on display in the castle ever since.
Feel like a longer read about Edinburgh Castle history? Check out Wikipedia’s excellent entry about this historic Scottish fortress.
Planning on visiting this beautiful castle? To learn more about this top attraction in Scotland, be sure to read LuxuryEdinburgh’s guide to (almost) everything you need to know about Edinburgh Castle.
Fancy hitting the hay and waking up with a great view of Edinburgh Castle? Check this list of the best luxury hotels in Edinburgh for luxury accommodations close by, each of them offering castle views: the 4-star Apex Grassmarket, the luxurious Waldorf Astoria Edinburgh, and The Balmoral.
Contributor Cameron Alexander is a UK-based freelancer and travel writer.
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