Discover the secrets of historic Edinburgh Castle

Secrets of Edinburgh Castle

The story of Edinburgh begins on the city's Castle Rock, where archaeologists have found evidence of human activity during the Bronze Age (972-830 BC). This makes it the longest continuously occupied site in Scotland.

According to a Welsh epic poem, the Iron Age Votadini tribe had a hill fort here called 'Din Eidyn', whence the name Edinburgh is most likely derived. The first record of a royal castle, however, dates to the reign of David I (1124-1153). Attacked no less than 26 times thereafter -- from the 14th century Wars of Scottish Independence to the Jacobite Rising of 1745 -- it is on record as the most besieged castle in Britain.

The most apt superlative for the castle these days is Scotland's most popular visitor attraction. Despite the crowds, the old walls still retain some secrets.

The English art critic John Ruskin (1819-1900) described Edinburgh Castle as "simply the noblest in Scotland conveniently unapproachable by any creatures but seagulls". He was referring to the fact that it sits atop an extinct volcanic flue rendered near impregnable by subsequent glaciation. The movement of ice left a ramp of softer sedimentary rock to the east along which the Old Town was subsequently laid out. It is up this ramp that visitors approach the castle today.

The Secret of the Gatehouse

The first castle secret concerns the Gatehouse. Despite looking old, it only dates back to 1888 and is a decorative feature built when the castle's tourist potential was first being exploited.

Even more recent is the tunnel to the right of it, added in the 1980s for military vehicles to enter without disturbing the tourists. By contrast, the Portcullis Gate beyond is genuinely defensive. It was built in the wake of the Lang Siege of 1571-1573, when the castle was held (and eventually surrendered) by the Catholic supporters of the exiled Mary, Queen of Scots (1542-1567) against the Protestant regency representing the infant James I (later VI).

The gate gives access to the castle's Middle Ward, which contains a series of military buildings installed after the castle became a garrison in the early 18th century. These include a munitions depot (now the National War Museum) and the New Barracks (now a museum illustrating the history of Scotland's only cavalry regiment, the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards). Don't be surprised when the nearby One o'clock Gun is fired. The tradition dating back to 1861 enabled ships in the Firth of Forth to set their maritime clocks accurately.

The Castle's Upper Ward

To discover the castle's best-kept secrets one must penetrate the castle's Upper Ward by means of the late 17th century Foog's Gate. The origin of this curious name is unknown but it might relate to the dense sea fogs, or 'haars', which sometimes envelop the city's highpoints.
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First to be encountered is the tiny St. Margaret's Chapel on the left-hand side. Dating from around 1100, it was commissioned by David I as a royal chapel and named in honour of his Hungarian-born mother, who died in the castle in 1093. Since most of the medieval castle was destroyed during the Lang Siege, this rare survival is now considered the oldest intact building in Edinburgh.

On a rampart just beyond the chapel is the cannon 'Mons Meg', which fired a cannonball as far as what is now the Royal Botanic Garden, to celebrate the marriage in 1558 of Mary, Queen of Scots to the French dauphin. On a ledge beneath the rampart is an easily-missed 19th century Cemetery for Soldiers' Dogs, where regimental mascots have been laid to rest since Victorian times.

Walk along the Forewall Battery to reach the huge Half Moon Battery, which was completed in 1588 to protect the castle's main approach. During maintenance work here in 1912, the ruins of an earlier structure were revealed. This was David's Tower, the royal palace built for David II (1329-1371) in the late 14th century and destroyed by cannon fire during the Lang Siege. At the time it would have been the most prominent of at least five towers dominating Edinburgh's skyline. Today a narrow staircase leads down through the Battery to the enigmatic remains.

Crown Square is the Heart of the Castle

Now enter Crown Square and what is today the heart of the castle. Three buildings flanking the square each hold a secret. First is the Royal Palace built in the 15th century as the Stewart dynasty's official residence. In a small chamber here in 1566 Mary, Queen of Scots gave birth to a son, the future James VI.

Or did she?

It is recorded that the birth was difficult and an attendee attempted to transfer the queen's pain to a servant using magic. There is even a tenacious rumour that the baby was still-born and substituted with another (the tiny skeleton allegedly being sealed up in the castle walls wrapped in a shawl bearing the letter 'J').

Whilst this has now been debunked, there's no denying the chamber's magnificent painted ceiling undertaken for James' sole return visit from London in 1617. It is no secret of course that the Scottish Crown Jewels, known as the Honours of Scotland, are also displayed in the palace, together with the Stone of Scone on which the monarchs of Scotland were crowned (captured by Edward I in 1296 and removed to Westminster Abbey, the stone was installed in the castle in 1996).

Next is the Great Hall completed in the early 16th century as the castle's main place of assembly. Despite being converted into a barracks in 1650 following Oliver Cromwell's seizure of the castle, the hall retains its original hammerbeam roof. The tiny barred window above the fireplace is a 'Laird's Lug', where the king could eavesdrop on conversation. In preparation for a visit by Mikhail Gorbachev to the castle in 1984, the window was blocked at the request of the KGB!

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The third building in the square is the National War Memorial completed in 1927 in a reworked barrack block. The altar, which occupies the highest point of the volcanic Castle Rock, supports a casket containing the names of Scottish soldiers killed in the First World War. High up in one of the stained glass windows by Douglas Strachan (1875-1950) is a horseman with a swastika on his cloak. But don't be alarmed: it dates from the time just prior to Nazi rule, when the swastika still retained its original meaning as an ancient symbol of good fortune.

One final secret lurks beneath Crown Square. The stone vaults constructed to level the ground here in the 15th century were also used to hold military prisoners. The first to be incarcerated were French privateers captured after the outbreak of the Seven Years War (1756-1763). Others arrived during the American War of Independence (1775-1783), when privateers harried Leith, and during the Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815), including a five-year-old drummer boy captured at the Battle of Trafalgar. Their graffiti on the wooden cell doors, which includes an early version of the American flag, adds poignancy to the scene.

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Duncan JD Smith is a Vienna-based travel writer, historian, photographer and publisher. Find out more at DuncanJDSmith and OnlyInGuides. The article is an extract of "Only in Edinburgh", the 11th volume in the Only In series and is available online from Amazon --Only in Edinburgh.

Unless otherwise indicated, all photos by the author

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