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Edinburgh Castle

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Brooding menacingly on top of the volcanic castle rock, Edinburgh Castle still dominates the city as it has for many centuries. With sheer drops to north and south, and the west approach steep enough to be easily defended, the castle has never been successfully stormed in recorded history - although it has frequently changed hands through siege and treachery.

Modern-day attackers - in the form of over a million tourists each year - face no greater barrier than the attendant checking that their tickets are valid. But this is still a functioning military establishment. The castle is the headquarters of the Scottish Division and Regimental Headquarters of the Royal Scots and the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards. It also houses the Army School of Piping and both the National War Memorial and the Scottish United Services Museum.

A Brief History

The castle rock itself was formed some 70 million years ago as the core of one of several volcanoes in the area. During the subsequent ice ages, glacial erosion removed the softer rocks on the north, south and most of the west faces of the rock, leaving a long ridge leading down to the east from its peak of 435ft (133m). This easily defended position naturally attracted early settlers and archaeological excavations in the castle have uncovered evidence that Bronze-Age man was living on the rock as long ago as 850 BC.

The first recorded mention1 of Edinburgh states that in approximately 600 AD the Pictish King Mynyddog gathered together 300 warriors in his stronghold of Dun Edin (or possibly Din Eidyn) to go south to attack the Angles. This they did, resulting in the Pictish forces being almost completely destroyed. Sometime afterwards (about 638 AD) the Angles took Dun Edin and changed the name to Edinburgh. The Rock remained in Northumbrian hands until 1018 when Malcolm II won the area for the newly-conceived Kingdom of Scotland by winning the Battle of Carham.

The castle as it is known today has its origins in the reign of King David I, who included the building of a chapel to commemorate the memory of his mother Margaret2, who had been instrumental in Edinburgh becoming Scotland's capital. This chapel is recognised as the oldest extant building in Edinburgh, having been restored in the 1850's after use as a gunpowder store.

It is very difficult for the modern visitor to visualise just how imposing the defences of the castle must have seemed in those far-off days. One has to imagine a large loch with boggy surrounds on the north side where the picturesque Princes Street gardens now attract lunchtime sun-bathers (on Edinburgh's few sunny days), sheer drops of smooth volcanic rock on three sides with no convenient road carved into the hillside, all vegetation regularly removed to deny cover to attackers and the only viable approach being a single track under guns mounted behind massive defence works.

During the Wars of Independence, the castle changed hands four times in 45 years from 1296, and was almost completely dismantled by Robert the Bruce following its capture from English hands in 1313. After King David II's release from English captivity in 1356, the castle underwent an almost continuous programme of building and rebuilding over the following 200 years. Little of these medieval fortifications remain in view today, having been incorporated into later constructions. Of these, probably the most impressive is the Half Moon Battery, looming over the entrance to the castle on the rock's south-east shoulder. Originally built in the late 1570s3, it was restored following damage during sieges in 1650 and 1689, and now presents an intimidating impression of strength and power.

The castle defences were tested many times; by Covenanters, Cromwell and the forces of William and Mary before the last major assaults by Jacobite forces of both the Old and New Pretenders. Bonnie Prince Charlie's Standards did reach the castle - but only to be displayed as spoils of war after his defeat at Culloden. Assaults upon the castle have continued however, with attempts which could not have been anticipated by the original architects. A plaque on the north-west of the castle rock marks a near-miss during a Zeppelin raid on 2 April, 1916, and in more recent times, IRA terrorists staged an explosion in a ladies' lavatory in 1971 - which luckily caused little damage.

Since the 1745 rebellion, the castle's main use has been as a barracks and a prison, with as many as 1,000 prisoners of war held there at the beginning of the 19th Century. The married quarters in the castle were described in a mid-19th Century report as the worst in the UK, with no privacy and so unsanitary that epidemics were commonplace. Despite this, the castle was a major barracks right up until 1923.

The gatehouse which affords entrance to the castle is not, despite its appearance, a real part of the defences, but was built in 1887 'to provide an entrance worthy of the castle'.

With the necessity of ensuring that attackers might have as difficult an approach as possible no longer a priority, the ridge in front of the castle was levelled and widened in 1753 to form a parade ground. This Esplanade4 with its magnificent views of the city now hosts the Military Tattoo and has also been the site of spectacular concerts, but is usually utilised for the more prosaic purpose of being the castle car park.

The Castle Today

Perhaps most famous throughout the world as the backdrop to the Edinburgh Military Tattoo, the castle itself offers many attractions for todays visitors.

Among these are:-

  • The Honours of Scotland. On 19 March, 1707, the Act of Union which joined together Scotland and England was passed through Scottish Parliament. The crown, sword and sceptre of Scotland were taken to Edinburgh Castle to be stored in safety. In February 1818, Sir Walter Scott (author of Ivanhoe) gained permission to break into the room where the Honours were thought to have been locked away. They were found at the bottom of a chest - covered with linen cloths 'exactly as they had been left'. They are now on public display in the room where they were discovered.

  • The Stone of Destiny. On St Andrews Day, 30 November, 1996, Scotland's ancient coronation stone, the Stone of Destiny, was returned from exile and can now be seen beside the Honours of Scotland.

  • The National War Memorial. Scotland's greatest war memorial, this was designed in 1924 by Sir Robert Lorimer and opened by the then Prince of Wales (later King Edward VIII) in July 1927. Situated on the site of the medieval church of St Mary's5, the memorial features superb stained-glass windows. The shrine houses the books of the Roll of Honour, recording the names of all known Scottish Servicemen fallen in conflict from the First World War to the present day.

  • The Scottish United Services Museum. Founded in 1931, this museum houses uniforms, weapons, insignia and medals of the Armed Forces with particular reference to the Scottish memorabilia. Occupying part of the Palace block and the old officers' quarters, there is a large public display and also much more held for accredited historical research.

  • The French Prisons. Situated in the vaults under the Great Hall are the prisons which housed prisoners of war, especially those from the Seven Years War and Napoleonic Wars with France. A favourite pastime of these prisoners was carving, which can be seen today in the graffiti on the prison walls and in articles made for sale which are on display in the castle museum. As a profitable sideline the prisoners also carved mutton bones to make watermarks on forged banknotes.

  • Mons Meg. In 1449 a great siege gun weighing over six tons was first tested at Mons in Belgium. Eight years later in 1457 the gun was sent as a present from the Duke of Burgundy, to his niece Queen Mary and her husband James II of Scotland. The gun, now known as 'Mons Meg' was used until 1681 when its barrel split during a birthday salute for the future James VII (James II of England). The immense gun and several of the massive 500lb stone cannonballs it fired were for many years prominent on the castle battlements, and feature in many thousands of pictures with laughing children perched on the mighty barrel. It is now on show in the French prisons.

  • The One O'Clock Gun. A favourite game for residents of Edinburgh who happen to be in the vicinity of the castle at 1pm on a weekday is 'spot the visitor'. Since 1861 a cannon has been fired as a time signal6, resulting in the sight of locals checking their watches and unsuspecting visitors staring round to see where the explosion came from.

  • And of course the superb views over the beautiful city of Edinburgh.

1In a Welsh poem, the Gododdin.2Later sanctified as St. Margaret of Scotland.3It incorporates the ruins of David's Tower of 1368. It cost £743 6s 6d and the expense led to the devaluation of the Scots currency.4When 64 baronetcies of Nova Scotia were granted to Scottish citizens between 1625 and 1649, the process under Scots Law required token transfers of soil from the site being sold. The Scottish Parliament of the day declared that this part of the castle rock be considered part of Nova Scotia and it remains so to this day.5Later used as a munitions store and then as barracks.6A visual time signal is also given by a large ball dropping down a pole at the top of Nelson's Monument on Calton Hill, visible to ships at the Port of Leith and on the River Forth.

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