Edinburgh Castle sits on top of a volcanic rock that has been fortified since the Bronze Age. Originally known as Din Eidyn, it was seized by the Angles in the Seventh Century AD and they renamed it Edinburgh. In the subsequent centuries it saw action during numerous wars and the Jacobite rebellions.
Edinburgh Castle sits on top of a volcanic rock overlooking the city which developed on flatter ground carved out during the last Ice Age. Its dominant position has meant it has long been viewed as a place of strength with the first known fortification established there circa- 850 BC. Use continued well into the Roman era by which time the local populace were the Votadini tribe. The nature of their relationship with the Romans is unknown but may well have been cordial and, with the construction of the Antonine Wall circa-AD 138, the settlement formally became part of the Roman province.
The Romans withdrew back to the Tyne-Solway isthmus in the latter half of the second century AD but Castle Rock continued to be occupied. The first surviving written record dates from around AD 600 when it was referred to as Din Eidyn, ‘the stronghold of Eidyn’. Precisely who Eidyn was remains a mystery but later the rock became the caput of Mynyddog Mwynfawr, King of the Gododdin tribe whose domain covered much of Stirlingshire through to the Scottish Borders. However, in AD 638 they suffered a defeat at the hands of the Angles, settlers originally from Germany who had become established in England, and Din Eidyn was besieged and taken. The Angles renamed the fortress Edinburgh.
The political entity we now refer to as Scotland came into being in the ninth century AD when the Picts and Scots north of the Clyde-Forth isthmus united into one nation. Over the subsequent centuries they made inroads against Angle occupation in the Lothians and, following his victory at the Battle of Carham (1018), Malcolm II took control of all land to the north of the River Tweed. It was at some point later in that century that the first medieval castle was established on the rock.
The first surviving record to Edinburgh Castle dates from 1093 when it is referred to as the ‘Castle of Maidens’. The context of that title is unclear but it was certainly a high status residence as Queen Margaret stayed at the castle during her husband’s ill-fated invasion of Northumberland which ended with his defeat and death at the Battle of Alnwick (1093). Margaret died from grief four days later.
The configuration of this early castle is unknown having been obliterated by later developments but its footprint was significantly smaller than today and would only have occupied the upper part of the rock. The bulk of the defences would have been timber although some internal structures, most notably St Margaret’s Chapel, were stone from the start. Over the subsequent centuries the walls of the castle were rebuilt in stone
The oldest surviving part of the castle is St Margaret's Chapel.
Wars of Scottish Independence
During the Wars of Scottish Independence, ownership of Edinburgh Castle was hotly contested. Edward I had invaded the country in 1296 and immediately defeated the Scots at the Battle of Dunbar (1296). Lothian quickly fell to the attackers and Edinburgh Castle was captured. It remained in English hands for the next 18 years. However, on 14 March 1314 Sir Thomas Randolph – nephew of Robert the Bruce – launched an audacious attack on the castle. Whilst the garrison were distracted by a diversionary assault on the main gate, Randolph’s men climbed the north face of Castle rock and took the English garrison by surprise. The fortress was slighted and, following the decisive Scottish victory at the Battle of Bannockburn (1314), effectively abandoned.
Edinburgh Castle remained an unoccupied ruin for the next twenty years but, with the outbreak of the Second War of Scottish Independence in 1332, the English once again advanced into Lothian. By 1335 they had seized Castle Rock and re-fortified the site. It remained in English hands for the next six years with its garrison being supplied by ships from England. However, in April 1341 Sir William Douglas took control of a supply ship and, with his troops masquerading as sailors, was permitted entry into the castle after which his men massacred the garrison.
Following the end of the Wars of Independence, the Scottish Kings adopted Edinburgh Castle as one of their most important seats. David II embarked upon a major rebuilding of the castle and ultimately died there in February 1371. Later James III made the castle his primary residence spending the vast majority of his reign there. He commissioned the Royal Palace, built upon the upper portion of Castle Rock, which replaced the earlier structures. The castle also became the primary arsenal for Scotland and a Royal treasury.
Early in the sixteenth century James IV commissioned a new Great Hall that was completed in 1511. However, his death at the Battle of Flodden (1513) meant it got little use and by the mid-sixteenth century Edinburgh Castle, with its windswept position on top of Castle Rock, did not meet the increasing levels of domestic comfort expected by the nobility. Concurrently the Scottish Reformation was underway freeing up land and estates formerly held by the church. In Edinburgh Holyrood Abbey, at the other end of the Royal Mile, assumed the role of Royal Palace.
The Great Hall was commissioned by James IV and completed in 1497.
Mary, Queen of Scots
Notwithstanding the comfort offered by Holyrood, Edinburgh Castle became the home of Mary, Queen of Scots when she was expecting a child. On 19 June 1566 she gave birth to the future James VI (from 1603 James I of England) at the castle. However, the following year Mary’s regime had destabilised after her marriage, in May 1567, to James Hepburn , Earl of Bothwell. The Queen was imprisoned in Lochleven Castle and forced to abdicate in favour of her infant son, James VI. Although Mary subsequently escaped, she was defeated at the Battle of Langside (1568) and fled to England where she became the prisoner of Elizabeth I.
Despite Mary’s defeat, many Scots still backed her and in 1571 Sir William Kirkcaldy, Governor of Edinburgh Castle, declared his support. In response the forces of the Regent besieged the castle for two long years (the "Lang Siege"). This only came to an end when the English, at the request of the Regent, sent heavy artillery in support. Whilst most of the garrison was allowed to go free, Sir William was dragged through the streets and beheaded at the mercat cross in the Royal mile. His severed head was spiked on the walls of the castle.
The artillery assault in the latter part of the Lang Siege had severely damaged portions of the castle including David’s Tower. During the final years of the sixteenth century this was rebuilt into Half-Moon Battery. Portcullis Gate was also constructed at this time replacing the former entrance to the castle, Constable Tower, that had been destroyed during the siege.
Half Moon Battery was built over the ruins of David's Tower after the Lang Siege.
Wars of Three Kingdom
During the Wars of Three Kingdoms, Edinburgh Castle was not embroiled in any significant fighting. However, it was seized by English forces after the rout of the Scottish army at the Battle of Dunbar (1650). Thereafter, Oliver Cromwell established his Scottish Headquarters within the castle.
In 1688 James VII (II of England) was overthrown in what is now dubbed the Glorious Revolution. Reaction in Scotland to this regime change was mixed with many opposing the removal of the Stewart dynasty that had ruled the country for over 300 years. Edinburgh Castle’s garrison supported the ousted James VII resulting in it being besieged by Government forces. A determined resistance was led by George Gordon, Duke of Gordon but he was forced to surrender after three months. Shortly afterwards the wider rebellion was defeated at the Battle of Killiecrankie (1689).
With the general instability in the region – there would be four Jacobite rebellions in total – the castle became a permanent garrison fortress. Much of the medieval castle was demolished or modified to support a modern army and this included the defences which were enhanced. Nevertheless the Jacobites attempted to capture the castle during the 1715 rebellion. A number of rebels climbed the rock face planning to scale the castle’s walls and open the Sallyport. However, they were spotted and the attempt failed. Thereafter further upgrades were made to the castle’s defences including construction of Argyle Battery.
The castle continued as a military site and in the late eighteenth century a substantial new barrack block – capable of holding 600 Officers and Men – was built to accommodate the growing size of the army following the outbreak of the Napoleonic wars. However, by the nineteenth century the site was increasingly becoming a tourist attraction. The Honours of Scotland were put on display in 1818 and twenty years later the Royal Palace was opened to the public. The new Gatehouse was built in 1888 and the Great Hall renovated in 1891. Whilst a portion of the site remains in military use, most of the castle is now open to the public and hosts various museums.
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Edinburgh Castle is a major tourist attraction and incorporates several other attractions within including the Scottish Honours, the National War Museum of Scotland, the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards Regimental Museum and the Royal Scots Regiment Museum.
Edinburgh Castle Layout. The original medieval castle occupied the Upper Rock (now Upper Ward). Regular rebuilding over the centuries saw the complex completely transformed and enlarged.
Castle Rock. The castle sits upon a volcanic rock overlooking the city. which developed on flatter ground carved out during the last Ice Age
Upper Ward. The highest part of Castle Rock is occupied by the Upper Ward.
Foog's Gate. This was built during the seventeenth century as the main access into the Upper Ward.
Outer Gatehouse. The Outer Gatehouse was built in 1888 to prettify the castle. The access is flanked by statues of William Wallace and Robert Bruce.
Portcullis Gate / Argyle Tower. This gate was built following the Lang Siege (1571-3) which had destroyed the original medieval access, Constable’s Tower. It was prettified in the nineteenth century.
Lang Stairs. The lang stairs were the original approach to the medieval castle (which only occupied the upper rock). The stairs were re-laid by American prisoners who were held in the fortress in the 1780s during the Revolutionary War.
St Margaret's Chapel. The oldest building in Edinburgh Castle is a small chapel dating from 1093. This was built to commemorate the death of Queen Margaret, wife of King Malcolm III, who allegedly died of grief when she received news that her husband had been killed at the first Battle of Alnwick (1093).
Half Moon Battery. This was built on the site of David’s Tower which was severely damaged during the Lang Siege (1571-73). Acquiring its name from its curved shape, the battery was extensively modified after the 1689 Jacobite rebellion.
Great Hall. James IV commissioned the Great Hall which was duly completed in 1511. However, it saw little use before James was killed at the Battle of Flodden (1513) after which Holyrood hosted the majority of events.
Royal Palace. The Royal Palace is found within Crown Square, a courtyard that formed the centre of the original medieval portion of the castle.
Argyle Battery. This was built in the 1730s and provided the main artillery defence on the north side of the castle. It was named after John Campbell, Duke of Argyll who commanded Government forces at the Battle of Sheriffmuir (1715).
New Barracks. The new barracks were built in 1796 to provide additional accommodation for the expanding size of the army as a result of the Napoleonic wars. It was designed to house an entire infantry battalion of 600 Officers and Men.
Governor's House. The Governor’s House was built in 1742 and is now in use as an Officers' Mess.
Mons Meg. This siege gun was made in Mons, Belgium in 1449 and was presented to James II in 1457 as a wedding gift. It weighed six tons and was designed as a siege weapon. Crookston, Dumbarton, Norham and Roxburgh castles were all on the receiving end of her shot. The gun's barrel burst in 1681 when firing a birthday salute to the future James VII of Scotland.
Edinburgh Castle is located in the centre of the city. There are numerous car parking options nearby including on-road parking immediately adjacent to castle. All are pay and display. Alternatively the city is well served by public transport with Edinburgh Waverley Railway Station just a short walk away.
Car Parking (On-road)
Johnston Terrace, EH1 2PR
Castle Terrace, EH1 2DP