Edinburgh Castle is such an iconic, ancient and dominant part of the city skyline, perched high on its rugged crag overlooking the city. Its unrivalled and photogenic position in the city centre has visitors swiftly reaching for their cameras to snap picturesque shots. Even locals don’t take it entirely for granted. We know we’re lucky to have it.
Throughout history, Castle Rock has been a strategic location and evidence of ancient occupation going back to 900 BC has been found. Edinburgh Castle itself dates back to medieval times when it was Scotland’s most important royal castle.
The castle re-opened its huge, heavy and historic doors to the public at the beginning of this month on 1st August, so I made sure I had booked my ticket to be there. My working life as a guide means that in a normal year I spend a great deal of my time at the castle. This year has been so different and I’ve missed being there, so I was excited to be back.
To celebrate the re-opening of Edinburgh Castle to the public at the beginning of August, I thought I’d share some amazing facts about it. How many do you know? As always fact is so often stranger than fiction!
1. Are you standing in Scotland?
Before you even enter the castle, you may already be standing on Canadian soil. Confused? The answer lies on a nearby plaque. Check the wall to the right of the stone bridge at the entrance gates. In 1625 legal possession of the Province of Nova Scotia (New Scotland) was granted to Sir William Alexander. At the same time several Scottish Baronets also received their Nova Scotia baronies, for which they’d paid handsomely. The cash-strapped king was always looking for new ways to raise money. Creating new Baronets, who were happy to pay for the privilege, was an ideal solution.
There was just one drawback. Traditionally following ancient Scots custom, soil from the land had to be physically handed over. Owners of land granted by the king had to grab a handful of the soil from the land and declare it. The Scots term in law ‘sasine’ comes from the old French word ‘seisine’ – literally to seize or take. A handful was taken and then delivered or handed over symbolically or exchanged as proof of the feudal right to the land. Of course, this would have involved a very long voyage to Canada for those concerned. So instead, part of the Castlehill was declared Nova Scotia soil and the ceremony took place without any difficulty at all! The plaque was presented by the the Province of Nova Scotia to commemorate this fact and this little corner of Canada in Scotland.
2. Braveheart or not?
As you walk over the stone bridge you’ll see two bronze statues on either side of the entrance gates to the castle. William Wallace is on the right and King Robert the Bruce on the left. In the Medieval era they were both at separate times made Guardians of Scotland during the Wars of Independence against England. Both are famous in Scot’s history and legend. The statues were placed at the Gatehouse in 1929 to commemorate the 600th anniversary of King Robert’s death.
William Wallace found new global fame following the release of the film ‘Braveheart’. The surprise is that actually before the making of the film, he was never called or known as Braveheart. That name belonged to Robert the Bruce and was linked to him by ‘The Good’ Sir James Douglas, his most loyal friend and captain.
On his deathbed King Robert the Bruce asked Sir James to carry his heart into battle on Crusade. Sir James obliged and, facing overwhelming odds at the Battle of Teba, he threw the casket containing the embalmed heart of King Robert ahead of him. Charging against opposing foes, Sir James famously shouted out ‘Lead on Brave Heart as thou wast wont to do!’ Or words to that effect, as accounts vary. Sir James died in the battle and King Robert’s heart was eventually taken back to Scotland and buried at Melrose Abbey. His body is buried at Dunfermline Abbey.
3. The most besieged castle in Britain
Edinburgh Castle has always been popular, but unlike today the castle gates weren’t always open wide to welcome visitors inside. Over the centuries this castle has been besieged 23 times, making it one of the most attacked castles in Britain. For this reason the castle has changed hands on many occasions and there have been some particularly ingenious attempts at getting in.
In March 1314, Robert The Bruce sent his nephew Sir Thomas Randolph to take the castle by stealth. They were guided up a secret route on the north face of the castle rock by William Francis. William was said to be the son of a former governor of the castle and had found and used this route often in his youth. According to local legend he’d used it to get into the old town for some evening fun without his parents knowing! With just a small force of men, they climb the walls and catch the garrison off guard. This allows them to open the gates to the Scots forces who take the castle with relatively little bloodshed.
An altogether different but equally sneaky attempt was in 1341. Once again during the Wars of Independence, the Scots were trying to dislodge an English garrison. This time Sir William Douglas had a cunning plan. A ship had docked at nearby Leith, laden with provisions for the castle. What could be easier than having Sir William’s forces masquerade as sailors and merchants? When they arrived with the castle supplies, the drawbridge was lowered and the gates eagerly opened by the unsuspecting soldiers. Sir William and his men lost no time in overwhelming the garrison.
If at first you don’t succeed – blast it to pieces!
Of course, not all attempts were as easy as that. More often it was brute force that had the castle inhabitants surrendering. In 1296 Edward I of England used his fearsome trebuchet, a giant catapult to hurl stone balls against the walls of the castle. There is an exhibit inside the castle showing one of the original stone balls.
Even more devastating was the end of the Lang Siege in 1573. This time supporters of Mary Queen of Scots had barricaded themselves into the castle for 2 long years. Mary was no longer Queen, but her supporters resisted all attempts to force them out. Finally the supporters of her baby son, now King James called on Queen Elizabeth I of England’s support. With siege cannons they bombarded the castle walls and demolished buildings, forcing a surrender. Today very little remains of King David’s Tower, except what you can see underground. Instead you’ll find the Half Moon Battery was built on top of its remnants. The Portcullis Gate, which you pass through, was also smashed to pieces and rebuilt.
The castle has been used as a garrison for centuries and is actually one of the oldest, continually garrisoned and occupied castles in the UK. The castle complex can be a confusing jumble of rock and buildings, since over the centuries walls and buildings have been blown apart and newer ones rebuilt over the top.
The last siege of the castle
The last time the castle was under siege was in September 1745. This time it was by the Jacobites, supporters of the exiled Stuart royal family, led by Prince Charles Edward Stuart also known as Bonnie Prince Charlie. The uprising attempted to reinstate a Stuart monarchy in the form of Charles’ father, James. However, the castle held out, despite the rest of Edinburgh Old Town falling to the Jacobites. Ultimately the uprising failed, with the last battle on British soil taking place in the Highlands at Culloden Moor in April 1746.
4. The One O’Clock Gun
You’ll still hear the sound of gunfire at the castle every day, except Sundays, Christmas Day and Good Friday. This is the One O’Clock gun which lets Edinburgers walking along Princes Street know the exact time. Originally this was not its purpose of course! From 1861 it was fired to act as a signal to the ships out on the Firth of Forth, letting them know the exact time. In an era when time pieces weren’t always accurate, it allowed ships to set theirs more precisely, so they could navigate across the seas.
It has been firing ever since, although not from the same location at the castle. From 1861 until 1971 it was on the Half Moon Battery, pointing east over the castle esplanade and towards the old town. Perhaps it made the nearby local inhabitants a little nervous to have it so close. After all guns had fired on the folk in the Old Town from this location before, but the last time was in 1745. In 1971 the One O’clock gun relocated to Mills Mount, which faces north over Princes Street Gardens. It’s been there ever since and is always popular with visitors to the castle. I was there to watch it fire at the beginning of this month and there have been new changes.
Find yourself a good spot to view the gun firing
Instead of crowding together for the best view, there are now white circles painted on the ground, showing you where to stand. All are carefully socially distanced from each other. Choose your circle in good time and you’ll be well placed to watch.
For a fantastic birds-eye view of the action, walk up to the Upper Ward of the castle. Stand at the railings in front of St Margaret’s Chapel beside the historic siege cannon called ‘Mons Meg’. You’ll need to get there early for the best position though. The photos above were taken from this location.
The gun that’s fired daily isn’t a historic military cannon, of the type you see lining the battlements. Rather it’s a more modern 105 mm field gun which, luckily for the citizens of Edinburgh, fires a blank at one o’clock.
I did hear a rumour that there was one instance in its history, many decades ago, when a live shell was used. It’s said to have landed in Princes Street Gardens but caused no injury. I’m still researching that particular Edinburgh urban myth!
The District Gunner is responsible for firing the gun and over the years there have been several. Some of them have been given nicknames such as ‘Tam the Gun’ and ‘Shannon the Cannon’. Currently it is Sergeant Dave Beveridge who continues the historic tradition of firing the gun.
5. The castle is built on a volcano
There can’t be many historic castles that can claim to be built on a volcano. However, Edinburgh Castle certainly can. Don’t worry if you’re expecting any explosions, because this volcano is extinct and hasn’t been active for several million years. As you walk around the castle, the dark volcanic rock that formed the plug of the volcano is easily spotted. There are outcrops, lumps and bumps of the igneous rock throughout the walled castle area. Rather amazingly this column of basalt rock goes down hundreds of metres into the earth. The crater would have originally been 1,000 metres above where the castle is situated now.
Castle Rock is not the only remains of a volcano in Edinburgh. Arthur’s Seat was once a volcano which erupted at the same time around 340 million years ago. Calton Hill was part of the same volcanic complex, separated by a fault line from Arthur’s Seat. That fault line runs directly under the Scottish Parliament building, so perhaps members should worry!
6. Underground Tunnels and Ghosts!
No self-respecting Scottish castle comes complete without hidden tunnels and resident ghosts. Edinburgh Castle is no exception. The difference with Edinburgh Castle is that they are still uncovering its underground surprises.
There have always been tales of several tunnels connected to the castle. In fact I personally know of one army officer, now retired, who was responsible for sealing one of these underground tunnels during his time at the castle.
However a local popular ghost tale tells of another tunnel. This one is said to lead from the castle under the Royal Mile to the Palace of Holyroodhouse. The legend states that when it was discovered it had such a small entrance, that a young piper was sent down to see where it led. He plays his bagpipes so those above can follow his route on the surface. As he walks onwards down the Royal Mile suddenly there is silence. Despite efforts to find him, he has vanished never to be seen again. The tunnel is said to have afterwards been sealed, but listen carefully as the sound of his pipes is still to be heard! On occasion it’s said that people can hear the faint sound of bagpipes coming from underground.
What lies below still comes as a surprise
In the late 1980s it was decided to build a new service tunnel into the castle for military, emergency and other vehicle traffic. Up until then all vehicles had driven through the main gates. However this wasn’t terribly practical, as the number of tourist visitors to the castle was growing. In order to create the new entrance, they had to go underground and blast through the rock itself.
Naturally being under one of Scotland’s most important and treasured historical attractions, meant they had to be particularly careful. Geological surveys were carried out and bore holes checked along the route of the tunnel. This led to archaeologists discovering exciting new finds from the past, which in turn dated the pre-historic inhabitants on the rock to a much earlier period. Instead of 600 AD, the earliest occupation on the rock was in fact 900 BC – 1500 years before the date previously thought!
A fireplace in an unusual location
If you are in the shuttle vehicle which takes you through the service tunnel into the castle, be ready for an unexpected feature on your journey. You’ll suddenly see a fireplace in the rock wall. This was originally in an underground room that the tunnel drives straight through. It’s definitely the tunnel’s most unusual feature and highlights the surprising things that lie beneath the castle.
7. The Oldest Building in Edinburgh
Within the patchwork of buildings which make up Edinburgh Castle, there is one that is the oldest. The small chapel in the upper ward is St Margaret’s Chapel and dates from around 1130. It’s not only the oldest building in the castle, but also in Edinburgh. In the photos above the chapel is the small building viewed through Foog’s Gate and to the left hand side of the larger photo.
The chapel was built by King David I in memory of his mother Queen Margaret who died in 1093. She was a devout Christian, known for her good works and piousness who would eventually be canonised as a saint around 1250. Out of reverence to this royal saint, it was the only building saved when King Robert the Bruce had the rest of the castle buildings demolished during the Wars of Independence in 1314. If you look at its walls you’ll see the evidence of siege damage with its burnt and blackened stonework. This little royal Romanesque chapel remains a rare survivor of this type of early architecture in Scotland.
In the 16th century, when the main royal residence moved to Holyrood, the chapel fell into disuse. It then became a gunpowder store and had a vaulted ceiling added, before being largely forgotten for the next 300 years. It wasn’t until 1845 that it was rediscovered and then restored.
What’s more, it’s still in use. It’s a quaint and atmospheric place for a christening or a wedding. As the tiny chapel only fits a maximum of 30 guests inside, it’ll be an intimate group too. However outside the chapel, you may find there are a few hundred extra witnesses to your celebration!
If your name is Margaret there’s a job here for you!
When you visit the simple stone chapel, you’ll see some lovely floral arrangements. The St Margaret’s Chapel Guild is responsible for not only the fresh flowers, but for encouraging the use of the chapel too. The Guild was set up in 1942 and follows in the charitable footsteps set by Queen Margaret whenever and wherever possible.
Less well known is that the ladies who provide and arrange the flowers in St Margaret’s Chapel every week of every year are all also named Margaret. It’s not a coincidence either. It’s an absolutely true fact that you can only do this work if your first or middle name is Margaret!
8. Mons Meg – one of the oldest bombards in Europe
Another grand lady called Meg stands just outside the entrance to St Margaret’s Chapel. This one is called Mons Meg and is one of the oldest surviving medieval siege cannons (bombard) in Europe dating from around 1449. She was built in Mons (modern Belgium) and was a wedding gift to James II and his wife Mary of Guelders in 1457. A rather unusual gift you might think! This was the cutting-edge weapon of mass destruction in its day. It weighs 6 tonnes, its barrel is 48cm wide and its stone cannon balls weigh 150kg (330 lbs). Its thought to be the largest gun ever fired in anger in Britain. The stone cannon balls are piled up beside it and when fired would have reached almost 2 miles in distance.
Mons Meg has had a varied and chequered history. She was originally used to blast and destroy castle walls, but became obsolete by the first half of the 1500s. Not surprisingly she was cumbersome and extremely slow and heavy to move around. Afterwards she found a new role firing impressive salutes to celebrate important national and royal occasions. It could be dangerous being within 2 miles of where she was fired though. In 1558, to celebrate the first wedding of Mary Queen of Scots, Mons Meg was fired. The cannon stone was later recovered in what is now the Royal Botanic Garden!
A lady who still attracts the crowds!
The last time Meg was fired was in 1681 to mark the birthday of the Duke of Albany, who would later become King James VII (of Scotland) and II (of England). Unfortunately the powerful gunpowder burst her barrel, and you can still see the damage on the cannon today. From then on she was dumped within the castle and lay neglected for years.
She was later taken to the Tower of London following the last Jacobite Uprising in the 18th century. There she remained until repeated campaigns to have such an iconic piece of Scottish heritage back in Scotland, were successful. In 1829 she finally arrived home to the castle where she’s been a popular attraction for visitors ever since.
9. Prisons, Prisoners and Daring Escapes
Many ancient castles have their dark dungeons. Beneath Crown Square at Edinburgh Castle lies a labyrinth of vaults, the earliest dating from the late 14th century. Over the centuries the two-tiered vaults have had a variety of uses from pit-prisons, storehouses, kitchens and bakery. But most well known is their use as a prison mainly during the 18th but also into the 19th century. This was a time of pirates, Jacobite rebels, and foreign wars. Many of those captured were brought to Edinburgh Castle and imprisoned here.
A group of 20 pirates were caught with a ship’s hold full of gold off the west coast of Scotland. They were brought to Edinburgh and imprisoned in the vaults in 1720. Following trial, the majority were hanged below the high water mark at Leith.
Britain was involved in many 18th and 19th century wars abroad and during this time the vaults were crammed with 1,000 captured prisoners many of whom stayed for years. The interiors of the vaults have been recreated to look as they would have done at in 1781 (although currently closed when I visited on 1st August). The captured prisoners of war could be of several different nationalities, French, Irish, Dutch, Spanish and American. The majority of them were sailors and the youngest, a little drummer boy, was only 5 years old when he was captured at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805 during the Napoleonic Wars with France.
As well as French captives, there were plenty of prisoners from the American War of Independence too. If you go into the vaults you’ll see the graffiti they carved on the wooden doors. One shows a depiction of a ship with an early American flag.
With harsh conditions and treatment of prisoners, as well as cramped accommodation, it’s little wonder that many tried to escape. Some were more successful than others.
Hiding in a dung cart might have seemed a particularly ingenious idea to one inmate. Who was going to check through a barrow-load of muck? Unfortunately for this poor prisoner, instead of disposing of the dung by taking it out through the castle gates, a quicker method was chosen. The dung cart was simply tipped out over the castle wall, its contents falling a few hundred feet down the rocky cliffs to the ground below. Sadly this included our unfortunate prisoner, who did not survive the experience.
A much more successful attempt was made in 1811. This was the biggest mass breakout in Scottish history and involved 49 men. At that time Dury’s Battery was the exercise yard for the prisoners and they managed over time to break through the wall by the stone steps in the corner. The hole is still there for visitors to see. All but one, who fell to his death, managed to make their way down the cliff face safely and escape. However, they were all eventually tracked down and recaptured shortly afterwards.
Women have also been held as prisoners at the castle. After the 1745 Jacobite Rising some of the women who played a role were taken here, including Jean Cameron of Glendessary, who had raised 250 soldiers to fight for Bonnie Prince Charlie. There was also Lady Jane Gordon, the Duchess of Gordon. Lady Margaret Ogilvy was another feisty Jacobite woman who managed to make her own escape as a prisoner at the castle, disguised as a maid who did the laundry. She later joined her husband Lord Ogilvy abroad.
The last prisoners were held more recently.
If you think that the prison vaults were only used during historic times, then you’ll be surprised to learn that it isn’t true. They have been used for more recent political prisoners too. In 1916 prominent socialist John MacLean was held and in 1917 David Kirkwood, a Glaswegian trade unionist, was also held without trial here. Later he would become a member of Parliament. During the Second World War German prisoners were inmates here too.
10. The Honours of Scotland and a large stone slab
Within the castle is the Crown Room (not open when I visited on 1st August). This is where the Honours of Scotland, the Scottish Crown Jewels, are kept securely. You might not feel that’s so unusual, but as well as the Royal Regalia you’ll see something that is definitely unique. Within the glass case alongside the royal crown, sceptre and sword, there is a large block of sandstone.
This stone is called the Stone of Scone or the Stone of Destiny. Traditionally it’s believed to have been the stone upon which ancient kings of Picts and Scots and later monarchs of Scotland have been crowned. Scone was the place of enthronement and the stone was said to have sacred powers. When Edward I invaded Scotland in 1296 he took the Stone of Destiny back to London with him. At Westminster Abbey he had it placed on a shelf under the seat of a new throne, the Coronation Chair.
Placed in the Coronation Chair, it was used in most of the following coronation ceremonies of the rulers of England and then from 1714 for all the Kings and Queens of Great Britain.
A daring theft!
On Christmas Eve 1950, four intrepid Scottish university students stole the stone from Westminster Abbey and in great secrecy brought it back to Scotland. Almost immediately an enormous countrywide search by police and the authorities took place. All without success. Finally the location was given to them and they found the stone at Arbroath Abbey, 109 days after it had been taken.
Over the centuries and more recent decades there had been repeated calls to have the Stone of Destiny brought back in Scotland. In 1996, 700 years after it was taken south, the Stone was returned and now remains in Edinburgh Castle. It’ll stay here until the next coronation in Westminster Abbey when it will travel south to be put in the Coronation Chair once again. Afterwards Scots will hope for its quick return North!
An incredible find within Edinburgh Castle
There can’t be many stories of Crown Jewels being stored away and forgotten for a century, but that’s exactly what happened in Edinburgh Castle.
In 1603 King James VI of Scotland also became king of England. James left Edinburgh and went south to London to live. Later in 1707 the Union of the Parliaments took place, meaning the Scottish Parliament was redundant. From that date onwards the Scottish Crown Jewels were no longer needed anymore, so they were wrapped up, locked in a chest and left in a room in the castle.
Over 100 years later, Sir Walter Scott asked permission from the king to find them again. In 1818 he did just that and they were exactly as they’d been left. It sounds a little like a real-life Sleeping Beauty fairytale!
A few last incredible facts about Edinburgh Castle
There are so many surprising and incredible facts about Edinburgh Castle that I could have chosen several more. I could have mentioned the Great Hall with its original wooden hammer beam ceiling, which dates back to 1511. The oldest of its kind in Edinburgh. Or perhaps I could have also mentioned ‘The Laird’s Lug’ (‘lug’ is Scots for ear). This was an ancient opening used for spying or listening within the Great Hall – a feature that the KGB asked to be blocked off when a proposed visit of Mikhail Gorbachev in 1984 was being arranged!
I could also have mentioned the castle pets. Edinburgh Castle has been used as a military base over the centuries and you’ll find the Dog Cemetery which honours the dogs kept as regimental mascots or soldiers’ pets. There were other mascots too though. One was a good deal bigger than most. It was an elephant, brought from Sri Lanka to the castle in 1838! He was named Jumbo and Private James McIntosh was given the task of looking after him. He would on occasion give Jumbo beer to drink through an open window. It sounds like Private McIntosh may have indulged too, as it’s said they both would then go to the stables together to have a nap to sleep it off!
After his death, Jumbo’s toenails were kept as a memento of his time at the castle. They’re now on display in the National War Museum. One of the more bizarre exhibits!
And finally…..death for dinner, an inspiration for Game of Thrones
The history and the sometimes awful deeds that took place within the castle over the centuries are legendary. Standing out amongst them is the infamous ‘Black Dinner’ which is said to have taken place in 1440. This was when the 16-year-old William 6th Earl of Douglas, and his younger brother were invited to dine with the 10-year-old King James II of Scotland.
The Clan Douglas was a powerful clan at the time with rich estates and mighty castles. This was seen as a threat to the king. Nobody knows exactly what happened at the dinner, but the outcome was brutal. Both William and his younger brother were taken and immediately executed. Legend, and an account written a hundred years later, say that during the dinner a platter was brought out with the head of a black bull on it. This was a signal and both brothers were seized by armed men. The king was crying, begging the Keeper of the Castle, Sir William Crichton to release them, but he was ignored. The young brothers were dragged out and beheaded.
William Crichton and possibly Sir Alexander Livingston, King James’ legal guardian were implicated in the deed. They would have been keen to curb the power of the Douglas Clan, but it was the Douglas brothers’ great uncle, James ‘The Gross’ Douglas, who actually had the most to gain. He gained the earldom of Douglas and then even more estates by marrying his son to the boys’ sister.
The Red Wedding
If the Black Dinner plot sounds a little familiar, then that’s because it inspired George R R Martin when writing his series of books ‘A Song of Ice and Fire’ which would become the well-known TV series ‘Game of Thrones’. The Black Dinner and the Glencoe Massacre of 1692 both inspired the author when creating what became known as the Red Wedding.
In an interview George R R Martin explained, “No matter how much I make up, there’s stuff in history that’s just as bad, or worse.”
So next time you visit Edinburgh Castle watch out for hidden tunnels, piping ghosts and perhaps it would be wise not to accept any dinner invitations there!