Edinburgh Castle is Scotland’s answer to the Tower of London. However, while the latter was rarely used as a primary royal residence, the heavily fortified Edinburgh Castle was the home of the Scottish monarchs for well over four centuries. Edinburgh Castle is the architectural centerpiece of Edinburgh, towering over the heart of the city in a way that no other castles in England, and in few others in Europe, can emulate. It has also seen much more violence than its English contemporaries, and yet for all of that is extraordinarily well preserved. Because its later additions were much smaller, Edinburgh Castle looks more like a true medieval castle than, say, Windsor or Warwick. Interestingly, it is not only Scotland’s most visited castle, it is still in active use as a military garrison by the British Army. Edinburgh Castle still keeps the country’s official time, with the famous daily firing of its one o’clock gun.
The strategic importance of the site where Edinburgh Castle now stands was evident even before the Romans showed up in the 1st century AD. There were primitive fortifications present at least as far back as their arrival. However, the Romans decided to pass on conquering Northern Scotland, and the hill town remained independent until the arrival of the Angles in the 7th century. The Angles held it for 380 years, until it was retaken by the Scots in 1018 AD. During their tenure, the castle and town were renamed Edinburgh, which stuck even after the Scottish reconquest.
The true citadel that became Edinburgh Castle was constructed by the Scots in the decades after they retook it. From then on it became the focal point of Scottish politics as well as the seat of royal power. It then spent two centuries caught in a tug of war between the Scots and the English, the latter trying to seize and hold it in an effort to consolidate their hold on Scotland. The castle was seized by England after a short siege in 1296, retaken by stealth by the Scots in 1314, with these events repeating themselves in 1335 and 1341. Under David II, the son of Robert the Bruce, Edinburgh was permanently restored to Scottish possession.
Edinburgh reached the height of its glory during the late 15th and early 16th centuries. This was the period of the Stuarts, the ruling family of Scotland, a few decades before their ascension to the unified throne of England and Scotland. James III and James IV of Scotland greatly expanded Edinburgh Castle, adding extensive buildings, halls and towers. As a royal residence Edinburgh Castle lost its preeminence to Holyroodhouse, a modern palace built at the other end of the Royal Mile during the 16th century. However, Edinburgh was still used by the royal family during periods of uncertainty. Edinburgh Castle was a central point of action in the war between the supporters of Mary, Queen of Scots and Elizabeth I of England.
After Elizabeth I, the English and Scottish crowns were united under James VI of Scotland, or James I of England, and Edinburgh Castle was restored to the Stuarts. This made it a point of contention once again during the Civil War, when it was seized in 1650 by the Parliamentary forces of Oliver Cromwell. Edinburgh’s history remained bloody during the Jacobite years, until it was finally seized and pacified in 1689 by the English under William and Mary. One of the castle’s stranger events took place a few years later in 1707, when Sir Walter Scott, taking a fancy to the castle, led an expedition to explore beneath it. There, in a chamber undisturbed for centuries, he discovered Scotland’s long-lost crown jewels.
While many castles of the British Isles occupy hill tops, few can match the exceptionally commanding position of Edinburgh Castle. Perched at the top of an ancient, dormant volcano, Edinburgh Castle is protected on three sides by sheer inaccessible cliffs, and on the fourth side by the city’s Old Town. Much of the current castle was built in the 14th century by the Bruce dynasty. However, the outer castle’s most prominent feature, the Half-Moon Battery, was constructed two centuries later on the site of the ruins of David’s Tower, once one of the largest and tallest in the world. Edinburgh Castle’s main gate opens directly onto the Royal Mile and then through Old Town. Inside the gate is the main courtyard, the Crown Square, which allows access to most of the interior buildings, including the Great Hall, Royal Apartments and the 12th century St. Margaret’s Chapel, now the oldest part of the castle.
Edinburgh Castle is also home to several museums, exhibits and memorials. In the Crown Room can be found, not surprisingly, the Crown Jewels of Scotland. Although not as extensive as those of its counterpart in the Tower of London, the pieces here are just as impressive and are of as just great antiquity. The main pieces include the state crown, sword and scepter. Also to be found here is the Stone of Scone, recently returned from centuries in captivity in Westminster Abbey. Other exhibits in Edinburgh Castle include the National War Museum of Scotland and the Scottish National War Memorial.
Edinburgh Castle stands within the city’s Old Town at the head of the Royal Mile. It is open to the public every day of the year except for December 25 & 26 and January 1 & 2. From April to October the Castle is open from 9:30am-6:00pm; and from November to March from 9:30am-5:00pm. Admission is L10.30 for adults and L4.50 for children (discounts for senior citizens; prices reduced during off-season). Web: www.edinburghcastle.gov.uk (official website)
At its height, England proper stretched as far north as the Edinburgh-Stirling-Glasgow frontier. Each of these cities was guarded by immense hilltop fortifications. The one in Glasgow is now gone, but Stirling Castle still remains. Also nearby are Caerlaverock Castle and Doune Castle.