Starting With a Castle…

If you follow me on Twitter, you may have noticed my love for—oh, let’s just be honest—enormous obsession with Scotland’s castles.

Edinburgh Castle and its curtain wall looming (as all good castles should) over its city upon Castle Rock.

These are the stone behemoths that dominate Scotland’s landscape (particularly in the Borders), looming above cities, countrysides, and seas. Kings, earls, and lords—Scottish and English alike—built these fortresses from the 11th to 16th centuries to defend, intimidate, and rule the country. And though most of Scotland’s castles are in various stages of ruin, or have been rebuilt well beyond their original master masons’ plans, they’re impressive.

One of the most impressive is one of the most famous: Edinburgh Castle. Established as a fortified residence in the Bronze Age and built up into a powerful castle in the early 12th century, Edinburgh Castle stands as a centerpiece in Scotland’s capital and the country’s history.

The gatehouse at Edinburgh Castle is one of the most iconic (and photographed) parts of this beauty.

Edinburgh Castle’s lurid past includes a history of successful sieges, despite its strong defensive structure (and don’t forget, in later years, the cannons), but also a few wonderfully dramatic retrievals. My favorite of retaking harks back to 1314, when a brave Scot named William Francis led the Earl of Moray and 30 men up the cliffs of Castle Rock (at left) to overpower the forces of English King Edward II. Edward’s dad, Edward I, also known as the Hammer of the Scots, had successfully invaded the castle before, and so it was his rule that was crumbling as the Earl of Moray’s small war-band took the castle back.

There was also just plain murder here, such as the time an advisor to young James II executed the 16-year-old heir to the powerful Black Douglas clan and his younger brother in the middle of a dinner with the ten-year-old king. (According to records of the time, James II begged for the lives of his two friends, but was ignored.) James II demoted said advisor when he was old enough to wield real power. (This was a king who had witnessed horrific violence very young, which might be one reason why he was so fond of the latest weaponry.)

James II received one of the most powerful weapons of the late medieval ages—Mons Meg, cannon of cannons—as a wedding present. Let’s just say I’m a wee bit jealous.

During the English Civil Wars, Edinburgh Castle lost its status as a residence for royals and was turned into barracks for Oliver Cromwell’s garrison, then, later, for the Jacobites’, and, in the 18th century, a prison as well. But a hundred years after that, Sir Walter Scott, with his hugely popular writings and ongoing promotion of Scottish history, inspired new interest in the castle. That new interest eventually translated to renovations, including ones in a “medieval” style that may not be accurate but have done much to define how people imagine the medieval world today.

The Lang Stairs by Argyle Tower show the two styles clearly: a 19th century tower on the right (designed as the top of Portcullis Gate by Edinburgh architect Hippolyte Blanc), and part of the old structure to the left. The only original building from the castle’s early days is St. Margaret’s Chapel, a modest structure built in 1130 that now overlooks Mons Meg.

This castle today is a popular tourist site, but also a major part of the city. You can see it from the Royal Botanic Gardens miles away, as well as over the rooftops from the terrace level of the National Museum of Scotland, and from many other spots in the Old Town. I admit: I am absolutely in love with this castle. During my last visit to Edinburgh, I visited three times (my Historic Scotland Environment membership made that easy). Edinburgh Castle and I are now old chums.

Robert the Bruce

A 20th century statue of Robert the Bruce, Scotland’s great warrior king (from 1306 to 1329), greets visitors from one side of a late 19th century gatehouse. As I was leaving from my final visit to the castle, I wished him goodbye—to the confusion of the tourists around me who didn’t quite know to whom I was speaking.

Many thanks to Edinburgh Castle and Historical Environment Scotland, which oversees and protects this and other important historical sites. Thanks also to the friendly staff at Edinburgh Castle and for the informative panels and excellent guidebook they put together, which broadened my knowledge and perspective of this, my favorite castle.


(Photos by Diane Magras and Michael Magras)

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