An Introduction to Edinburgh Castle
Seated atop an extinct volcano, right in the middle of the city, Edinburgh Castle is the capital’s most famous and significant landmark. The Defender of the Nation, and the seat of Scottish Royalty for a time, you can’t miss this on a trip to Edinburgh!
Why and when was Edinburgh Castle built?
The Castle, as well as Edinburgh as a whole, were built because of the land formation in the area. The city is structured around a crag and tail formation, created by an extinct volcano and a glacial ridge. The Castle was built on top of the crag, to serve as a defensive fortress for the city, in a secure location high above the surrounding land. The glacial ridge then became the Royal Mile, the city’s main high street and the only natural access route to the Castle, and the rest of Edinburgh grew outwards from there.
There is evidence of some sort of hill fort on Castle Rock since as early as 900BC, built by the early Celtic tribes who lived in the area. The present iteration of Edinburgh Castle has buildings from various time periods, though the majority are either from the 16th century, when it was rebuilt after the Lang Siege, or the 19th century, when it was repaired and altered during Queen Victoria’s reign. The oldest remaining building is St Margaret’s Chapel, a small church dating to the 12th century. It was built by King David I in memory of his mother, and is now the oldest building in all of Edinburgh.
What is the Castle famous for?
Edinburgh Castle’s primary function, and the very reason for its existence, is to operate as a military fortress, to defend the capital city from intruders. Known as the Defender of the Nation, it is famous for being the most besieged castle in all of Britain. Today, you can see all sorts of evidence of this function inside, from the dungeons which once housed prisoners of war, to the batteries and many cannons lining them. You can learn more about the Castle’s military history in the National War Museum, inside the old ordnance storehouse.
During the Wars of Independence, in the early 14th century, the Castle had fallen into English hands. Robert the Bruce sent men to reclaim the Castle, who did so by scaling Castle Rock – once you see how steep it is, you’ll understand how impressive this feat truly was! They successfully invaded the Castle, killed the English soldiers, and razed everything to the ground, except St Margaret’s Chapel. As you enter the Castle, the gate is flanked with statues of Bruce, and William Wallace, both famous freedom fighters during those wars.
In the 16th century, the Castle underwent the Lang Siege, following the forced abdication and imprisonment of Mary Queen of Scots. The Queen’s Men, who remained loyal to her, managed to sequester themselves in Edinburgh Castle. Men loyal to her infant son, James VI, accompanied by an English army, went to take the castle and capture the men – but it took them two long years to do so! Much of the Castle was damaged at this time, including the destruction of David’s Tower. This was a massive, 100ft tall tower from the 14th century; Half Moon Battery now stands in its former location.
The Castle hasn’t faced a siege in a long time now, but was used to hold prisoners during the 18th and 19th centuries, and is still manned by troops to this day. Every year it now plays host to the Royal Military Tattoo, held on the Esplanade in front of the Castle. Military bands and performers from all over the world come to take part in the event, held every evening in August.
Who has lived in the Castle?
Edinburgh Castle was used as a royal palace by the Scottish Monarchy for centuries. Many of the buildings around Crown Square played host to the royals and their guests. You can explore the Royal Apartments, which include the small room where Mary Queen of Scots gave birth to her son, who grew up to be King James VI of Scotland and I of England. Next door, you can visit the Great Hall, completed for King James IV in the early 16th century, where banquets and balls took place, and which still has its magnificent original oak hammerbeam roof.
The Castle is no longer used by the royals, but does still contain the Governor’s House, and barracks for the soldiers who continue to live and work here (these are both closed to visitors). When the Queen visits Edinburgh now, she stays in the Palace of Holyrood House, at the other end of the Royal Mile, which was built as a more luxurious residence than the cold, draughty fortress-like castle – yes, many guests had complained about that!
What else can you see inside Edinburgh Castle?
The Castle has many unique and interesting features to see inside its walls. Some of the most famous though, are the Honours of Scotland, the beautiful Crown Jewels. Alongside them is a large, unassuming stone, and yes, we know that sounds a bit odd at first: but it is in fact the Stone of Destiny, the country’s thousand-year-old coronation stone! These can be found in the tower in Crown Square, and are fascinating artefacts from Scotland’s history.
Also in Crown Square is the Scottish National War Memorial, opened in 1927. Inside, you’ll find the Rolls of Honour, listing the names of Scottish troops who fought in the two world wars, and other recent conflicts.
Amongst the numerous cannons situated on the batteries, look out for Mons Meg, the largest of all of them. It dates from the 15th century, and is no longer in use, but could fire 150kg stone cannonballs up to two miles! A cannon that is still used though, is the One O’Clock Gun, which fires a blank shot at, funnily enough, 1 o’clock every day (except Sundays), as a time signal for ships in the Firth of Forth.
And don’t miss the Dog Cemetery, a thoroughly unique feature which can be spotted by peering over the edge of the Argyle Battery. This little patch of ground is the final resting place of the dogs who served as mascots for the troops, or belonged to the castle governor.
How do I get to Edinburgh Castle?
The Castle is located at the very top of the Royal Mile – just keep walking uphill and you’ll find it! – in the heart of the Old Town of Edinburgh. You can take a bus to the nearby area, but most visitors will have to walk the final stretch up Castlehill, which is the only entrance route. Guests with mobility restrictions can use the disabled parking spaces on the Esplanade, or get a taxi to drop them off there.
How much are Edinburgh Castle tickets, and what are the opening hours?
You can find information on the Castle’s ticket prices here. Tickets can be bought online in advance, or in person when you arrive; we recommend the former option though, especially during busy times of year, to avoid long queues or it potentially selling out. Buying online gives you a discounted price, and you have to book for a specific time slot.
Opening hours vary depending on the time of year; the Castle always opens at 9.30am, but closes at 5pm in winter and 6pm in summer. Check here for the exact dates and most up to date timings. It’s important to note that the Castle occasionally has to close at short notice due to adverse weather conditions. Guests who have pre-booked their tickets will be able to change the date or get a refund in this case.
Orange Tours offers guided tours of Edinburgh Castle, led by our local expert guides. The price for this includes your entry ticket for the Castle, and the tour finishes inside so you can continue to explore at your leisure.
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