One of Scotland’s most exciting historic sites is Edinburgh Castle, set in the heart of Scotland’s bustling capital city. Edinburgh Castle is undoubtedly one of the most famous attractions you can see while in Scotland, with over 1 million people visiting each year. Edinburgh Castle has dominated the Edinburgh skyline for centuries, from its beginnings in the 12th century til this very day. Any history buff or tourist visiting the streets of ‘Auld Reekie’ should place Edinburgh Castle at the top of their to-do list.
We’ve compiled a complete guide covering the rich history of Edinburgh Castle, how to get there, and the top attractions to watch.
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History of Edinburgh Castle
Before diving into the fascinating history of Edinburgh Castle, the rock it sits atop is also worth mentioning. Castle Rock is an ancient volcanic pipe formed during the time of during the age after the dinosaurs. The summit reaches over 130 metres, making it quite the climb for visitors.
But when Castle Rock was first inhabited is a question that has puzzled many historians. Excavations in the 1990s have uncovered that the site was probably inhabited during the Bronze and Iron Age, making it one of Scotland’s most extended continually occupied sites! Early 1st and 2nd century findings also show Roman pottery, brooches, and bronze, which historians think indicates a trade relationship with Romans during its occupation.
The Middle Ages brings the first official recording that refers to Castle Rock and Edinburgh Castle with the death of King Malcolm III. The King resided in Edinburgh Castle, and even during the late Middle Ages, the site was already being used as a royal palace and centre. Malcolm’s son, David I, would further develop Edinburgh Castle into the seat of royal power used by many of Scotland’s (and England’s) most famous monarchs.
David’s successor, Malcolm IV, would eventually surrender Edinburgh Castle to King William until the War of Scottish Independence.
War of Scottish Independence
After a century of English oversight, King Alexander III died in 1286, and the throne of Scotland stood unattended. Instead of helping adjudicate the competing claims for the throne, Edward I of England established himself as the lord of Scotland. While not his official seat of power, Edward I received homage from Scottish lords while he resided in Edinburgh Castle.
Likely quite confident in his position as feudal lord, Edward I would launch an invasion of Scotland 10 years later and begin the first War of Scottish Independence. From 1296 until 1341, Edinburgh Castle would change hands between Scotland and Edinburgh, a consistent battle for territory where the palace was a consistent piece to be won for its symbolism and fortified position. Famous Scottish figures like Robert the Bruce, Edward III, William Douglas, and Thomas Randolph etched their deeds into the stones of Edinburgh Castle and history during these prominent moments of Scotland’s story.
Treaty of Berwick & David’s Tower
Once the Treaty of Berwick was signed in 1357, Edinburgh Castle had a brief respite from the sieges and subterfuge that assailed it for nearly 50 years. David II resumed his seat at the Castle and began rebuilding it as a seat of power. The prominent David’s Tower construction started in 1367 and was completed by Robert II in the 1370s. The tower once stood where the Half Moon Battery currently stands and was a prominent feature of the curtain wall and portcullis gate.
Unfortunately, Edinburgh Castle couldn’t savour the piece for very long as Henry IV of England would begin another invasion during the 15th century. Although their siege of Edinburgh Castle was unsuccessful, Scotland would have its infighting when Sir William Crichton sought to break free of the Douglas family and executed two of their sons at Edinburgh Castle during the infamous ‘Black Dinner’. In retaliation, the Douglas family besieged the Castle and severely damaged it.
Then, in 1479, James III imprisoned the Duke of Albony for plotting revenge against them in David’s Tower. The Duke got his guards drunk, escaped to England and allied himself with Edward IV to trap James III in a siege on Edinburgh Castle. James III settled a negotiation after two months, a lucky break considering the incredible events that led him to such a chaotic situation.
Throughout the 15th century, Edinburgh Castle became increasingly fortified and armed with guns and cannons, with the Great Mons Meg bombard being introduced to the Castle in 1457. It was also around this time that James IV began to focus on the Palace of Holyrood, which would later become the principal residence of the Scottish Royal Family. James IV did, however, build the Castle’s Great Hall before moving from the estate.
In 1542, the Scottish crown passed over to the famed Mary, Queen of Scots; an English invasion quickly followed her and Edinburgh was burnt to the ground in 1544. When Mary returned from France amidst Edinburgh Castle and the city in 1561, she began her tenuous rule with many unpopular decisions. Mary, Queen of Scots, wasn’t beloved by many during her time and eventually had to flee Scotland to England. Her son, James VI, would rule in her stead.
At the time, James VI was an infant, so William Kirkcaldy of Grange became the Keeper of the Castle. As Scotland continued to be thrown into disarray, civil war began to grow in power, and Grange eventually was influenced to switch sides from the Regent to England. This eventually led to what would be known later as the ‘Land Siege’, a two-year-long siege that ended with England’s Elizabeth I sending negotiators to quell William of Grange and surrender the Castle to the King.
However, when the truce ended, Grange met the town of Edinburgh with bombarding attacks. In retaliation, the city was attacked by Sir William Drury, who destroyed much of Edinburgh Castle, including David’s Tower, much of the south wall, and many more. The 3,000 shots connected with the Castle led to some of the heaviest damage that Scottish castles have ever taken. Despite Grange wanting to continue, his forces threatened to mutiny, so he gave it up and was executed.
After this, much of Edinburgh Castle was rebuilt by Regent Morton but remained in its battered and unused state as James VI left Edinburgh Castle to become the King of Scotland. Royals tended to prefer staying at the nearby Holyrood Palace from this point in time, with Charles I (James’ successor) being the final royal resident within Edinburgh Castle.
Soon after Charles I attempted to enforce an episcopal hierarchy on the Scottish Church, a civil war broke out, leading to Edinburgh Castle being sieged numerous times by the Covenanters. However, once Charles II was restored in 1660, Edinburgh Castle became fully garrisoned and transformed into a fortress.
Even with a garrison at Edinburgh Castle, it was nearly taken in the first Jacobite-rising. While it was an unsuccessful attempt, the castle hill was far more deteriorated than before. So, the Castle’s fortifications were significantly strengthened to rebuke attackers. Here, most defences were added to the Castle, including Argyll Battery, Mills Mount Battery, Low Defences, and Western Defences.
These fortifications were effective, and when the second Jacobite rising arrived in Edinburgh in 1745, they managed to take the city but not the Castle and its garrison. The Jacobites left Edinburgh due to the constant bombardment from Edinburgh Castle only 2 months after capturing the city.
To the Modern Day
For a time, Edinburgh Castle was used as a prison to house prisoners of war, but the Castle was eventually deemed unfit after several prisoners broke out of the Castle. Slowly, Edinburgh Castle became known to be Edinburgh’s world heritage site and the national monument you can visit today.
Then, in 1818, Edinburgh Castle became the centre of attention again when Sir Walter Scott found the Honours of Scotland in a secret sealed room – returning the Honours of Scotland to their rightful place after 104 years of absence. Following that, King George IV visited Edinburgh Castle – the first since Charles II in 1651 – and Mons Meg was reunited with its Castle shortly after.
During the First and Second World Wars, Edinburgh Castle was used as a prison once more and even kept notable pilot David Kirkwood and a few German Luftwaffe pilots. Finally, today, Edinburgh is a prominent tourist attraction and World Heritage Site that dominates the skyline of Edinburgh’s Old and New Towns. Historic Environment Scotland manages it and is open to the public.
Experience Edinburgh Castle on your next trip to Scotland’s capital city – it’s an experience you will remember!
How to Get There & Details to Know
Edinburgh Castle sits right in the centre of Edinburgh. Those already exploring the town during their vacation only have to walk a short distance to begin their ascend to Castle Rock and reach Edinburgh Castle.
The Castle is open throughout the year, with varied opening times depending on the season. If you plan to come during the busy summer months, the Castle is open from 09:00 – 18:00. As the year passes and the weather colder, the opening times decrease and are available from 10:00 – 16:00.
You can purchase tickets online or on-site, which cost £19.50 per adult and £11.40 per child, with various family tickets. The prices may be slightly different depending on when you visit.
There are various public transport options in the city that can take you directly to Edinburgh Castle, and a car park if you’re planning to drive here.
Attractions at Edinburgh Castle
The mighty Edinburgh Castle on Castle Rock is an irresistible attraction for many in the bustling capital. If you plan to tackle this world-famous icon during your next vacation, ensure that you have these attractions at Edinburgh Castle pinned to the top of your to-do list.
Visit the National War Museum
We’ve covered much of Edinburgh’s history, but nothing beats seeing it up close and in person at Edinburgh’s National War Museum. This sublime museum is located in the heart of Edinburgh Castle and lets guests experience 400 years of conflict and history through a vast collection of military artefacts, artworks, and more.
The National War Museum covers how Scotland was built through war and hardship, with the following exhibits to look out for:
Scottish National War Memorial
While not within the National War Museum, the Scottish National War Memorial is a beautiful and sad reminder of the lives lost throughout the Scottish regiments that fought for freedom. Hundreds of books in the War Memorial contain soldiers’ names, positions, and regiments.
The Memorial is one of the most provoking parts of the Castle and is considered by visitors to be the highest point of the tour. Take advantage of the dignified Scottish National War Memorial on your visit to Edinburgh Castle – you won’t want to miss it.
Grand Life of a Scotsman
The Scottish people have been part of many wars throughout Britain and Western Europe. Famous regiments like the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards, the Black Watch, and Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders are well-known worldwide, and the Grand Life of a Scotsman exhibit explores the lives of the Scottish army.
You can learn about Scottish military life, from recruitment to retirement. Some posters show what potential would see encouraging them to join the Scottish army, uniforms and weapons, and the personal letters and small possessions that homesick soldiers would send to their friends, family, and loved ones.
Don’t forget to also say hi to Bob the Dog – the most critical member of the 1st battalion of Scots Fusilier Guards.
Scotland Through Time Exhibits
The National War Museum has fantastic exhibits that take you through many of Scotland’s most prominent conflicts and moments. As you see it today, Scotland was built on the back of war, and you can enjoy the highlight reel when exploring the many fascinating and informative displays at the National War Museum.
Some of the highlights you can look forward to are the World War One exhibits, the Thin Red Line Exhibit, and the Waterloo Exhibit, as well as the vast collection of period piece uniforms, weaponry, and items that have seen the battlefield. There’s truly no better way to immerse yourself in the rich history of Edinburgh Castle than a visit to this stellar museum.
Best of all, the National War Museum is free to enter and comes as part of the ticket you purchase to enter Edinburgh Castle at the ticket office or pre-book online.
Explore Edinburgh Castle
Edinburgh Castle is maintained by Historic Scotland, which has done an excellent job of creating a fantastic visitor experience for you to enjoy. This is no more evident than exploring Edinburgh Castle’s interior and exterior.
You can take one of the guided tours with the ticket price or opt to wander and find your way through Edinburgh Castle. Or, if you want to be informed but want something other than a guided tour, you can choose to use one of the audio guides instead.
While you explore, ensure you stop by these hot spots:
The Great Hall
The massive Great Hall was created for James IV to entertain their guests and hold royal appointments. Its wooden roof is said to have been one of the most superb in Britain, with giant beams that rest and hold symbols of thistle.
When you enter the Great Hall, imagining the decadent feasts and banquets within is easy. The Castle houses many beautiful rooms that celebrate its complex building history. But none as grand as Edinburgh Castle’s Great Hall.
St Margaret’s Chapel
St Margaret’s Chapel was once reserved for the exclusive use of the Royal Family as a place of worship and where monarchs would be traditionally crowned. Today, visitors to Edinburgh Castle can see this secreted sanctified area of the Castle.
St Margaret’s Chapel was built by David I and named after Queen Margaret, a figure known for her enormous acts of charity. When not used as a chapel for private prayer, St Margaret’s Chapel was a storeroom for gunpowder in the 1500s.
Half Moon Battery
The Half Moon Battery was crucial to ensuring that Edinburgh Castle remained uncaptured throughout its history. The seven sisters, the bronze cannons built in 1500, rained heavy cannon fire onto assaulters who aimed to secure Edinburgh Castle.
The cannons in Edinburgh Castle today are not the original bronze but from the Napoleonic War of 1810. Unfortunately, the centrepoint that the Half Moon Battery defended, David’s Tower, fell during the Land Siege of 1573 – 1573. The Half Moon Battery is one of the most exciting parts of the Castle, which used to defend the oldest building that used to sit there.
Enjoy Edinburgh’s Old and New Towns
Scotland’s dynamic capital city is filled with things to do, and Edinburgh Castle is only the tip of the iceberg regarding attractions. The Royal Mile is a historic attraction leading up to Edinburgh Castle with shops, restaurants, and souvenirs to bring back home with you.
Edinburgh also has a yearly calendar filled with unique festivals and events, and it’s likely that whatever time of year you go, something will happen, including Edinburgh’s Hogmanay, the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo, and the Edinburgh Book Festival.
And in addition to Edinburgh’s Old and New Towns, there is also the Palace of Holyrood – the defacto royal palace that monarchs preferred.
Stop by Mons Meg
When it was created, Edinburgh Castle’s stalwart companion, Mons Meg, was the height of warfare technology. This astounding six-tonne siege gun could fire 150kg over three kilometres! And while it was used in war and celebration, Mons Meg’s barrel finally burst in 1681.
The mighty weapon was brought to Castle Rock in 1829 and now sits outside Margaret’s Chapel. Grab a picture with Mons Meg; its impressive size will daunt you.
Appreciate the Honours of Scotland & Stone of Destiny
Within Edinburgh Castle sits the oldest crown jewels in Britain, the Honours of Scotland and the Stone of Destiny. The crown is comprised of beautiful gems, gold and silver metal, and the accompanying sword and sceptre.
The Honours of Scotland sit in the crown room, but it took quite the journey to reach here. They were hidden from Oliver Cromwell in Stirling Castle, sealed away when England and Scotland agreed to the Act of Union, and rediscovered by Sir Walter Scott.
But along with the Honours of Scotland, the Stone of Destiny was just as crucial to the Scottish Royals – newly crowned monarchs would be inaugurated using the Stone of Destiny and is considered one of the crown room’s most treasured possessions.
Most curious of all, the origins of the Stone of Destiny are unknown.
Take in Magnificent Views of Edinburgh
Edinburgh’s Castle sits on Castle Rock, towers above Edinburgh city and grants beautiful views over the rooftops and roads that make up New and Old Town. From the Castle’s buildings and the Half Moon Battery, you can see from Leith to Edinburgh Airport.
Edinburgh Castle’s views are the best you can savour while in Edinburgh. Take advantage of the opportunity to take some time from your tour through the Castle to enjoy the breathtaking scenery.
Hear the One o’Clock Gun
An aspect of Edinburgh Castle that we have yet to speak about is the One o’clock gun, which was used extensively from 1861 until now. If you’re lucky enough to visit Edinburgh Castle near midday, you may hear Mills Mount Battery’s iconic one o’clock gun firing.
The sound is sharp and intense and sure to surprise you if you’re walking on Prince Street below Edinburgh Castle. And while it was initially used for maritime clocks to be set each day, it’s a ceremonial spectacle that draws an anticipatory crowd each day to Edinburgh Castle.
Suppose you can, save some time and keep an ear out for the One o’clock Gun on your next visit to Edinburgh Castle. The Gun doesn’t fire on special holidays, including Christmas, Good Friday, and Easter Sunday.