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The History of Edinburgh Castle in Scotland

I love traveling. In Europe, I enjoy historic cities and nature walks. I've visited Scotland, Ireland, and France, among other countries.

Edinburgh Castle atop its perch.

Edinburgh Castle atop its perch.

All About the Edinburgh Castle

Sitting at the end of the Royal Mile and overlooking the entire city, the Edinburgh Castle is the most iconic site in the city. In fact, it’s one of the most famous places in all of Scotland. It’s also one of the most interesting. The castle site has a rich history that dates all the way back to the second century, and today the castle hosts a wide range of exhibits and museums.

If you’re visiting Edinburgh, the castle should top your list of sites to see. Even if you don’t have the time to explore all of its exhibits, it’s worth taking a few minutes to appreciate the fortress and enjoy the view from its courtyard. Before you visit, however, you can learn about the castle’s fascinating history and what you can see there.

Early Settlement

The answer to “When was Edinburgh Castle built?” is complicated, as the site of the castle has been occupied for up to about 1,800 years, and the buildings there have evolved gradually over time. Edinburgh Castle has such a long history because of its advantageous position.

The castle site sits on a hill of volcanic rock that rises 80 meters above the surrounding land. The hill is surrounded by steep cliffs on the north, west, and south, leaving the east as the only accessible side. This makes the site ideal for defense.

Archaeologists and historians haven’t been able to determine the exact earliest date when the castle site was inhabited, but they do know that it was a long time ago. An archaeological study found evidence that the site was occupied by humans during the Bronze Age in the 1st and 2nd centuries AD.

There are also references in historical records to settlements in the area dating back to the 2nd century. Up until the 16th century, the castle was commonly called Maidens’ Caste, although the origins of the name are unclear. In the 7th century, the historical record suggests that there was a stronghold at the site of Edinburgh Castle. However, we do not know many details about what kind of settlement there was or what activities went on there.

Statue of Marshal Douglas Haig in Edinburgh Castle.

Statue of Marshal Douglas Haig in Edinburgh Castle.

War in the High Middle Ages

Beginning in the late 11th century, we have a much better picture of the history of Edinburgh Castle. Malcolm III, king of Scotland from 1058 to 1093, made the site a royal center, and his wife, Saint Margaret, was said to have died there. Malcolm and Margaret’s son, David I, had St Margaret’s Chapel, which still stands today, built in her honor. It was David I who had a square stone keep built on the hill, properly making the site a castle for the first time.

Throughout the 12th, 13th, and 14th centuries, Edinburgh Castle was often a focal point of conflicts between the Scottish and the English. In 1174, for instance, William the Lion was forced to surrender Edinburgh Castle to the English following his capture. In 1296, Edward I led an attack against Edinburgh Castle that forced its defenders to surrender the castle to the English. During the Wars of Scottish Independence (between 1296 and 1357), the castle changed hands between the Scottish and the English multiple times.

From the 14th Century Onward

By the end of the Wars of Scottish Independence, the castle had largely fallen into a state of disrepair. In the 1360s and 1370s, King David II undertook a project to rebuild the castle, including the famous David’s Tower (which no longer stands today).

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Another round of rebuilding began in the 16th century, as the Scottish worked to improve Edinburgh’s fortifications. Many of the remaining structures in Edinburgh Castle today date back to this period, in the late 16th and early 17th centuries. Over the next few centuries, the castle continued to play a central role in Scotland’s conflicts.

In 1650, Oliver Cromwell invaded Scotland and took hold of Edinburgh Castle. When Scotland and England were joined in the Acts of Union of 1707, the British Army took over the castle. During the Jacobite Risings, the Scots who supported James Stuart attempted to recapture Edinburgh Castle multiple times, but they were never successful.

After that, the castle’s primary purpose became to hold military prisoners. In 1814, the Scots decided that the castle was no longer a sufficiently secure prison, and the castle became a national monument. Over the 19th and 20th centuries, it was gradually restored and became a central location for military ceremonies and museums.

Edinburgh Castle on a sunny day.

Edinburgh Castle on a sunny day.

What You’ll See at Edinburgh Castle

Today, Edinburgh Castle is thoroughly restored, and you can see buildings from as early as the 12th century. There are also many museums and exhibits through which you can explore the history of the castle and of Scotland as a whole. The oldest building within the castle is St Margaret’s Chapel, which is built around 1130.

The Great Hall

One of the most impressive sites is the castle’s Great Hall, which was built for James IV in 1511. The hall served as the primary meeting place for state assembly within the castle, and it has been beautifully restored. Within the Royal Palace, you can visit the luxurious royal apartments.

The Crown Jewels

You can also see the crown jewels of Scotland, including the crown, scepter, and sword of state, which were carefully hidden from the English for years. You’ll also be able to see the Stone of Destiny, a famous stone said to be a Biblical relic that has been used in Scottish, English, and British coronation ceremonies for centuries.

Mons Meg

If you are interested in military history, you’ll have plenty to see at Edinburgh Castle. One of the military highlights is Mons Meg, a famous gun held at the castle since 1457. If you visit the castle at 1:00, you can hear the military guard shoot off a ceremonial gun, a tradition that has been going on since 1861.

Many Museums

There is also a lot to learn about Scottish military history in the castle’s museums. At the National War Museum and Regimental Museums, you can see exhibits on Scottish wars, the Royal Scots, and the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards. You can also pay your respects at the Scottish National War Memorial, which commemorates Scottish soldiers who have died in World War I, World War II, and other military campaigns since 1945.

The last thing you’ll want to do at Edinburgh Castle is take a moment to enjoy the view from the Half Moon Battery. This high wall towers over the city, offering impressive views of all of Edinburgh. With so much to see, make sure that you leave yourself ample time to explore the castle; you can easily spend at least half a day exploring all the sites and exhibits.

If you enjoy historic architecture and you should also visit Saint Giles' Cathedral in Edinburgh.

© 2021 Sam Shepards

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