Craigmillar Castle: History Imagined

One of the most popular aspects of Scottish history by visitors and residents alike are the many castles and castle ruins that can be found throughout this incredible country. Therefore, we are excited for this week’s post, as it is the first in an on-going series of articles devoted to castles.

First on the list is Craigmillar Castle. According to Historic Environment Scotland, the Castle’s history started in the early 15th century. It was the residence of the Prestons, a prominent Edinburgh family, for 250 years. In 1660 it was purchased by Sir John Gilmour whose family inhabited it until the 1700s when they eventually decided to leave the Castle and look for a more modern residence.

History Imagined

Craigmillar Castle is one of the most perfectly preserved medieval castles in Scotland. It is located on the outskirts of Edinburgh and is easily accessible from the city centre via bus. The grounds surrounding it make it easy to envision it during its heyday. Ancient trees line the perimeter and inhabit the sweeping fields that surround the Castle. It’s not hard to appreciate why it has been a filming location for various productions- including the recent Netflix film, Outlaw King.

The impressive stone structure looms menacingly as soon as you walk through the entrance gate into the outer courtyard; the towers in each corner are in incredibly good condition. There is history everywhere you look- even the current location for the public toilets! On that site in 1687, there was a Presbyterian kirk for the residents of Liberton (which ties in interestingly with last week’s post).

Walking into the inner courtyard is a magical experience. The old, gnarled trees look perfect for climbing. This courtyard was used in the filming of Outlaw King and is probably one of my favourite locations to sit down on the well-placed bench and take in the tranquil, historical setting.

Castle Exploration

There are so many nooks and crannies to explore at Craigmillar Castle, and this becomes evident soon after you start exploring. The layout can be quite confusing as many additions and changes were made over the centuries. However, sometimes the best thing to do is to just set out on an ‘explore and discover’ mission and that is what we decided to do on this day.

We entered a doorway leading into the East range and were pleasantly surprised to see some historical-looking games set up for children. The day we visited was part of the school holidays, so they had set up some fun games for visiting children including Skittles (learn more about this historical 10-pin bowling game from our Sheep Heid Inn article).

Heading down the stairs, we eventually came upon the castle prison. You must crawl into the prison as the door is quite stooped. I can’t imagine the horrors of being confined in such a small space with the privy on the wall and only a small stream of light coming in the window to give any sense of day or night. I was happy to leave the prison and continue my exploration in a less constricting area.

We made our way up winding staircases and found our way into the Tower House. This is in the heart of the castle and would have been where the laird and his family stayed. One of the most interesting rooms located there is the Laird’s (or Lord’s) Hall. This is the main room in the Tower House and the place where the laird dined and entertained.

The informational plaques on the wall help one to imagine what the grand space would have looked like in the 1400s. Therefore, when you look at the picture below, try to envision how much colour would have been placed throughout the room in the form of ‘finely woven linen table-cloths’ on long tables, tapestries on the walls, and ‘a painted timber ceiling overhead’. The large fireplace would have been where the laird and his family sat in order to keep warm.

Mary Stayed Here

One of the most famous visitors to have walked among the haunting stones of Craigmillar Castle is Mary, Queen of Scots. As I’ve stated before, there are many locations around Scotland that can lay claim to the fact that Mary visited or stayed there. In fact, you can read about her time at The Palace of Holyroodhouse which provides some context for the next bit of historical trivia discussed below.

According to the information provided on the visitor boards, Mary must have stayed at the Castle many times. However, they only have surviving records of two of her stays. One of them being in November 1566 when she went to Craigmillar Castle to recover. As discussed in our Holyroodhouse article, just several months earlier in March, Mary (heavily pregnant at the time) endured the traumatising event of watching her personal secretary, David Rizzio, being murdered right in front of her by her husband, Lord Darnley, and his co-conspirators. She gave birth three months later in June, and by the time she visited Craigmillar in November, she was suffering from depression.

According to the Castle history board, Lord Darnley was “out of control” and Mary couldn’t agree with her supporters as to what to do about it. Therefore, seeing how grave the situation was, her supporters decided to take matters into their own hands, and made a pact to kill Darnley. It is known as the ‘Craigmillar Bond’ as they met and signed the document at the Castle. A few months later, Darnley’s house was blown up and his body was found nearby- he had been strangled to death.

A Breath of Fresh Air

After such heavy and sad history, we move up and out onto the battlements for a breath of fresh air. When visiting Craigmillar Castle, make sure to take the time to climb up to the Tower House battlements so that you can take in the spectacular sites of Edinburgh and surrounding areas. From this vantage point, you can see numerous famous places including Arthur's Seat as well as Edinburgh Castle. We were fortunate that the day we visited was filled with sunshine and barely any clouds in sight.

If you want to visit Craigmillar Castle, check out their website for more information. And, if you want to learn more about the heart of Edinburgh, join Sami and our Golden Retriever tour guide, Sawyer, on one of our Wee Golden Walks.

Until next time- Explore & Discover!

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