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Edinburgh Castle: Macabre Tales, Mayhem, and Pirates!

There’s something about the autumn weather in Edinburgh that really sets the mood for Halloween. The orange, red, and yellow coloured leaves try to cling to their trees, while the rest blanket the ground. Adding to the Halloween feel is Edinburgh Castle looming high at the top of the Royal Mile. Listen carefully…do you hear the whispers through the wind? It’s the ghosts of the Castle beckoning us to come and explore.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that Edinburgh Castle is thought to be one of the most haunted places in all of Scotland. Its history is long and storied, and much drama has unfolded behind it’s stone walls. In this post, we will explore some of the Castle’s captivating histories and locations (some believed to be haunted and others more gruesome). We’ll look at a few of the more notorious inhabitants- including murdered rivals, soldiers, pirates, and a lost piper. So, light a candle, and join me now as I take you on a virtual tour of Edinburgh Castle.

Fight for the Castle

I visit the Castle often making sure to make good use out of my Historic Scotland membership. However, with Halloween fast approaching, Sami and I decided to visit with the purpose of highlighting places and histories that are in keeping with the Halloween spirit- tales that are a little gruesome, spooky, or even ghostly. On this visit, we were thrilled to stumble upon a relatively new exhibition, Fight for the Castle. It is located in the Argyle Tower with its entrance halfway up the Lang stairs between the middle and upper wards.

When I entered through the rather innocuous doorway, the room was quite dark, and it took my eyes a minute to adjust to the surroundings. I was surprised to eventually see a full-size, recreated stone-throwing trebuchet as well as medieval objects found from within the Castle on display. As I said earlier, there is quite an incredible amount of history that has happened over the centuries at Edinburgh Castle, and this new exhibition provides a quick but useful overview. Historic Scotland has done a wonderful job of immersing visitors into the history using animation and interactive projections.

The animated displays outline the historical period of Edinburgh Castle from 1286-1356 known as the Wars of Independence. It illustrates how the Castle has changed hands over the years going from the Scots, to the English, and eventually back to the Scots thanks to some clever ‘special operations’. According to the exhibition, in 1341, Scottish soldiers ‘bluffed’ their way into the Castle by dressing in disguise. They were successful and King David II returned to Edinburgh Castle and went about rebuilding the Castle for his royal residence.

Royal Residence or Haunted Home?

Speaking of royal residency, Edinburgh Castle has been home to various Scottish monarchs throughout the centuries. Some of the most famous include Queen Margaret who died at the Castle in 1093. Around 1130, her son, King David I, built a chapel in her honour and it is still standing. In fact, it is the oldest building in all of Edinburgh. We stopped into the chapel and paid our respects to Queen Margaret who is now a saint. The hauntingly beautiful colours of her stained-glass window as well as the others seemed as if their images were trying to break free from the glass and move on. We didn’t stay to find out if they were successful.

One of the more gruesome tales of Edinburgh Castle brings us back to 1440 when James II was King of Scotland. He was only 10 years old at the time, so real power was held by others including Sir William Crichton, the Keep of the Castle. Within Scotland at this time, the Douglas clan were also very powerful. The legend goes that one evening, William, 6th Earl of Douglas, and his 10-year-old brother were invited to Edinburgh Castle to dine with the young King James. According to Historic Scotland, if the legend is true, they most likely would have dined in David’s Tower (a tower that no longer exists). At one point during the dinner, the head of a bull was brought out and placed before the Earl of Douglas. This was an ominous symbol of death, and the signal to kill the brothers. Despite the cries and pleading from King James to stop, the boys were dragged out of the Castle, brought to Castle Hill, and beheaded.

One of the more tormented souls to stay at Edinburgh Castle was Mary, Queen of Scots. In 1566, after the horrific murder of her personal secretary, David Rizzio (he was stabbed 56 times!), at the Palace of Holyroodhouse, Mary went to the Castle to take refuge. Shortly thereafter, she gave birth to her son, James VI.

As many know, Mary was eventually killed by her cousin, Queen Elizabeth I, after being held captive for almost twenty years. Is it possible that Mary’s spirit returns to the Castle seeking refuge once again? Perhaps she roams the Royal Apartments looking for her child that was taken from her? Nevertheless, she is sure to be a tortured soul after the horrors she faced during her lifetime.

‘Witches’, Torture, & Mayhem

All our Edinburgh walking tours start at the Witches’ Well which is located right near the Castle Esplanade. This spot might seem like a harmless place, but the history surrounding it is filled with tales of terror and torture. According to Historic Scotland, “as many as 300 people, mostly women, burned at the stake for witchcraft” at Edinburgh Castle. Walking around the Castle Esplanade it is difficult to imagine that it was once the site of horrific torture and death. Could these tragic deaths and miscarriages of justice explain some of the ghost sightings and strange occurrences around the Castle? To find out more about the history of the witches and Edinburgh Castle make sure to book one of our Edinburgh walking tours.

Soldiers, Pirates, & a Lost Piper

In addition to a royal residence, and execution location, Edinburgh Castle also served as a prison. From the mid-1700s to the early 1800s soldiers were imprisoned there. Therefore, if you’re looking for a place that captures that spooky feeling at Edinburgh Castle, then be sure to head down into the Prisons of War exhibition. On this particular day, there were not a lot of visitors and there was an eerie stillness that filled the prison rooms. Within the ‘cavernous stone vaults’ were soldiers from various countries including France, Spain, Ireland, and the United States. Historic Scotland has done a very good job at recreating the conditions at the time. There are hammocks set up among the sparse conditions which would have been grim. Look closely at the pictures below. What are those shadows on the wall? Perhaps they are the ghosts of the soldiers who can’t seem to leave the confines of the Castle.

However, did you also know that over 20 pirates of the Caribbean were also imprisoned at Edinburgh Castle?! I tell ye the truth matey- a history that practically writes the movie for itself. So be on the lookout for any strange happenings…it looks like two pirates must have escaped based on the picture below!

For our last story, we travel back many, many years ago. The legend goes that one day, they found tunnels that went out from the Castle, but they did not know where they went. In order to see where they led, they sent a piper into the tunnels and had him play his bagpipes. Others followed his piping above ground until, about halfway down the Royal Mile, the music eventually stopped. They went to look for the piper but could not find him and he was never heard from again. People have claimed that sometimes- especially in the wee hours of the morning- if you listen very carefully you can hear the bagpipes being played from under foot.

With all of these chilling and grim tales in mind, it isn’t difficult to imagine that such fighting, death, and turbulent history might lead to a few ghosts roaming around Edinburgh Castle.

If you like these tales of a haunted and macabre nature, then make sure to book one of our Wee Golden Walks. Our Edinburgh walking tours provide plenty of thrilling tales of murder, mayhem, witches, and warlocks- they are sure to entertain young and old.

Until next time- Explore & Discover!

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