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Edinburgh Castle: History, Traditions, and Pageantry

When looking over our picturesque city landscape, Edinburgh Castle easily takes center stage and dominates the skyline. Amazingly, we have only briefly touched upon Edinburgh Castle previously on this blog (we’ll provide some of those connections throughout this article). An integral part of Edinburgh for centuries, we thought it would be fun to kick off 2021 with a bang by bringing you on a virtual tour around the iconic fortress. Therefore, let's head out on an a rather ambitious 'explore and discover' mission.

Location, Location, Location!

There are many places to explore and discover at Edinburgh Castle and the best way to do this is in-person. Therefore, a Castle visit is a must for anyone visiting Edinburgh. In the meantime, on this virtual journey, we will just feature some highlights of the Castle complex. I say ‘complex’ because Edinburgh Castle is made up of many buildings scattered throughout the grounds. Therefore, it isn’t a large, singular building as many might assume when they hear the word castle.

However, the history of the location stretches back centuries before a castle was built. According to Historic Scotland, “habitation can be traced back at least 3,000 years to the Bronze Age”. In the first centuries, locals took advantage of the strategic location and built a hill fort here. Of note is the archaeological evidence that demonstrates how they traded with the Romans.

Artist's illustration on display at Edinburgh Castle

Medieval Defenses

We know that by 1093 there was a royal castle on Castle Rock as Queen Margaret died there. In 1130, a chapel was built in her honour by her son David I who ensured Edinburgh Castle became a proper royal fortress during his reign. The chapel still stands and is the oldest building in Edinburgh. Historians believe that the chapel was most likely part of a tower- St Margaret’s Tower. Historic Scotland describes it as a “Norman-style keep…a fortified residential tower, built from stone which served as the royal lodgings until the 1200s”.

Additional towers were eventually built around the Castle walls and “acted as a defensive system”. Unfortunately, most of them were later destroyed during the Lang Siege which I will return to in just a bit.

Renaissance Revival

Starting in the 1400s, it was the royal Stewart (aka Stuart) family, who helped to create a more cohesive space at Edinburgh Castle that was inspired by continental European courts. Crown Square (and its surrounding buildings) is one of my favourite locations on the Castle grounds. It was originally called the ‘Palace Yard’, and James III began the process of creating a Renaissance Palace here. According to Historic Scotland, his son, James IV, “regularised the arrangement of the buildings around the Palace Yard, like an Italian Renaissance plaza”.

James IV further expanded on his father’s work, most notably with the Great Hall which was completed in 1512.When you walk into the impressive hall, the eye is immediately drawn up to the hammerbeam roof. Historic Scotland points out that, “scientific analysis has show that the oak timbers were felled in Norway around 1510, and then shipped to Edinburgh. The stone corbels supporting the main trusses are carved with Renaissance symbols, the oldest surviving in Britain”.

Unfortunately, James IV did not have much time to enjoy his Great Hall; he had one grand banquet there about a year after its completion. However, he died a few months later while fighting Henry VIII's army on the battlefield at Flodden. Another famous royal Stuart (she changed the spelling), Mary Queen of Scots dined in the Great Hall on 2 September 1561 upon her return from France. According to Historic Scotland, Mary and her entourage dined there before she made her grand procession from the Castle down the Royal Mile to her residence at the Palace of Holyroodhouse.

The Great Hall’s history from the 1600s on is quite interesting as it went through many changes over the years including serving as a barracks and a hospital. What is particularly fascinating is that the current medieval look (except the roof) dates to renovations during the Victoria era. The grand painting above the wooden entrance screen and panelling is of Ensign Ewart.

As we continue our tour of the Royal Palace in Crown Square, there are reminders everywhere of the significant role the Stewart/Stuart family had in the Castle history. One poignant engraving on the exterior wall is in memory of the mother of Mary Queen of Scots, Marie de Guise, who sadly died at Edinburgh Castle in 1560.

As mentioned above, Mary Queen of Scots returned to Edinburgh in 1561. This was due to the passing of her husband, François II of France. Additionally, Mary had to formally begin her reign in Scotland as her mother had also passed (Marie had been her regent and you can read more about that here).

Initially Mary’s royal residence was at the Palace of Holyroodhouse. However, she famously took refuge at Edinburgh Castle after the murder of her Italian secretary, David Rizzio. Heavily pregnant, Mary fled to the Castle and eventually gave birth there to her son, James VI.

Edinburgh Castle and the Fight for Mary Queen of Scots

As we’ve discussed previously on this blog, James VI was taken from his mother, and was never to see her again. Mary was forced to abdicate to her son whose early reign was tenuous and run by the Protestant Lords who vigorously opposed her. A particularly heartbreaking aspect of James' childhood was that he was taught to hate his mother. However, we’ll save more of that story for another time. Ultimately, Mary sought refuge from her cousin, Elizabeth I, in England who instead imprisoned and later executed her.

However, Mary had loyal supporters who hoped that she would be able to regain her position and decided to defend and try to hold on to Edinburgh Castle for her. The resulting fight, known as the Lang Siege, last from June 1571 to May 1573.

It was a bitter battle between those who vigorously fought for Mary and those who didn’t want to lose the power they had taken from her. Eventually, Mary’s opposition requested assistance from Elizabeth I. Elizabeth sent some of her English army who opened fired on Edinburgh Castle and set about destroying key parts of the Castle including David’s Tower (read our Macabre Tales post for one of Edinburgh Castle’s more tragic stories that took place in David’s Tower). The English army eventually captured the Castle, thereby ending an important source of support for Mary.

Laich Hall (pictured below) was renovated as a dining hall for King James VI’s Golden Jubilee. James visited in 1617, after being absent from Scotland for 14 years. However, he only had a single banquet at Edinburgh Castle before leaving for England, never to return to Scotland. In 1997-1998, sections of the Royal Apartments were restored to how historians believe it would have looked during James VI’s time.

Another important building to mention in Crown Square is the Scottish National War Memorial. We briefly discussed the Memorial in our article- On the Trail of Lorimer. Sir Robert Lorimer was a Scottish architect who designed the Scottish National War Memorial which was built at Edinburgh Castle in the 1920s. Initially it was built to honour those who died in World War I but was expanded for those who died in later conflicts.

Scottish National War Memorial

Honours, Traditions, & Pageantry

One of the highlights when you visit Edinburgh Castle is seeing the Honours of Scotland- the Crown, Sceptre, and Sword of State. They are the oldest crown jewels in the British Isles and were ‘lost’ for over a hundred years. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s go back to their beginnings. Historic Scotland discusses how the Honours of Scotland “were created in Scotland and Italy during the reigns of James IV and V, and were first used together for the coronation of Mary Queen of Scots in September 1543”. Specifically, the crown was made for James V by the goldsmith, John Mossman (You can read more about the Mossman family here).

However, when Oliver Cromwell invaded Scotland in the mid-1600s, the crown jewels were hidden from him. Eventually, with the 1707 Treaty of the Union, the Honours were “locked away in the Crown Room and forgotten”. Their re-discovery reads like a fascinating story. In fact, in an appropriate fashion, the Honours of Scotland were found again by none other than the celebrated Scottish writer, Sir Walter Scott.

Alongside the Honours of Scotland is the Stone of Destiny which has a crucial place in Scottish history. Unfortunately, but understandably, you cannot take pictures or video in the room where the Honours of Scotland are displayed. This further reinforces the necessity of an in-person visit to Edinburgh Castle.

Traditions are an important part of Edinburgh Castle. The One o’Clock Gun tradition started in 1861 to help ships tell time. Historic Scotland points out that “clocks were not as accurate as they are today” and that by having the One o’Clock Gun (cannon) fired every day from Mills Mount Battery at Edinburgh Castle, it helped crews to be able to calibrate their navigation with the position of the sun. The One o’Clock Gun is fired every day (except Sundays, Good Friday, and Christmas Day) and we recommend that you watch this tradition when you visit Edinburgh Castle.

The One o'Clock Gun

If you want to experience majesty and pageantry at Edinburgh Castle, the best way to do so is by attending the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo. While it is now a stunning spectacle, Edinburgh Castle points out that the Tattoo was a much more modest event when it began in 1950. Every August, temporary stands are set up on the Castle’s Esplanade for a show like no other! Musicians and performers from all over the world come to put on nightly displays for an “annual audience of 220,000”. For more information on what the Tattoo looks like, please read our article on the 2019 Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo. It was an incredible event, and we look forward to the upcoming one in 2021. We highly recommend that you go to the Tattoo if you visit Edinburgh in August. Visit the official Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo website for more information on dates and tickets.

Another spectacular event at Edinburgh Castle was the Castle of Light show that they held in 2019. Visiting the Castle at night with a fantastic light show was an experience that we hope they will be able to continue in 2021.

Is that a dragon at Edinburgh Castle?!

Magnificent Views from Every Angle

Edinburgh Castle excels at many things, and one of them is providing incredible views of Edinburgh- the ‘Athens of the North’. On our most recent visit, we were fortunate to have beautiful weather that complemented our vistas at every turn.

The wonderful views aren’t just from within the Castle grounds. Edinburgh Castle itself is exquisite from every angle throughout the city. It is one of our favourite ‘subjects’ prominently featured on our various social media channels (Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, TikTok, and Pinterest -follow along so you can be part of our adventures around Edinburgh and Scotland). Sawyer (our Golden Retriever tour guide) and Sami are probably two of Edinburgh Castle’s biggest fans. Therefore, please enjoy this slideshow of photos (click on the black arrow to scroll) featuring Edinburgh Castle which is magnificent in all seasons:

Edinburgh Castle is one of the best historic sites to see when you come to Edinburgh and we highly recommend you make it part of your touring itinerary. Of course, we have just featured some of the highlights of the Castle in this post (if you haven’t done so already, be sure to check our Macabre Tales article for information on their Prisons of War and Fight for the Castle exhibitions). Therefore, you must enjoy it firsthand so that you can get the full experience. Be sure to check their website for the most up-to-date information to plan your visit.

After you visit Edinburgh Castle, be sure to book a Wee Walking Tour with Sami and Sawyer. All our tours conveniently begin at the top of Castlehill right next to the Esplanade at the Witches Well. Lastly, be sure to subscribe to our blog so that you will get future articles on Edinburgh Castle (and much more) as soon as they are published.

Until next time- Explore & Discover!


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