Finally, Edinburgh Castle

After all these weeks in Edinburgh, I finally made it to the eponymous castle. And then it took me three tries to explore it all. On the first day I spent most of the day at the castle and saw most of it, but when I got home I realized I had only seen part of the Royal Palace. Then it was weekend and as I am not a fan of crowds, I waited until the following week to visit the castle again, only to realize when I was almost there that my camera battery was empty and my spare was at home so I had to try again the next day. Of course, on my second successful visit, I realized that I hadn’t missed anything after all. There’s actually just a surprisingly little proper living space at the castle, especially considering the vast area the castle covers. Happily, I had bought the Historical Scotland membership that lets me visit the castle as many times I want as part of the membership, so at least I am getting my money’s worth.

There is only one entrance to the castle (otherwise, what would be the point?), and beyond the gate is a curving passage that goes through Argyle Tower onto the castle grounds. From there, there are two paths to the top of the castle mound where the palace is located. The shorter is the Lang Stairs, and the longer but more comfortable (and also the accessible route) is the almost circular road around the edges that was added to the castle later.

On my first visit I was at the castle soon after 10 am and I wanted to visit the crown jewels right away, before the castle got any more crowded, so I headed up the stairs. I did stop to gawk at the glorious views along the way, though, not knowing if the sunlight would last (and it did get overcast in the early afternoon). This account mostly follows the order in which I explored the castle grounds over the two visits.

Argyle Tower and entrance to the castle 

Argyle tower is the old Portcullis Gate and to this day you have to pass through it to enter the castle grounds. The second floor was added in the late 19th century, three hundred years after the lower floors, but built in the style that was prevalent in the earlier era. Today the new floor mainly houses a grand miniature of the castle. The tower is apparently named after the ninth earl of Argyll who was executed for treason after his role in a rising against James II and VII, i.e. the same king who was kicked out three years later for being catholic and thus became the rallying cause for the Jacobites. Scottish history is so confusing. This Argyll was a Royalist, but apparently only supported protestant kings, thus he rebelled against James VII, and lost his head. His last night was spent in Argyle tower and it’s reported he slept well. Good to know.

The Crown Jewels 

The tower is the direct entrance to the Crown Jewels, there’s an entrance to the exhibition around the corner on the left. The State Apartments’ entrance is on the right.

There were two entrances to the Crown Jewels, and I happened to take the one that had first a little exhibition about what we were about to see, before we got into the sanctum sanctorum. There was no photography allowed anywhere in the exhibitions, which makes sense given the enormous historical value of the crown jewels. The exhibition tells of the making or gifting of the jewels, which all date to the 15th and 16th centuries. These are actually older than the present English crown jewels, which date to after the restoration of monarchy in the 17th century.

The Sceptre of Scotland is the oldest piece, and was a gift from a pope in 1494. The Sword is next oldest and is about 10 years younger. The crown was the last one, and it was created right here in Edinburgh by a local goldsmith in 1540. It’s incredible how intricate all of them are, encrusted with jewels and what not, and made over 500 years ago. Quite something.

And did you know that the Scottish crown jewels were lost to history and only discovered in 1818 by Sir Walter Scott? During the same broohaha around the 17th century when the English crown jewels were melted down in a fit of madness (my verdict), the Scottish ones were hidden. Although they resurfaced after the restoration, the crown jewels were not really used after that, as the monarch was ruling from London by that time. So they sat in a box somewhere in the Edinburgh Castle, practically forgotten until Sir Walter went a-hunting for them. The discovery created a huge fuss, understandably, especially as at the time there was a bit of a Scottish renaissance, driven by the Regent’s fascination with Scotland and the Highlanders, partly inspired by Sir Walter.  They’ve been on display at the castle since then, except for a brief while during WWII. Her Maj has of course her own crown jewel set in the Tower of London, but when she comes to Scotland, she is using the Scottish ones for state affairs.

The Royal Palace 

Queen Mary’s tapestry (modern reconstruction)

On my way down and out from the Crown Room, I stumbled upon the Royal Palace, as the room with the jewels was on one level above the staterooms. I learned later, on my second visit, that there were two more floors to the former palace, but that they now had only offices and were not open to the public. That probably helped fuel my confusion about where everyone slept when the court was in the palace. You see, in the staterooms there was only four rooms, and we didn’t get to see any that were specifically courtiers’ or servants’ quarters previously, if any still exist.

In the state apartment, there’s was Mary Queen of Scots’ bedroom (lovely, pale blue walls), where she presented her son and heir, James VI and I, to the world. Adjoining that was a smaller room where he was actually born (cramped, wood panelled, painted ceilings). There was a small anteroom that now held a modern reproduction of a tapestry made by Mary, using the same methods she did. And there was the Laich Hall, a glorious wood panelled room with with ornate ceilings, gorgeous chandeliers and a brightly colored frieze running around the wall below the ceiling, which was added in 1617. It must have been restored at some point as it is still exquisite.

The Great Hall

A drawing showing the additional floors inside the Great Hall

The Great Hall has its own entrance, as it is in the building next to the state rooms. The new hall was built probably in the early 1500s  over two stories of vaults, which were used as prisons during the long history of the castle. The hall was decorated with exquisite wood carvings and decoratively placed weapons, quite like what had been done at Culzean Castle in Ayr.

The most impressive part about the hall was its roof, which is still the original, and wiki tells me its a hammerbeam roof. The hall is quite high, and when they needed space for additional soldiers in 1737, they hastily built two additional stories inside the hall, in which soldiers were packed like sardines (right). This also goes to show that there was actually little space for accommodation in the castle, even then.

Queen Anne’s Building

This was a later addition, built in the early 18th century on a spot which earlier housed the castle kitchens. These days the building has rather wonderful Tea Rooms where I had a welcome cup of lentil and carrot soup and a delish little salad with asparagus. There are also some private rooms here for hire for larger events in the evenings, which apparently include a private viewing of the Crown Jewels.

David’s Tower and Half-Moon Battery

I still had some time before the one o’clock show, so I popped over to the David’s Tower. What we see today is what remains of one of the two oldest still (mostly) remaining buildings in the castle mound, the other being St Margaret’s Chapel. The entrance to David’s Tower is down the steps and along the corridor to the toilets. When I visited, we couldn’t access the lower floors, but the gloomy and undecorated parts we could visit

David’s Tower

belie the fact that it was built as a royal residence in the 14th century. It collapsed a few centuries later in a siege and was subsequently mostly buried under the Half-Moon Battery, which looks like it sounds, and was built partially over the David’s Tower remains in the late 16th century. Fun fact: during WWII, the crown jewels were hidden in David’s Tower in case the castle fell to the Germans.

St Margaret’s Chapel and the one o’clock gun

The oldest surviving building is St Margaret’s Chapel which dates to the 12th Century and is also the oldest building in Edinburgh. It is tiny, just one little room with an altar at one end. I popped into the chapel on my way to a good lookout point toward the ledge where the one o’clock gun would be fired. It looks more like a cannon than a gun to me, but what do I know. It was modern, in any case, as I assume no one would risk the medieval cannons for a daily display. And I’m not sure if they could even be fired without a cannon ball.

My lookout spot was beside Mons Meg, a massive metal cannon built in 1449 and one of the biggest in the world. I had been there earlier, and realized it would be a good spot, and returned there after a visit to David’s Tower. A little before 1 pm, a man in uniform came, took military sort of steps to the cannon, bent over to do something and then we waited. I was taking video and even though I expected the cannon to fire at any moment, it was still a surprise. A lot of noise, a cloud of white smoke, no damage. You can find the video clip on Flick.

Smoke from the one o’clock gun

There’ll be another blog post about the war and military side of things in a few days. This blog post was already getting over long. But as an aside, where did all the other people live while in the castle? All the cooks, maids and palace courtiers, not to mention the soldiers? The kitchens building was in the spot where the Queen Anne building is located now, perhaps they originally included accommodation for kitchen staff? David’s tower in its heyday was used as royal accommodation, perhaps their servants lived there with them?

Also, as mentioned above, there are two upper stories in the Royal Palace, which are not open to public today, and these probably housed servants according to a guide at the palace. Additionally, there were some timber buildings in the castle grounds at earlier times and by mid 16th Century the royal family was living mostly at Holyrood Palace which of course meant that all the court and servants lived there with them. But it just seems quite a cramped place for the size of court and servants that was typical in medieval times. And there was ever only one well in the castle grounds, which was never enough for the need.

So even though the state rooms we see today look actually quite modern, as they are on a ground floor and still grandly decorated, rather than crumbling dank rooms up narrow winding stone staircases like in e.g. Craigmillar Castle, it must have been a rather dismal place to live for most of the people living on the grounds. I mean, even the royal family favored Holyrood and their rooms were really quite nice (at least after the current state rooms were built). Little available fresh water, at the mercy of winds and frost, cramped accommodations and even worse for the soldiers, with often the threat of a siege cutting off their provisions. It does make for a fascinating visit today, but I think I take modern plumbing, double glazed windows and central heating over living in a medieval castle any day!




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