War museums in Edinburgh Castle

I intended to include all of Edinburgh Castle in one post, but there was just so much to explore that the post got overly long. This post includes only the war and military related museums on site, so if war is not your jam, get thee from hence! There aren’t many photos from inside the museums either due to low lighting and most exhibits being behind glass. Fuzzy photos with lights and people reflected on the glass do not make for shareable photos. But, to make up for it, there is a short video of the firing of the one o’clock gun on Flickr!

Even before you get to the museums, you can’t fail but recognize the castle’s role in war. The location of the castle atop a volcanic rock makes it easily defensible, access through one gate, a narrow entryway to another gate makes approach difficult, and the high and thick walls with several cannons threatening hell and fury would generally deter anyone. I would think.

There are six (six!) war and military museums on the castle grounds. Two are about prisons, but specifically war and military prisons, so they apply. Frankly, I’m not very good at military things, can’t tell the different branches

In a friendly rivalry with the French in 1640 the Scots claimed humorously to have been Pontius Pilate’s bodyguards

apart (except sailors in their kicky white uniforms), don’t know battalions from regiments, and don’t really know who ranks over whom (I’ve never gotten hierarchies). But the museums were still interesting, full of history, somber respect for those who served, and quirky objects. Without the palace ground maps and my photos, I wouldn’t be able to tell you which museum was which, to be honest, so it is a good thing I have both.

Museum of the Royal Scots and the Royal Regiment had a bag piper in full military bag piper uniform just inside the entrance, blowing (piping?) away. This museum was about the oldest Scottish regiment in the British Army, having been formed in 1633. They’re infantry (foot soldiers, yes?) who fought in the Napoleonic Wars, among others, and because they were in the British army, they wore those smashing red uniforms. Still, I prefer the uniforms with kilts. Thanks for playing. Next?

The Military Prison was similar to the Old Town jail in Stirling, in that both provided individual cells for their prisoners. The Stirling jail was an attempt to improve prisoners’ lives in the mid 19th Century, but actually the Edinburgh military prison pre-dates the Stirling one by about five years. Maybe the Stirling prison designers had visited Edinburgh? But of course back then the castle prison was in use, and perhaps not available for educational purposes. Nice tidy looking cells, actually, which must have been comfortable after full barracks of soldiers, or so I would imagine.

The Prisoners of War Exhibition was just next door to the military prison, in the medieval vaults below the Great Hall, and showed that solitary confinement was really an improvement. The large stone walled vaults that housed the prisoners here had hanging hammocks in rows upon

How the prisons in the vaults under the Great Hall would have looked like

rows, jammed full of prisoners. Of course, these being prisoners of war, and thus enemies, they didn’t get the nice cells of the military prison, which were reserved for British soldiers caught doing something naughty. The most fascinating part of the exhibitions showed intricate boxes, other ornaments and even a small scale war ship, that the prisoners had built out of straw and spit and sold to get some money to buy more food. They were really  intricate and still in super condition. I wouldn’t mind one myself.

The Scottish National War Memorial, was not a museum, actually, but as the name says, a memorial to honor the fallen Scots soldiers from 1915 wars onward. There was no photography allowed there. From the outside, the building looks like a church, and it is definitely somber and imposing enough inside to have been one. Actually, this was a new building, designed and built in the 1920’s and due to very vocal opposition it was never a church. However, the building was meant to evoke one, so I wasn’t far wrong. I didn’t spend time there much as a pacifist I’m not entirely comfortable with this sort of veneration of war and the fallen.

The Royal Scots Dragoon Guards Regimental Museum was located after the prisons, going down from the castle along the curving walkway and had another bagpiper, this one solid lead cast, standing guard outside the entrance. These were cavalry (horses), and date to the late 17th Century, when they were formed to fight the Covenanters, and over the centuries fought also the Jacobites and Napoleon. I’m afraid this museum ended getting short thrift on my castle exploration.

Of the military museums, The National War Museum was closest to the entrance, tucked away in a side courtyard. I visited this one on my second visit to the castle, as I was all war-museumed-out after all the other war museums on site on my first day. It was an excellent museum, I found. This museum tracks the long history of Scotland at war, both with the English, and as part of the British armed forces.

The National War Museum

To my delight, it features the Highlander forces extensively, with paintings of the soldiers in their magnificent kilt uniforms and there are also some of the full highlander regalia on display, including a selection of fabulous sporrans. Definitely my favorite of the war museums on site. What can I say, kilts just float my boat, you know?

Where did all the soldiers sleep then? Most of the mentions of barracks were in newer buildings built in the 18th century, and at some point the Great Hall was used for that. But in earlier times, accommodations were dire: “The standard of military accommodation within the Castle precincts was however very basic. The barrack rooms were crowded and draughty with leaky roofs. The accommodation was heated by small coal burning fires in open grates some of which were still used for cooking. There were only a few baths for the whole of the garrison, no running hot water and very basic toilet facilities. The one communal cookhouse meant that most of the men still ate in their barrack rooms”. This account was from the early 20th century, but it can’t have been any better in earlier days, quite the contrary, as there seems to have been less space, and certainly no plumbing!

Doing extensive research (i.e. reading the wiki page) on how effective the castle was as a fortification, I would have to say “not very”. It was captured in 1296 (by the English), 1314 (won back by the Scots), 1335 (English again), 1341 (back to Scots), a rare failed siege in the early 15th century (by the English), taken again by the English in 1573 after extended bombarding, captured (twice!) by the covenanters in 1639, taken by the English in 1689 during the Jacobite rebellions, then a failed recapture of the castle by the Jacobites in 1715, and finally a failed attempt to take the castle by Jacobites in 1745. Of, what, almost a dozen sieges and battles, the castle fell in the vast majority. And this despite several waves of building added fortifications. There was even a mass prisoner escape from the castle in 1811!

Effective or no, these days the castle is a fascinating glimpse into the long history of Scotland and the wars fought on its soil and all around the globe.


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