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Panoramic view of Edinburgh Castle             Source: Jeff Whyte /Adobe

Edinburgh Castle, Proud Custodian of Significant Scottish History

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Scotland is famous for, amongst other things, tartan, the breathtaking highlands, its national animal, the unicorn, and of course the beautiful landmarks. Perhaps the best known of the ancient sites is Edinburgh Castle. This historic bastion located in the Scottish capital has played a crucial part in the history of the nation and has been the home to prominent figures. This castle is now an immensely popular tourist attraction visited by millions.

The Dramatic History of Edinburgh Castle

Built on the top of a mighty rock, which is an extinct volcano, the military and strategic value of the site have been long recognized. There were fortifications on this rock in the Iron Age, which were likely built by the Picts, one of Rome’s most fearsome enemies. The castle on the site in the Early Middle Ages was part of the Anglo-Saxon Kingdom of Northumbria. King David, who made Edinburgh his capital, ruled most of Kingdom of Scotland through marriage, and expanded the fortress.

During the First Scottish War of Independence the castle was taken by the English, but in a daring attack, forces loyal to Robert the Bruce recaptured the fortress in 1314. During the Second Scottish War of Independence, the bastion was also besieged and almost taken by the English.

The castle became the administrative center of government and the official residence of the Scottish monarchs. Among the monarchs who lived in the castle were Robert the Bruce, Mary Queen of Scots, and her son James IV of Scotland (James I of England) who ruled Scotland, England and Ireland. 

In the 17 th and 18 th centuries, the fortress was besieged several times. It was captured by Scottish Covenanters during the British War (1639) and was captured by Oliver Cromwell in 1651.

Layout of Edinburgh Castle (maps – Edinburgh)

Layout of Edinburgh Castle (maps – Edinburgh)

Edinburgh Castle was besieged by rebels during the Jacobite rebellions which sought to restore the House of Stuart to the Scottish throne.

The fortress was used as a prison for rebels and prisoners of war from the mid-18 th century until the early 19 th century.  After a mass-break out of prisoners in 1812, it was no longer used as a prison. The British army took over the fortress but much of it became dilapidated. The castle, however, was used to house captured Germans during WWI and WWII.

It was handed over to local heritage authorities by the British army and it has since been developed into a major tourist site.

The Wonders of Edinburgh Castle

The castle is located on Castle Rock, at the end of Edinburgh’s historic Royal Mile. The fortress is accessed by a pathway running through a large space known as the Esplanade, which was used as a military parade ground in the 19 th century.

Numerous statues of Scottish heroes such as William Wallace stand proud at the gatehouse, the entrance of the castle. Next are Portcullis Gate and Argyle Tower which date from the 16 th century. The tower was named for the 9th Earl of Argyle who was thought to have been imprisoned in a chamber above the Portcullis Gate before his execution in 1685.

Adjacent to this, several red-bricked military buildings including a barracks that date from the 19 th century and among the buildings are the headquarters of Scottish regiments. The Royal War Museum of Scotland is also in this area of the castle.

St Margaret, the 12th century chapel, Edinburgh ( t0m15/ Adobe Stock)

St Margaret, the 12th century chapel, Edinburght0m15/ Adobe Stock)

The Upper Ward is located on the highest part of the rock. It is accessed by Foog’s Gate and within the walls is the 12 th century Romanesque chapel of St Margaret. Margaret was the mother of King David, who built the castle.

The famous cannon, Mons Meg, which dates from the 15 th century and was once used to salute Scottish monarchs such as Mary Queen of Scots, stands next door. It was in this castle that the ill-fated queen gave birth to her son.

Mons Meg, the famous cannon at Edinburgh Castle (Waring D/ Adobe Stock)

In the eastern part of the castle is the Half Moon Battery and David’s Towers that date from the 16 th century. Beneath these lie medieval rooms that have been opened to the public. Adjacent to David’s Tower is the principal courtyard, known as the Crown Square.

The Royal Palace sits at the east end of the square and was once the residence of the Stuart kings and queens. It has many remarkable features, especially the Great Hall. The Stone of Scone has been kept here since it was returned from London in 1997. Also called the Stone of Destiny, as well as by many other names, it has been used for centuries in the coronation of the monarchs of Scotland. The original is kept alongside the crown jewels of Scotland in the Crown Room.

A replica of the Stone of Scone (Aly1963 / CC BY 2.0)

 Behind the Palace are the remains of some of the fortress’s medieval walls.

Getting to Edinburgh Castle

There are many ways to get to Edinburgh which is a major tourist destination. The castle is located in near the area known as Edinburgh Old Town. An entry fee is charged to gain access to the fortress, which is very extensive and may take several hours to view in full. There are numerous historic displays held at the castle and the famous Military Tattoo takes place in the esplanade every Fall.

Top image: Panoramic view of Edinburgh Castle             Source: Jeff Whyte /Adobe

By Ed Whelan

Ed Whelan's picture


My name is Edward Whelan and I graduated with a PhD in history in 2008. Between 2010-2012 I worked in the Limerick City Archives. I have written a book and several peer reviewed journal articles. At present I am a... Read More

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