Edinburgh Castle and the Great North Road

Edinburgh Castle is the northerly “bookend” of the Great North Road as St Paul’s Cathedral is in the south. Not strictly on the road but both ancient, striking landmarks, visible from distance, which scream “you’ve arrived”.

The city of Edinburgh grew up around the Castle, crammed, until the late 17th century, within its late medieval walls. Travellers complained about the seedy coaching inns squeezed within the old town. The city has expanded repeatedly since then but the castle, perched on its 130m high volcanic rock continues to dominate the Scottish capital.

Edinburgh Castle was for many centuries at the heart of royal and military power in Scotland. It bore a significance even beyond its striking location as the pendulum of co-operation and conflict between England and Scotland swung back and forth.

The castle has marked the start point or destination for numerous kings, queens, courtiers and commanders who have journeyed the Great North Road over the last 1,000 years.

Lament for Iolaire

A lone piper in the distance (the best way to listen to bagpipes) plays a pibroch in memory of dead comrades-in-arms.

About Edinburgh Castle

Legend and early chronicles suggest the “Maidens’ Castle” was founded by Ebraucus, King of the Britons, in the late 10th century. The facts and the meaning of the “Maidens’ Castle” name are unclear. It may be that the initial building was a monastery.

The oldest surviving building on the site is the 12th century St Margaret’s Chapel. This was established by King David I in memory of his mother, Margaret of Wessex. Her brother had been positioned to follow Harold upon his defeat at Hastings; instead he succumbed to the inevitable and moved with other family members to Scotland. Margaret married Malcolm III of Scotland; their children included two Scottish kings, Alexander I and David I, as well as Matilda, Queen of England.

St Margaret's Chapel

Saint Margaret’s Chapel depicted in Agnes Strickland’s Queens of England, 1882

It was only when Edward I arrived in 1296 that Edinburgh joined the ranks of the classic medieval castles designed by invaders to subjugate local opposition. Edward had recently constructed a series of castles in North Wales to consolidate his victories there. He took the same approach in Edinburgh, calling on the very same masons and project managers, to re-model the Castle. By 1300 a large garrison had been installed though English control was short lived.

Edinburgh Castle retained its combined role as royal residence, seat of government and military fortress through the next 150 years. By the late 15th century monarchs were preferring to spend time at the more spacious Abbey of Holyrood, and between 1501 and 1505 King James IV built Holyrood House as his primary residence. However, during turbulent decades which followed, important royals remained at the Castle; these included Mary Queen of Scots whose son James, born there in 1566, would later be King of both Scotland and England. James made a triumphant journey south along the Great North Road in 1603.

The Castle’s role as a fortress continued though the primary source of attack switched from the English to the Jacobite Highlanders. A full-time garrison was maintained at the Castle until 1923.

The military tradition lives on with the nightly “tattoo” held every evening in August – helping to make Edinburgh Castle one of the five most popular paid tourist attractions in the UK.

Massed Pipes and Drums at the Tattoo (Image credit – The Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo)

The Edinburgh Castle Landscape

The Castle Rock in Edinburgh boasts excellent visibility of the surrounding landscape, and steep defensive natural walls on three sides. To the east, there is the gentle slope of today’s Royal Mile from the Castle to the Canongate. To the geologist it is a fine example of a “crag and tail” formation. A 300-million-year-old vertical, volcanic plug of dolerite has withstood the erosion of surrounding and overlying sedimentary deposits by glacial flows from the west. (Similar volcanic origins explain nearby Arthur’s Seat and Carlton Hill.) Whilst the topography may be good for defence, the impervious rock has made supplies of water a challenge during the Castle’s many sieges, despite deep wells.

Edinburgh Castle - Geology

Image Credit – Edinburgh Geological Society

To the north of the Castle Rock the glaciers had left behind a marshy area with small lakes. Under the orders of King James III, the stream running through this swampy vale was dammed in 1460, creating the “Nor’ Loch” to strengthen the castle’s defences.

Picturesque from a distance as imagined in 1824 by Alexander Nasmyth (top of page), the Nor’ Loch became an open cess pit and was the scene of brutal punishments such as the “dooking” of witches in the early 17th century. The regular stench emanating from the loch brought increasing demands for change as the Georgian New Town was laid out and the North Bridge built to connect the new and old. In place of the Nor’ Loch, the Princess Street Gardens we know today were developed in stages, east to west, between 1830 and 1876.

Edinburgh Castle History – Timeline

There is archaeological evidence of a 1st and 2nd century presence on the Castle Rock though its nature has not yet been determined; perhaps a hill fort or a broch.

It is possible that the fortification known as Din Eidyn, which appears in the 7th century poetic verse known as “The Gododdin”, was located at the castle site. The Godooddin clan then controlled parts of southern Scotland and northern England.

The early “Maidens’ Castle” was present on the site by the late 10th century.

During the reigns of Malcolm III, Edinburgh Castle became one of the most significant royal centres in Scotland; his wife, Margaret died there in 1093.

Saint Margaret’s chapel was built in about 1130 and in the following decades an assembly of nobles and churchmen met at the castle – the “Davidian revolution”.

There was then a protracted spate of battles between the Scots and the English with Edinburgh Castle often an important focus.

1174 – English take control.

1186 – Scots take control.

1296 – English take control when Edward arrived to assert himself as feudal overlord of the troublesome Scots. The largely wooden castle was upgraded in stone.

1314 – Scots take control and Robert the Bruce demolished the castle to prevent its use by the English. Four months after taking the castle his army secured victory at Bannockburn.

1335 – English take control.

1341 – Scots take control.

The 1357 Treaty of Berwick eventually brought the Wars of Independence to a close. David II resumed his rule with Edinburgh Castle his principal seat of government. Rebuilding got underway with construction of the 30m high David’s Tower which was the location of the royal chambers for the next century. James I added another tower in the 1430s.

Edinburgh Castle History - 1581

View from the south featuring West Port, Kings Wall and David’s Tower. From “Civitates orbis terrarum”, c1581

Towards the end of the 15th century James IV oversaw the construction of many of the features of the Castle which survive to this day – and there was also increased use of the Castle as an armoury.

In 1503 Margaret Tudor travelled north along the Great North Road to marry James IV.

King James IV added a new Great Hall to the castle which then hosted the Scottish parliament.

The king died at Flodden Field in 1513 fighting the English forces sent by his brother-in-law, Henry VIII. Part of the Scots response was to construct a town wall around Edinburgh and augment the Castle’s defences. The young James V was brought to the Castle for his safety. He was succeeded by his daughter, Mary Queen of Scots, who in turn gave birth to James VI at Edinburgh Castle in 1566.

James IV died at the Battle of Flodden in 1513, fighting English forces sent by his brother-in-law, King Henry VIII of England.

Scotland became divided between Catholics supporting Mary as monarch and Protestants supporting the infant James. Edinburgh and its castle were besieged by supporters of James. The English helped negotiate a temporary truce in 1572 but Mary’s supporters remained in the Castle and in January 1573 started firing on the town. The “Lang Siege” was finally broken in late May with the help of powerful English forces. During the bombardment, the south wall of David’s Tower collapsed, and the Constable’s Tower also fell.

Edinburgh Castle - Lang Siege

Contemporary illustration of the “Lang Siege” of Edinburgh, May 1573

Following the siege, defences were strengthened with the massive “Half Moon Battery” with a group of bronze cannons (the “Seven Sisters”). When James travelled to London in 1603 to add the English crown to his collection he promised to return regularly to Edinburgh, but in fact royal visits were rare.
The Castle continued to develop as a military base, not least in response to the Wars of the Covenant, Civil War (the Castle was taken by Oliver Cromwell) and the Jacobite Risings.

The “New Barracks” were built during the Napoleonic Wars with France; they housed 600 troops and remain in use by the army to this day.

A parade ground was created in the mid-18th century enlarged in the 19th century to form the “Esplanade”.

Edinburgh Castle Esplanade

The Esplanade – Late 19th Century

St. Margaret’s chapel was used to store artillery ammunition.

The castle vaults were used to house prisoners of war though a mass break-out in 1811 marked the end of this practice. In the 1840s a purpose-built military prison was added following the latest reform ideas, with an open hall giving access to two floors of cells.

There had been a military hospital at Edinburgh Castle before but it came into its own during the First World War when an artillery storeroom was converted into a 70 bed hospital ward, complete with operating theatre.

Edinburgh Castle - Military Hospital Staff, 1917

Medical staff and soldiers at the Military Hospital in 1917

The much-loved Edinburgh Military Tattoo first took place in 1950. It features a parade of the massed pipes and drums of the Scottish regiments followed by a lone piper on the battlements and a selection of traditional Scottish tunes.

While a military presence remains, Edinburgh Castle’s primary role today is as a tourist attraction. The Castle is home to the Scottish crown jewels, is the site of the Scottish National War Memorial and of the National War Museum.

The Stone of Destiny, used in the inauguration of monarchs and removed from Scone by Edward I in 1296, was returned to Scotland in 1996 and is now held at Edinburgh Castle.

Since 1996 the castle has been the backcloth for the annual fireworks display which marks Edinburgh’s Hogmanay celebration.

Edinburgh Castle - Hogmanay

Edinburgh Castle Fireworks by Scottish landscape artist Andy Peutherer

Mons Meg

The Mons Meg medieval cannon encapsulates a good deal of Edinburgh Castle history.

The 6-tonne siege gun was one of a pair given to James II in 1457 by Duke Philip of Burgundy, taking the name of Mons from the Belgian town where they were made. (The affectionate “Meg” was added much later.)

Edinburgh Castle - Mons Meg

Image credit: Edinburgh Castle

The canon could fire a 150kg stone projectile 2 miles. 15th century outings included attacks on Dumbarton and Threave castles, while in the 16th century it was used by James V’s navy. During the celebration of the marriage of Mary Queen of Scots a cannonball fired by Mons Meg landed in what is now the Royal Botanic Garden. The barrel finally burst in 1681 firing a salute to mark a visit to Edinburgh by James, Duke of York (the younger son of Charles I, and future King James VII & II).

The canon went on to spend 75 years in London but was returned to Edinburgh Castle in 1829 following a campaign by Sir Walter Scott, amongst others. Transportation of course was by ship rather than the Great North Road! It now resides on a terrace in front of St Margaret’s Chapel at the highest point of the rock.

More Information about Edinburgh Castle

Edinburgh Castle from Princes Street Gardens, Fred Gibson, 1980