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Edinburgh Castle: Ancient and Imposing


Before there was Edinburgh, there was Edinburgh Castle.

Not in any form recognizable to us today, but research in the 1990s confirmed that at least as long ago as the Iron Age, local tribes had built a hill fort on the imposing volcanic crater that is Castle Rock.


Edinburgh itself can only be dated to somewhere in the 7th century AD, a relative newcomer. History hasn't given us a clear answer yet on all the years between, or even very much about the city's early days, so the date that really stands out for Edinburgh Castle is the reign of King David I, starting in 1124. He appears to have ordered construction of the first really planned fortification on the hill.


Most of the defenses and buildings were timber; only two of David's buildings, both chapels, were stone. One survives, the Chapel of St. Margaret, believed the oldest building in Edinburgh. St. Margaret was David's mother.


In a way, 'fortress' might be a better word than 'castle,' since it is not a single building, but rather a collection of walls, buildings, vaults and batteries cascading down from the top of the hill where everything started. In fact, much of the upper portions of the castle only became possible to build with the 16th century building of huge stone vaults built into the hillside. More on those vaults a bit later.


Over the next centuries, wars broke out repeatedly among rival claimants to territory, between England and Scotland, and occasionally more. Since David I had made Edinburgh the Scottish capital and stronghold, capturing the castle was first on the minds of attackers. Historians have counted at least 26 attempts, making it the most besieged place in Europe and second in the world.


The plaque in the wall above marks a daring and successful attempt by Scots forces under the Earl of Moray, in Robert Bruce's time; a group of 30 Highlanders scaled a supposedly unscalable wall and took the English garrison by surprise. To keep it out of the hands of the English, King Robert had all the buildings except the chapel destroyed, or as the term went, "slighted."


In succeeding centuries and sieges, more walls, gates and stairways were added; the main gate (above) dates to the mid-1500s, and has been the main gate since; an immensely heavy iron portcullis hangs in the arch and can be lowered to prevent almost any invasion but tourists.


All but one piece of the Castle's artillery is antique; the exception is this one, fired daily as the One O'Clock Gun, with ceremony; for many in Edinburgh it serves the same function as a noon whistle might in a factory town. The photo above was taken at 1:15, as the young soldier cleaned the gun in the aftermath of its firing.


The Governor's House, at top, was built in 1742 for the senior officers of the garrison; the Governor is the commander of the castle. Although the castle no longer has a military function, there's still a governor, a Major General—but he doesn't live in the castle anymore. Adjacent to it is the 'New' Barracks, built to house an entire battalion during the Napoleonic Wars. It's the largest building in the castle, and was built on the last open building site. Today it houses a number of regimental museums.


It also houses displays in a former small military jail, built in the 1840s to house disobedient or disorderly soldiers who served their time and mostly returned to duty. A different sort of prison occupied some of the vault spaces built under the castle in the 16th century: they were used to house prisoners of war.


Prisoners and captured pirates were held there from wars in the 18th century into the 20th, including quite a number as late as World War I and World War II. During the American Revolution, quite a few captured Americans were held there, and the exhibit includes an early version of the 'Stars and Stripes' scratched into a prison door.


In the 1600s and 1700s, passageways within the castle were regraded and rearranged to make it easier to move cannons and ammunition to needed positions.


Mons Meg, above, was installed before the new roadways; it must have been some job! A gift of the Duke of Burgundy to Scottish king James II, it weighs 6.6 tons, and fired balls weighing nearly 400 pounds a distance of over two miles.


The imposing building above, as ancient as it may look, was actually built in 1927 as the Scottish National War Memorial, taking the place of a former barracks. Within are monuments and memorials to Scottish regiments and other elements of British forces, and scrolls listing the names of all Scots who died in World War I. Later, names from World War II and beyond were added.


The memorial stands across 'Crown Square' from the Royal Palace. This palace dates, in its oldest parts, to David I, who made it his royal residence. It continued to be home to Scottish kings and queens (except when occupied by English forces) even after they began also using newly-built Palace of Holyroodhouse, at the far end of the Royal Mile from the Castle, in the 16th century.


The impressive Great Hall of the Palace was built in the 1500s as a ceremonial and banqueting hall, but was later used as a barracks after the royals departed for the other end of town. It was restored in the 1880s.


Even through she lived mainly at Holyroodhouse, Mary, Queen of Scots took up residence in the castle after the assassination of her secretary in a failed coup attempt that included her husband; it seemed more secure. The small room, above, just off the Great Hall, is where she gave birth to her son, who became James VI of Scotland and James I of England.


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The best part of every trip is realizing that it has upset your expectations

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