War, Betrayal, and Majesty at Edinburgh Castle

Edinburgh Castle looms large in Scotland (Source: iStock / Roll6)

Europe is teeming with castles. They stand, imposing, on every knoll and prominence, every bog’s edge and port side. As British comedian Eddie Izzard once quipped, “We all live in castles here — we’ve got a castle each. We just long for a bungalow…”

Well, not really, but there are quite a few that dot the continent. Unfortunately, the ones of Scottish pedigree get lost amid the wash of German, French, Italian, English, and Spanish mammoths. If you’re tired of hearing about the oh-so-impenetrable fortresses of central Europe, then maybe it’s time you trekked to Edinburgh Castle…

One of Europe’s oldest bastions of military might, Edinburgh Castle — in the city of the same name — dates back to about the 11th century CE. It served as a bulwark against invaders and the home of kings for centuries, although that ownership was tumultuous; near constant power struggles with the English precipitated innumerable sieges and attacks that tossed the castle back and forth between warring forces. By the 17th century, however, the castle’s role as an imperial palace-cum-fortress diminished and it eventually became a prison, then a military barracks. Today, the castle serves primarily as an attraction, though parts of it continue to be used by the military.

What we love about Edinburgh Castle is not this protracted history, but the turbulent nature of that history. Since its completion, the castle has endured some 26 sieges and at least as many attacks, each one leaving a unique mark. The Lang Siege of the 16th century, for instance, leveled the castle’s medieval defenses following incessant bombardment, while screams from summary executions in the tower — ordered by one of the castle’s many blood-curdling keepers, Sir William Crichton — still echo in the damp stone hallways.

If this dark, intriguing history is what gets you going, you’ll want to spend quite a bit of time at Scotland’s prized citadel.

The castle's Great Hall tells stories of banquets, wars, and betrayal. (Source: Shutterstock / Zsolt Nagy)
The castle’s Great Hall tells stories of banquets, wars, and betrayal. (Source: Shutterstock / Zsolt Nagy)

What to explore

Following almost 10 centuries of constant renovation and rebuilding, the Edinburgh Castle now boasts more than a dozen different buildings. You can either research them ahead of time and pick the ones you’d like to see, or follow a pre-determined itinerary that takes visitors on a tour of the castle’s most notable sites; these run from one hour to upwards of three hours.

We are a bit biased and believe there are some castle staples that are must-sees, while others are ho-hum. Here is where we think you should spend your time:

  • The Great Hall — A soaring centerpiece of Edinburgh Castle, the bright red Great Hall is a must for anyone who wants to soak in the grandness of centuries past. Plumes of sword points decorate the walls while an immense stone hearth anchors the far wall. Take a moment to imagine the grand feasts of James IV — the monarch who commissioned the Hall — and the subsequent muddy barracks it became following the takeover by Oliver Cromwell. Quite the juxtaposition.
  • Fight for the Castle — Edinburgh Castle has a lot of history — too much, one might argue. To help grasp the warring past of this magnificent structure, amble through the “Fight for the Castle” exhibit where you’ll find immersive projections, a life-size trebuchet (a catapult, of sorts), and dozens of authentic artifacts from the castle’s colorful history.
  • One O’Clock Gun — The pomp of this event is really the draw. Guests can gather near the modern artillery pointed at the Firth of Forth and wait for the one-o’clock firing. This ritual dates back to 1861, when a massive gun was used to fire out the time for ships in the Firth; this allowed them to set their maritime clocks accurately.
  • Prisons of War — In its later years, Edinburgh Castle served as a holding place for prisoners of war. While the original prison digs are no longer, historians have helped recreate the early-1800s prison area for visitors. This is where you get a look into castle life; be sure to examine the dated clothing and get a feel for the almost painfully awkward beds.
  • The Royal Palace — Another lead in the drama of the castle was the Royal Palace, home (or occasional lodging) for historical legends like Mary of Guide (who died in the palace in 1560), beloved James VI, and Charles I. The combination of austere wood paneling, odd splashes of royal gold, and eerily gazing portraits makes the Palace experience truly unique — and memorable.

 

Don’t miss experiences at the Edinburgh Castle

While not central to the castle’s history, several events take place onsite that draw visitors and Scots from all over. Consider planning your trip to coincide with these to-dos — or just take advantage of them if you’re around when they’re happening.

High tea

Few think “castle” and imagine high tea, and yet the proprietors of the Edinburgh Castle have crafted an exceptional high tea experience worthy of the history books. Classic nibbles are on offer — including egg and watercress sandwiches, macarons, carrot cake, and smoked salmon — paired, of course, with tea and an optional class of Prosecco. Be sure to make a reservation for this; you can’t just show up and request a table. Prices start at around $60 per person.

Lights illumine the walls of a wintry Edinburgh Castle. (Source: iStock / georgeclerk)
Lights illumine the walls of a wintry Edinburgh Castle. (Source: iStock / georgeclerk)

Castle of Light

Featured in mid and late December (check the website below for specific dates), the Castle of Light is exactly what it sounds like: an awe-inspiring light display in and throughout the castle. Enjoy from a distance or walk through the illuminated wonder. Tickets cost about $30 for adults.

Concerts and public performances

It’s a known known that performers love a charactered setting, and what’s more charactered than a 1,000-year-old castle? Thus, each summer, the castle hosts major musical talents (think Tom Jones, Runrig, Arcade Fire, and Rod Stewart). Check the website for specifics on upcoming shows and pricing.

If you want a smaller performance, check out the educational “seminars” frequently held at various spots throughout the castle. These include instruction on how to use a pike — a common weapon of medieval war — and how to leverage the longbow for deadly accuracy.

A view of the city from Arthur's Seat in Edinburgh (Source: Shutterstock / imagesef)
A view of the city from Arthur’s Seat in Edinburgh (Source: Shutterstock / imagesef)

Go beyond

If you’re keen on a modern diversion after all of your castle-gazing, then head north past Princes Street Garden to Prince Street itself — Edinburgh’s prime shopping strip. Here, you can revel in all things à la mode, including Boots, Debenham, Marks & Spencer, H&M, and other world-class outlets.

Or, if you’d prefer to get away from the crowds altogether, head east to Arthur’s Seat, a green-swept park-and-peak with breathtaking views of the city, the castle, and beyond.

Learn more about Edinburgh Castle and plan your trip at edinburghcastle.scot.