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The history of Edinburgh, and indeed of Scotland, is indissolubly bound up with its castle, which dominates the city from its lofty seat atop an extinct volcanic rock. The disparate styles of the fortifications reflect the change in its role from defensive citadel to national monument, and today, as well as attracting more visitors than anywhere else in the country, the castle is still a military barracks and home to Scotland’s Crown Jewels. The oldest surviving part of the complex is from the twelfth century, while the most recent additions date back to the 1920s.
The castle is entered via the Esplanade, a parade ground laid out in the eighteenth century and enclosed a hundred years later by ornamental walls. For most of the year it acts as a coach park, though huge grandstands are erected for the Edinburgh Military Tattoo, which takes place every night during August, coinciding with the Edinburgh Festival. A shameless and spectacular pageant of swinging kilts and massed pipe bands, the tattoo makes full use of its dramatic setting.
Edinburgh Castle has a single entrance, a 10ft-wide opening in the gatehouse, one of many Romantic-style additions made in the 1880s. Rearing up behind is the most distinctive and impressive feature of the castle’s silhouette, the sixteenth-century Half Moon Battery, which marks the outer limit of the actual defences. Once through the gatehouse, you’ll find the main ticket office on your right, with an information centre alongside. Continue uphill along Lower Ward, showing your ticket at the Portcullis Gate, a handsome Renaissance gateway marred by the addition of a nineteenth-century upper storey with anachronistic arrow slits. Beyond this is the wide main path known as Middle Ward, with the six-gun Argyle Battery to the right. Further west on Mill’s Mount Battery, a well-known Edinburgh ritual takes place – the daily firing of the one o’clock gun. Originally designed for the benefit of ships in the Firth of Forth, these days it’s an enjoyable ceremony for visitors to watch and a useful time signal for city-centre office workers. Both batteries offer wonderful panoramas over Princes Street and the New Town to the coastal towns and hills of Fife across the Forth. There’s an interesting little exhibition about the history of the firing of the gun in a room immediately below Mill’s Mount Battery.
Located in the old hospital buildings, down a ramp between the restaurant immediately behind the one o’clock gun and the Governor’s House, the National War Museum covers the last four hundred years of Scottish military history. Scots have been fighting for much longer than that, of course, but the slant of the museum is very definitely towards the soldiers who fought for the Union, rather than against it. The various rooms are packed with uniforms, medals and other interesting memorabilia, carefully avoiding favouritism towards any of the Scottish regiments, each of which has strong traditions more forcefully paraded in the various regimental museums found in different parts of Scotland – the Royal Scots and the Scots Dragoon Guards, for instance, both have displays in other parts of Edinburgh Castle.
Near the highest point of the castle, St Margaret’s Chapel is the oldest surviving building within it, and probably also in Edinburgh itself. Built by King David I as a memorial to his mother, and used as a powder magazine for three hundred years, this tiny Norman church was rediscovered in 1845 and eventually re-dedicated in 1934, after sympathetic restoration.
The battlements in front of the chapel offer the best of all the castle’s extensive views. Here you’ll see the famous fifteenth-century siege gun, Mons Meg, which could fire a 500-pound stone nearly two miles. Just below the battlements there’s a small, immaculately kept cemetery, the last resting place of the soldiers’ pets. Continuing eastwards, you skirt the top of the Forewall and Half Moon batteries, passing the 110ft-deep Castle Well en route to Crown Square, the highest, most important and secure section of the complex.
The eastern side of Crown Square is occupied by the Palace, a surprisingly unassuming edifice begun in the 1430s. The palace owes its Renaissance appearance to King James IV, though it was remodelled for Mary, Queen of Scots, and her consort Henry, Lord Darnley, whose entwined initials (MAH), together with the date 1566, can be seen above one of the doorways.
Another section of the Palace houses the nation’s Crown Jewels, properly known as the Honours of Scotland; you get to see them by joining a slow-moving line that shuffles past a series of historical tableaux before reaching the Crown Room. One of the most potent images of Scotland’s nationhood, the jewel-encrusted crown made for James V by the Scottish goldsmith James Mosman, incorporates the gold circlet worn by Robert the Bruce and is topped by an enamelled orb and cross. Sitting alongside is the incongruously plain Stone of Destiny.
On the south side of Crown Square is James IV’s hammerbeam-ceilinged Great Hall, used for meetings of the Scottish Parliament until 1639; opposite, the serene Hall of Honour houses the Scottish National War Memorial, created in 1927 by the architect Sir Robert Lorimer and 200 Scottish artists and craftsmen.
Legend has it that the Stone of Destiny (also called the Stone of Scone) was “Jacob’s Pillow”, on which he dreamed of the ladder of angels from earth to heaven. Its real history is obscure, but it’s known to have been moved from Ireland to Dunadd by missionaries, and thence to Dunstaffnage, from where Kenneth MacAlpine, king of the Dalriada Scots, brought it to the abbey at Scone, near Perth, in 838. There it remained for almost five hundred years, used as a coronation throne on which all kings of Scotland were crowned.
In 1296, an over-eager Edward I stole what he believed to be the Stone and installed it at Westminster Abbey, where, apart from a brief interlude in 1950 when it was removed by Scottish nationalists and hidden in Arbroath for several months, it remained for seven hundred years. All this changed in December 1996 when, after an elaborate ceremony-laden journey from London, the Stone returned to Scotland, in one of the doomed attempts by the Conservative government to convince the Scottish people that the Union was a good thing. Much to the annoyance of the people of Perth and the curators of Scone Palace, and to the general indifference of the people of Scotland, the Stone was placed in Edinburgh Castle.
However, speculation surrounds the authenticity of the Stone, for the original is said to have been intricately carved, while the one seen today is a plain block of sandstone. Many believe that the canny monks at Scone palmed this off onto the English king (some say that it’s nothing more sacred than the cover for a medieval septic tank), and that the real Stone of Destiny lies hidden in an underground chamber, its whereabouts a mystery to all but the chosen few.