Sunday, 21 April 2013

28. Wonder: Edinburgh Castle

(For the Edinburgh Castle preview, please click here.)

To some degree, the history of Edinburgh Castle is the history of Scotland. Sometimes it takes centre stage, often it takes a more minor role, but it appears consistently throughout the centuries, like an actor playing a multitude of parts. It has seen plenty of action and drama, some tragedy and some romance, a soap opera of Scottish history contained within the defensive walls of a fortress on a rock. A veteran, these days it is content to sit and bask in its glory at the centre of Scotland's capital, letting the action unfold around it, but the curious visitor needs to only ask - and pay £16 entry - for the stories to roll out.

Thus, a couple of Saturdays past, four such curious visitors paid the £16 and probed the history of Edinburgh Castle and Scotland - myself, Danielle, my sister Morag, and my cousin Malcolm. All of us Scottish and all of us, it's probably fair to say, less than authorities on our own history. Both Morag and Malcolm live in Edinburgh, and have done so for several years now, and like me during my 18 months there, pass the Castle on a near daily basis. But like so many landmarks around the world, local people tend to leave it for the tourists. Edinburgh Castle is so prominent, so central, so entirely unavoidable as a landmark in the city centre, for the local it becomes utterly familiar, and paradoxically put almost to the back of the mind. That's not to say it's not appreciated. I can only speak for myself when I say that I never grew tired of looking at it during my time here, it always remained the beautiful heart of a beautiful city, but the thought of actually visiting it, well, we'll leave that to the foreigners. And the thought that this ancient monument smack-bang in the centre of the Scottish capital might represent the history of our country... well, it never really occurs. It's just a bunch of old buildings on a big rock, that looks awfully pretty.

As stated in my preview, the history of Edinburgh Castle begins around 1000 years ago. There is documentary evidence of habitation in the 6th Century, and excavations have revealed Bronze Age pottery fragments and stone objects from up to 3000 years ago, but as a fortified site fit for a king, the white noise of history tunes in during the time of St Margaret, wife of King Malcolm III. (Much later, there was a Malcolm IV, meaning my cousin Malcolm will be poised to become Malcolm V should Scotland choose to become independent following next year’s referendum.) The daughter of an exiled English prince, Margaret was born in Hungary but settled back in England as a child. Myth overtakes history a little, but she ended up in Scotland as a young adult, meeting and marrying Malcolm III, and they eventually had eight children together, three of them later to become kings. This is the 11th Century, Edinburgh wasn't yet the capital of Scotland, and there was barely such a concept - the "capital" of the country was just wherever the king and his court were, and they liked to move around quite a lot. Only in the later Middle Ages did Edinburgh become defined as the capital. But in St Margaret's time, Edinburgh Castle was a formal royal residence. It was where Margaret died, just three days after hearing the news of the death of her husband and eldest son in battle against the English. And it's where St Margaret's Chapel, both the Castle's and Edinburgh's oldest building, was built some time after 1124, when her son David I came to power. She herself was made into a saint during his reign, for her charity towards the poor and general devout behaviour in an uncouth world.

Although not wholly free from restorations, possibly not always in the name of absolute authenticity, St Margaret's Chapel is easily the oldest part of Edinburgh Castle - assuming you don't count the three-million-year-plus volcanic rock it sits upon. Other buildings existed alongside it, pre-dating it by decades or even centuries, but we know nothing about them, as in the 14th Century they were all totally demolished by an invading army determined to weaken the power of the Castle. This was during the Scottish Wars of Independence, made famous by Hollywood's make-believe historical fantasy Braveheart (sequel due soon, featuring hobbits and elves). However, it wasn't the evil English that destroyed Edinburgh Castle - it was the Scottish. By 1313, the English held the Castle, and the Scots weren't too happy about this. Too strong to take directly by force, at dead of night under King Robert the Bruce's orders, around thirty soldiers went via the back door and scaled Castle Rock, taking the slumbering English by surprise. They opened the gates, the Scots poured in, and the English were at the receiving end of a massacre. The Scottish now had Edinburgh Castle back, but Robert the Bruce realised it was more of a liability than anything else. The English army was a strong one, and the Scots were more of a guerrilla outfit. The Castle wasn't of much use to them. So he ordered his troops to utterly destroy it so that it would be useless to the English. Only St Margaret's Chapel was left behind. Ironically, Robert the Bruce still has a statue in his honour, set in a wall at the Castle entrance, erected in 1929. A bit like building a statue to Osama bin Laden in front of the destroyed Buddhist statues of Bamiyan... oh, ok, there might be a few differences.

Therefore what we now dates from after this, built by various King Jameses and other royalty over the years. But even by the 16th Century, it was out of favour as a royal residence. In 1503, James IV got married to Margaret Tudor, daughter of King Henry VII of England, and Margaret came up to Scotland to live. No doubt she was overjoyed by the prospect. The Bishop of Dunkeld then described the Castle as a "windy and richt unpleasand castell and royk". She stayed not in the Castle but in the newly built Holyrood Palace, situated directly down the road a mile away, at the end of the street now called the Royal Mile. By 1540, the next James - V – had further embellished Holyrood, and the Castle was demoted to a mere military installation. The soap opera of royal life would now be played out elsewhere, the Rock and the Castle would now simply be a stage for battles.

As such, most surviving construction is military. Stand in the large esplanade in front of the castle entrance, the only approach that doesn't involve clambering up a vertical rock face, and imagine commanding your army to attack. You're not going to get very far. Edinburgh Castle may have fallen many times, but always through siege or subterfuge, never through a full-frontal assault. But this is perhaps not surprising - most castles don't fall at their strongest points. Go past the Gatehouse, then the Portcullis Gate, and find yourself inside the defences. Inside these walls though aren't sumptuous palaces or gardens or the luxurious extravagances of playboy kings, but more military constructions. Barracks, prisons, munitions stores - that is the castle that was built from the 16th Century, and the castle we see now. Edinburgh Castle was not a coiffured member of a boyband, preening in front of a mirror, it was a beefy brute bulking himself up with protein supplements and getting ready for a fight.

Or, that's what the Castle was until the Victorians got their hands on it. Edinburgh Castle might cost £16 to get into these days, but once inside it does offer a range of features that try to bring some value to your money. These include free tours, that on the Saturday we visited were every half hour. It's testament to the tour that we started with around fifteen people and ended with around thirty. Our guide was a Highlander called Fergus, incongruously wearing tartan trousers and Aviator sunglasses, which I don't think is authentic period costume to any era. But he knew his stuff, and brought a very refreshing and honest take on the Castle and its history. And that is - much of what we can see now was rebuilt by the Victorians, with the primary goal of making the Castle look nice. The Castle is, kind of, a bit fake. The Victorian age was a time of great energy, and in Britain and throughout Europe a passion for saving historic monuments was set alight. No doubt, this was a great thing. The decline of centuries was arrested, and a new art of preservation and restoration was born. Great buildings were saved. But just as Carcassonne in France was rebuilt in a somewhat fanciful manner, not directly related to any exact period in history, so those that restored Edinburgh Castle also got a little carried away.

The Portcullis Gate is a good example of this. It's pretty clear to see where the restoration begins - the rough stonework of the bottom part makes way for the smooth stone of the top. Defensively, Fergus exclaimed, it is useless - in an age of artillery (when the gate was originally built) there are arrow slits (top left and right) facing the inside of the castle. The top half is make believe. Even better, Fergus told the story of the cannons of the Castle. Edinburgh Castle has a lot of cannons, and some of them are genuine parts of its history. The One O’Clock Gun was brought in for timekeeping in 1861, firing daily at, yes, one o’clock. It still does so today, although we were an hour too late that Saturday. Having witnessed it a couple of years ago, I can indeed confirm that at one o'clock a man lights it and it makes a loud bang, and a lot of tourists jump. It's actually quite fun to witness, especially the growing tension among the gathering numbers. Morag, aged seven, apparently took such fright at the gun going off that she dropped and shattered her disposable camera, but has since been reconciled with historic military hardware.

This is Mons Meg, a huge mega-cannon, now situated just outside St Margaret's Chapel at virtually the top of the Rock. This 6-tonne cannon is so big you can fit a person inside, and was in active use for 200 years (about a hundred in battles, another hundred ceremonially) until it did one boom too many and the barrel burst. It was too big to melt down, so after a stint at the Tower of London, it's been a decorative feature of the Castle since 1829. But it and the One O'Clock Gun are the exceptions: just about all the other cannons are naval cannons, designed for use on ships. In 1842, according to Fergus (I have to admit I’ve not been able to find a reliable source for this, but it has a ring of truth), Queen Victoria visited Edinburgh Castle and she thought that some naval cannons would look impressive. So to keep her happy a bunch were installed and placed attractively in nice formations. They are simply cosmetic additions that no-one got round to removing. The consideration that, if actually used, they would simply bomb the New Town of Edinburgh is conveniently passed over.

But let's not blame the Victorians too much. They may have been fanciful, but they took what were a bunch of decaying buildings, made them look nice, and gave Edinburgh something pretty in its centre. They gave the beefy boy on the rock a final boyband makeover.

This is what we see today: a sprawl of mostly post-16th Century construction polished off by Victorian touches, and immaculately maintained today as a thriving tourist centre. Upon passing the ticket control and going through the Portcullis Gate, the four of us were within the castle's defences. We'd all been before: myself and Danielle just a couple of years ago, but Morag and Malcolm not since childhood, and so with the merest of memories. Here, accompanied by lots of cosmetic cannons, there are absolutely terrific view across Edinburgh, with the two Forth Bridges just in sight also (there will be a third in a couple of years). It's fair to say that the view from the Castle is a significant part of the appeal of the actual visit.

Following the contours of the Rock, the cobbled streets wind up and around to the left, through another gateway, and to the top part of the Castle. This is where St Margaret's Chapel - dinky, humble, and appealing - sits, next to a whisky shop, and just over from the Castle's newest building, the National War Memorial, converted from barracks and completed in 1926. A grave, serious, and sad building, it contains all the names of Scots soldiers fallen in combat since the First World War, over 200,000, and the number still rising. A shrine inside here is built around the highest point of Castle Rock: the war dead are symbolically remembered at the very highest point of the nation's capital.

The National War Memorial opens onto a square which has the Royal Palace containing the Scottish Crown Jewels and the apartments that Mary Queen of Scots gave birth to James VI, a Great Hall converted into a barracks by Oliver Cromwell then inauthentically reconverted back into a Great Hall by the Victorians, a restaurant, which is on top of some old prisons... and it becomes very clear that Edinburgh Castle is a huge patchwork of many different buildings with many different histories. There are plenty other military museums, prisons, shops, and it is still technically a military base, with military offices. There's a lot going on here, over many centuries, and except for the devoted history student it can quite easily soon become a jumble of vaguely familiar names and faces from history. A gigantic soap opera that's become a little too big and complicated for the casual viewer.

This is perhaps one of the things that lets Edinburgh Castle down a little bit - a lack of focus. It has no definitive structure, it has no definitive story. Its seemingly random scatter of buildings reflects this. Edinburgh Castle doesn't have a focal point: it doesn't have the single drama of Neuschwanstein Castle and its mad creator; it doesn't have a single monumental construction that characterises most Wonders; and it doesn't have an eternally famous name uniquely attached to it, as the First Emperor of China is to the Terracotta Warriors. Mary Queen of Scots is probably its most famous occupant - but only a small part of her life was spent there, and not really the most pivotal. The Notre-Dame (the scene of her first marriage) and Holyrood Palace also have claims on her.

Of course, none of these things are essential to a Wonder, and could be levied at most sprawling structures. Edinburgh Castle has many other qualities. The most significant of these, beyond any doubt I believe, is its setting.

Edinburgh Castle truly is all about Castle Rock. The craggy, sheer, volcanic rock in the centre of Edinburgh is a truly spectacular landmark, and pretty much any decently-sized old building on top of it would look great. It’s a terrifically dramatic heart of the city, muscular and dominant, visible across the city. Take away the Rock, and Edinburgh has far better individual buildings – St Giles Cathedral, Donaldson's College, the Balmoral Hotel, St Mary’s Cathedral are all names that spring to mind without much effort, and there are certainly more. But that’s perhaps disingenuous, it’s like saying Machu Picchu would be better if the Taj Mahal was there instead of the rough stone buildings. The Castle and the Rock are inseparable, and both benefit from each other, just as they are inseparable from the city of Edinburgh. Indeed, the city of Edinburgh pretty much owes its existence to the rock and the buildings that first sprung up on it.

Edinburgh Castle also caters for a fairly wide spread of visitors, and a full range of tourists, from schoolkids to pensioners, were in attendance that Saturday. In fact, as an experience it either rewards a lot of attention - you could easily spend an entire day here soaking up the history and the stories - or really not very much attention at all. I don't think the approximately 30,000 Spanish schoolkids that were on the rampage were particularly focussed on which James died in battle, which James was also the first king of England, or which James commanded people to Sit Down (not technically part of the Castle tour). And while many of the more mature foreign tourists undoubtedly appreciated the fact they were wandering around old buildings teeming with history, I don't think most of them would have soaked up every last detail of the military museums. I know I didn't. But maybe that doesn’t matter. Walking around, admiring the buildings seemingly growing from the rough natural Castle Rock, admiring the view, and simply enjoying the sense that centuries of history have taken place here is what most people will take from their experience here, without needing to know a chronological history of Scotland. Or, if you’re a Spanish schoolchild, it’s simply a nice area to run around shouting at your classmates.

Some criteria then.

Size: The individual buildings aren't massive - the New Barracks at five storeys is the largest - but the overall complex covers almost 10 acres. The 80-metre-high rock they sit on gives it a grandeur.
Engineering: Nothing outstanding. These are mostly functional buildings with decorative flourishes. 
Artistry: Again, nothing outstanding.
Age: A range of ages, going back to St Margaret's Chapel in the mid-12th Century to the National War Memorial of 1926. Most is 16th or 17th Century with a 19th Century restorative touch, but the impression of historical grandeur is strong at Edinburgh Castle
Fame/Iconicity: Just about every tourist visiting Edinburgh will also visit the Castle, or at the very least walk up to the esplanade. Familiarity will begin to decrease he further afield you go: it's obviously well known in Scotland, and England likewise, but beyond that I think its fame would be restricted to those that have visited Edinburgh, and even then as part of the city. The city has eclipsed the Wonder.
Context: The highlight of the Castle is its setting, on a huge, dramatic rock at the heart of Edinburgh.   
Back Story: There are loads. Battles have been fought, kings born, famous historical figures make cameo appearances, and Scottish history unfolds. But like the complex of buildings, the stories kind of sprawl, and there isn't one definitive building or story to focus the visitor.
Originality: Well, it's a medieval fortification, defence rather than originality was the aim. But it has pretty much nailed the whole tough-castle-on-a-rock look
Wow Factor: I'm so familiar with the Castle that I can't really imagine seeing it for the first time. But having lived in Edinburgh, I remember always being impressed. The grandeur of the Castle certainly lies in the Castle Rock, which is what impressed me most and where I suspect most of the tourist wows would be directed.

As I said earlier in this review, Edinburgh Castle is just a bunch of old buildings on a big rock, that looks awfully pretty. That undersells it of couse, as it's a historic monument of immense significance, not just in the sense of in times gone by, but even today, as it comprises the visual focus of the city of Edinburgh. What an irony that it lacks that same focus within itself. Edinburgh Castle is a great place to visit, with a range of things to see, and great view and interesting stories and anecdotes, but afterwards I look at my mental image of the place and what I see is some buildings on a rock. The symbiosis between the Castle, the Rock, and the City as they combine to enhance each other's greatness is very evident, but in the end I think it's the City that benefits the most. Living in its rival, Glasgow, these days I have to be careful what I say, but Edinburgh is a wonderful city, with huge historical and visual attractions, the Castle being the cherry on top. But swap out that cherry for a slightly differently-coloured cherry - Stirling Castle for example - and the people would still flock to it and ooh. In the end, being a castle on a rock isn't very unique, it's the being in the middle of Edinburgh that makes it special. The Castle itself is interchangeable almost with other castles or fortifications.

This does not at all denigrate Edinburgh Castle in the eyes of the visitor, who visit the city and marvel at its centrepiece, but in the tough world of Wonders, a lack of uniqueness is a pretty pertinent issue. Nonetheless, it's special, and definitely worth its place on my list. In the end, I'd place it sneaking into the top half of my Wonders so far, a little below the Forbidden City (both being physical and historical sprawls but Edinburgh Castle with less of a unique identity and sense of being its own universe), but definitely above the Sacre-Coeur (both prominent in the highest point of their city, but the Castle so much more dramatically so). For a Scot such as myself, a Wonder easy to take for granted, but one definitely worth the time to appreciate.

The Seven Wonders of the World So Far
1. Taj Mahal
2. Great Wall of China
3. Eiffel Tower
4. Millau Viaduct
5. Angkor Wat
6. Bagan
7. Sydney Opera House

Other Wonders
Notre-Dame de Paris

Kailash Temple in Ellora
Petronas Towers

Notable Landmarks (or National Wonders)
The Golden Temple
Shwedagon Pagoda
Forbidden City
Edinburgh Castle
The Sacre-Coeur
Bodhi Tataung Standing Buddha
Banaue Rice Terraces
Temple of the Emerald Buddha

Interesting Places
Ananda Temple in Bagan
Marina Bay Sands
Terracotta Army
Leshan Giant Buddha

Agra Fort
Ayutthaya Historic Park
Lotus Temple
Three Gorges Dam


  1. I have been to Edinburgh twice and never actually visited the castle (also passed over the opportunity to visit the Coliseum when I went to Rome, which I bitterly regret).

    Your paragraph that starts with "This is perhaps one of the things that lets Edinburgh Castle down a little bit - a lack of focus. It has no definitive structure, it has no definitive story." I suppose you are saying this in the context of your criteria, because if anything its varied history and mish-mash of uses and additions throughout the years is a positive, not a negative.

  2. Yes, it's always in the context of being a Wonder. Certainly, a varied history is a good thing - if Edinburgh Castle had just been built ten years ago as a tourist attraction, it would lack any of its history, therefore much of its gravitas, and would rate lower for me.

    But it's a pity there's no defining story to it. Agra Fort has the imprisonment of Shah Jahan, and him spending his last days gazing from his prison upon the Taj Mahal, built in memory of his late wife. It's a great focal point to the complex's history, which otherwise plays a key role in the history of the Mughal Empire. Even if visitors don't leave with a strong impression of the sprawl of buildings, they remember that story.

    Structurally, I suppose the rock is the focus. As said in my review, in terms of actual constructions, Edinburgh has far better buildings. Whether or not they would look better on the rock than the existing set of buildings is open to argument, I suppose.

  3. Edinburgh may have better-looking buildings, but to paraphrase Cracked, in my opinion a city that has a castle on a rock in the middle of it = bad-ass!


Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.