Monday, 8 April 2013

Preview: Edinburgh Castle

In the middle of Edinburgh... is a castle.

Edinburgh Castle is kind of hard to miss for anyone who visits the city. It's smack bang in the middle, on a rock - Castle Rock, fittingly - and conspicuous in the way all good castles are. This not a landmark you need seek out - visit Edinburgh and it will be presented to you. A collection of grey stone buildings fortified by defensive walls perched precariously upon a craggy, dramatic, and very obvious rock, it dominates the city centre like a nose dominates a face. A big, grey, but fortunately very scenic nose in a very pretty face: bless you, Edinburgh.

Of course, Edinburgh Castle wasn't exactly purpose-built as a picturesque centrepiece for the city of Edinburgh. Rather the reverse - the castle came first, then the city around it. Castle Rock has always been there, or at least has been for a few hundred million years. The core of a long-extinct volcano, it rears itself up 80 metres from its surroundings (and 130 metres above sea level) with glaciers from the Ice Age giving it cliffs around all sides but the east. This makes for excellent natural defence, and possibly did so in ancient times, but it makes a debut in recorded history in the 6th Century with a Celtic tribe called the Gododdin. They raised some kind of dwelling and gave it the name of Din Eidyn - or Dunedin - meaning "fortress of the hill slope". It was a short-lived debut, for in 638 AD, their fortress on a rock fell to a Germanic tribe, going by the name of the Angles. Of the Gododdin tribe, history hears little more; the Angles, however, became what we now know as England - and were to bother the craggy volcanic rock on the east of Scotland again on more than one occasion.

No archaeological evidence exists for this early history. For the beginning of a more recognisable history and castle, and indeed Scotland, we need to fast forward to 1093. That was when St Margaret, wife of one king and mother of three more, died at the site. By this time, it had become an official royal residence, and Margaret gave her name to the small chapel that still sits on the very summit of the rock. Probably built a few decades after her death, and given a speculatively authentic restoration in the 19th Century, St Margaret's Chapel is the heart of the castle, and probably the only thing someone from medieval times would recognise should they visit today.

Partly, that's because of Edinburgh Castle's history as a fortification: it wasn't a very good one, if we're to be entirely honest. These days, sitting there on the rock, bulked up with thick walls and big cannons, the Castle looks impregnable, but over the centuries, it has been repeatedly beaten up and captured. In 1296, during the First War of Scottish Independence, it was bombarded and taken by the English. The Scots fought back and recaptured it in 1314, by means of thirty men scaling the north face in a surprise attack. Their king, Robert the Bruce, then ordered all but St Margaret's Chapel to be demolished to prevent the English taking it again. Just about every century afterwards again saw it attacked and often captured. The English besieged in the 15th Century, but the Castle held out on this occasion, and it was a century of construction rather than destruction. But in the 16th Century the English got their way again, forcing the Castle's surrender after blasting it to pieces with cannons. The 17th Century saw several more assaults and defeats, not just by the English but in religious civil wars. The last military action the Castle saw was in 1745, when Bonnie Prince Charlie and his forces made a weak attempt to take it. Upon this failure, he fled the country to France, slept with lots of women (including his cousin), and his body was eventually laid to rest in another of my Wonders, St Peter's in Rome. His crypt remains there to this day, somewhat incongruously alongside a whole bunch of popes. Sometimes the world loves a failure.

What this means is that Ednburgh Castle has been smashed up, taken apart, rebuilt, and changed an awful lot of times over the years. It has no definitive era - it's been constantly changing. The end result, what we see today, is a complex of structures that represents no one period of the Castle or its history, but instead show off its successive modifications. Its form and its function have changed many times over the centuries, from a fortress to a royal residence to a munitions factory, a barracks, a prison, a museum, and a modern tourist attraction. It has never been fixed to any one time; indeed, some of what we see now is entirely fake or anachronistic. In the late 19th Century, a series of restorations took place in the name of making the Castle a historic monument, authenticity be damned. An attractive but entirely inaccurate Gatehouse was construced, and a Portcullis Gate was built too, to fancifully resemble a castle gate from the Middle Ages, conveniently ignoring that the 1570s gate being restored would have been built to resist artillery, not bows and arrows. The only mitigating circumstance is that the architect behind it had the absolutely wonderful name of Hippolyte J Blanc. All is forgiven.

But when I'm looking at a Wonder, I'm not just looking at what it has been - I'm looking at what it is now. Edinburgh Castle - historic monument, museum, tourist attraction, and still a barracks - is a restored 13th Century chapel, a Great Hall dating from the early 16th Century, and a series of defensive walls from almost all eras, including the mid-19th Century when they were rebuilt simply to look nice. It is the dominant and not altogether attractive rectangular block that is the New Barracks, built in 1799, and it is a whole collection of bits and pieces from different times: remains from King James IV's era in the turn of the 16th Century to historically inaccurate restorations of the 19th Century to War Memorials of the 20th Century. All coming together in one giant ensemble effort, plonked on a big rock, with the capital city of Edinburgh sprawling out around it.

Being from Scotland, and having lived in Edinburgh for 18 months in 2010 and 2011, I am very familiar with the castle. I lived just off the Royal Mile, the tourist-packed street that leads easterly down the slope from the Castle, and so saw it on an almost daily basis. Edinburgh is a city of charming visual delights, a compact fantasy of hills and landmarks, and a walk along the North Bridge giving views of the Castle, the 19th Century monuments on Calton Hill, and the mighty hill of Arthur's Seat was never short of breathtaking. To some degree, I already have a pretty good idea of what I think of the Castle; I've visited it before, walked around the base of the rock on more than one occasion, sat in Princes Street Gardens immediately below and gazed up at in on many more. The actual buildings that make up the fortified tourist attraction, if separated and placed randomly throughout the city, wouldn't weaken the knees in excitements. But put together, in their prominent and celebrated setting, they become greater. Like Machu Picchu with its dramatic mountain setting, or the Christ the Redeemer statue on the Corcovado mountain in the centre of Rio de Janeiro, Edinburgh Castle too is all about location. It needs its rock, it needs its beautiful city surrounding it. But likewise, just as a nose is to a face, it's difficult to imagine Edinburgh without its castle.

I'll be visiting Edinburgh Castle... very soon, probably, and will give a fuller account of it and its history then, as well as my own impressions.


  1. The way you describe its history (waves of different regimes and building phases) makes it sound rather like Carcassonne's story. Perhaps some echoes there, in terms of it being something of a hotch-potch but still quite impressive.

    One minor detail - Bonnie Prince Charlie fled to France after Culloden, not defeat at Edinburgh (though presumably they were both a part of the same final phase of the '45).

    Looking forward to your review.

  2. You're absolutely right - mine was somewhat of a very abbreviated history. When I eventually produce my 2000-page book, I'll expand it a little.

    Most fortresses, or fortified towns, such as Carcassonne, Agra Fort, and Cairo Citadel, seem to have sprawling histories to match the sprawling layout. Makes it a little more challenging to summarise in a thousand words, but offers a greater spread of history/variety for the visitor.


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