Edinburgh Castle is one of the most important national icons of Scotland. Situated on a volcanic rock in the middle of the capital of Edinburgh, the Castle has served as a crucial stronghold to defend it against invaders for centuries. Apparently, it was eventually disused in that regard into the modern era and currently primarily serves as a museum, containing many of the most important artefacts of Scottish history.
Edinburgh Castle’s Early History
Edinburgh Castle is located on a 350-million-years old volcanic cliff amidst vast plains in the Central Belt of the Scottish Lowlands. The cliff is actually known after the castle as the Castle Rock. Thanks to its excellent strategic position, the Castle Rock became the most important centre of population in Scotland in ancient times. It was already walled by Iron Age, and had become such an important centre of population as to deserve mention in Ptolemy’s Geography. Afterwards, it is depicted as a major centre of Scottish population in the sixth-century Celtic epic of Y Goddodin. Archaeological records confirm that the site of the Castle has remained continuously inhabited since the early-first millennium, but we do not find any definite references to the Castle again until well into the Medieval period, due to a lack of written sources for the period in general. The history of the Castle in this period of turmoil, therefore, is unknown.
The Medieval Edinburgh Castle was the centre of Scotland’s venerated monarchy. It emerges in historical records during the late-eleventh century, when King Malcolm III family is seen using it as a royal residence. After Malcolm died in 1093, his widow Margaret continued to live at the palace complex. Her residence was known as the “Castle of Maidens”, for reasons not very clear. After Queen Margaret passed away (not long after her husband), she was canonised soon afterwards and the “Castle of Maidens” was marked with a small church located on the Rock. The church is a historical hallmark today and is known as Saint Margaret’s Chapel. It is believed to be the oldest building in Edinburgh, and one of the few standing (relatively) unchanged since medieval ages.
The Edinburgh Castle remained the centre of Scottish royalty during the centuries-long wars with England. But royal palaces were hardly its only characteristic; in fact, the Castle is often considered to be the most besieged place on the British Isles. Over the course of centuries, it sustained dozens of sieges (the ones known to modern historians alone have been counted to be 26), not only from the English invaders, but also during the countless Scottish efforts at re-taking it from an English garrison. Not only due to its elevation, but also a lack of accessibility (it has a proper road on only one side), the Castle was often difficult to take by assault and sustained long sieges. However, once in March 1314, it was indeed taken back by the Scottish forces of Robert the Bruce with a surprise attack at night, a feat never to be repeated again. Edinburgh Castle likely reached the epitome of its prestige during the reign of David I of Scotland, when it became the site of the Parliament, and before it became the centre of a brutal power struggle between England and Scotland.
Early-Modern and Modern Era
Ironically, the most devastating siege of Edinburgh Castle was fought not between the English and Scottish forces, but during a rare Scottish civil war in the sixteenth century. By this time, Catholic members of the royalty were viewed with suspicion by the population and the nobility alike. Eventually, in the 1560s, a civil war broke out between the nobility (the ‘pro-King’ faction) and Queen Mary, during which the pro-King garrison of Edinburgh Castle switched sides and joined Queen Mary in 1571. During the siege which followed, Sir William Kirkclady of Grange held the Castle for about two years, before surrendering and being executed in 1573. Literally known as the “Long Siege” (or Lang Siege in Scots), it is the longest and bloodiest battle to ever take place at the site and left the castle badly battered. The fortifications were reconstructed, but the Castle never regained its status as the seat of Scottish royalty.
After the de facto unification of the Scottish and English crowns in 1603, no “King of Scotland” has taken permanent resident at the Castle. It did, however, continue to serve as a military base overlooking Edinburgh city for centuries. It served as a major obstacle to the success of the Jacobite rebellions of the eighteenth century, after which it has not seen any action to this day. Afterwards, the Castle served as a high-security prison and was used to store some of the most important Scottish national symbols until the early-twentieth century, when the former role was eliminated due to demilitarisation of the site.
Edinburgh Castle has served as a museum ever since, and over the course of time, has increasingly come to be seen as a symbol of Scottish nationalism in contemporary times. Recognition of the Castle’s significance reached a new high in 1990s, when it was put under the care of Historic Scotland. In 1995, Edinburgh Castle also gained recognition from the United Nations, and is now an important part of the World Heritage Site of New and Old Towns of Edinburgh. It now holds the Honours of Scotland and the Stone of Scone, among other Scottish artefacts. By 2000s, the Castle was one of the most visited paid tourist attractions in the United Kingdom, a position it proudly holds to this day.