Edinburgh Castle is one of the most famous icons in the world. It has been around for centuries, dominating the skyline of the city. Located at the centre of Scotland’s capital city, the castle proudly sits on top of Castlehill.
The mighty fortress is best known for being the place where the royals once called their home. These days, however, Edinburgh Castle remains a significant part of the UNESCO World Heritage site, particularly Old and New Towns of Edinburgh.
Edinburgh Castle’s History
The castle that everyone knows now was built way back during David I’s reign. However, its foundation and the entire history have been around even before that. The fortress is right on top of Castle Rock, which was formed more than 340 years ago after a volcanic eruption.
Edinburgh Castle is not the first one to exist on Castle Rock. History books show that The Castle of the Maidens was once in its position. There are claims that the castle served as a shrine to Morgan le Fay and the other Nine Maidens.
For centuries, Castle Rock was a military base, as well as home of the Royals for several centuries. The Edinburgh Castle, however, was constructed in the 12th century by the son of Saint Margaret of Scotland, David I. During those times, English and Scottish monarchies always had tensions and they usually focused on the castle. Whoever held the castle ruled the entire city of Edinburgh. As a bonus, the ruler also possessed Scotland.
Due to the attention turned toward Edinburgh Castle, it would constantly be under siege. One of the major battles was in the late 13th century. The Scottish throne did not have a king at that period so Edward I of England wanted to take it for himself. In 1571, the English once again laid siege to the city, aiming to capture the Queen of Scots, Mary. The operation lasted for two years and all the Queen’s supporters surrendered in the end. The famous David’s Tower was destroyed during the battle, which is known as Lang Siege.
Many other forces tried to win Edinburgh Castle. In the late 18th century, however, many prisoners were captured and they stayed at the castle as prisoners. It lasted until the early 19th century. In 1814, it was proven that the castle did not have the ability to hold prisoners after a prison break.
Later on in the 19th and 20th centuries, efforts were taken to restore the castle. In 1927, a part of the Edinburgh Castle became the Scottish National War Memorial. Today, the fortress is a popular tourist destination in Scotland with over one million people visiting it every year. Most of them drop by to watch military ceremonies while others come here to witness historical re-enactments.
Before Your Visit to Edinburgh Castle
There are various attractions in the castle, including the Great Hall of King James IV and St. Margaret’s Chapel. Since it is a tourist destination, you should expect to meet a huge crowd when you get there. It is why you should know a few things before you go:
1. Avoiding big crowds
It is possible to visit the castle in peace without many other visitors all around you. Several tourists visit the Edinburgh Castle during the summer. Therefore, it makes sense not to go during this time of the year.
2. Buying tickets
Perhaps your only free time is during the summer season. If you cannot visit the castle at the other times of the year, it does not mean you should let this opportunity slide. A problem when visiting the castle during summer has something to do with purchasing tickets. You will usually have to wait in line for several hours before you can get your hands on them.
The best solution now is to buy your tickets in advance. It is now possible to purchase them online. Be sure to buy before you even arrive in the city. Since you already have the tickets before you get to the castle, you do not have to stay at the gates while waiting for the queue to get shorter.
You may want to plan when to arrive at the area. If you will visit in the summer, you may want to be there before 9:30 AM. The castle opens exactly at that time and therefore you should arrive at least at 9:15. If possible, be at the gates at 9, especially if you do not have the tickets yet. This way, you can stay ahead of other people and be at the front of the line.
If you arrive 10 minutes before the castle opens, you will find a growing line that will only keep getting longer and longer.
A common concern that many people have is about not getting there on time. For instance, you missed the opening time of the castle so you get there around 11 or even in the afternoon at two. If possible, you should not continue your visit at this time. However, if you cannot cancel your trip, it is best to go to the castle at the end of the day. You can still enter the gates an hour before the castle closes.
Prior to your visit, it also makes sense to know the places or sites that you would not want to miss. The castle, as you can already tell, is expansive. It is a gigantic structure that will take a long time for you to explore. In this case, it helps to know where you want to go before you even get there. Some suggestions are the Crown Jewels, Argyle Battery, and the National War Museum.
Here is a tip though: choose Crown Jewels first. Many tour groups and other visitors who come here on their own go straight to Argyle Battery. Others have their own destination but the Crown Jewels will not be on their list – at least not yet. It means that you can fully explore this area without needing to bump with other people because it is usually empty.
To get to the Crown Jewels, turn left. You should see the Lang Stairs where you will climb after you pass the castle gates. At the top of the Lang Stairs, you will see breath-taking views of the city. It may be tempting to pause and admire the views but you should keep going instead.
You should be able to see the Scottish National War Memorial now. Follow the signs that start here until you get to the Crown Jewels.
If you want to take a guided tour, it will automatically be included in the ticket that you have purchased. Typically, the tour will last 30 minutes. It usually starts from the Battery, which is nearest to the castle gates.
You can also take an audio tour, which you can download in multiple languages. Of course, if you do not want to pay for these extra charges, you can meander around the castle to enjoy it on your own. It helps though if you have read a travel guide to allow you to go to the best sites without wasting your time.
Before you go visit the castle, you should also know that the hours of operation vary depending on the season. In the summer, which starts in April until the end of September, you can enter from 9:30 to 5 PM and it will close at 6 PM. Meanwhile, from October to March 31st, the last entry is at 4 PM. No visitors are allowed to enter on December 25th and 26th.
On the first of January, the castle opens from 11 AM to 5 PM. Once again, the last entry is an hour before the closing of the gates. You should also be aware of the ticket prices if you plan to purchase at the gates. Ticket prices start at £11.50 for children who are five to 15 years.
Seniors who are 60 years and above can buy tickets at £15 apiece while adults (16 to 59 years) can get their tickets at £18.50. If you bring children under five years old, they can enter the castle for free. Another reason to purchase tickets in advance is that you can save about £1 for every ticket you buy.
Guided tours can take about 30 minutes while speedy people can walk around the immense castle in an hour or less. The average duration of the visit is two hours. Therefore, you should budget your time and allocate at least two hours when you go to the castle.
Castle Highlights You Should Not Miss
With your trip secure and you are ready to enter the Edinburgh Castle, you may want to the exactly where to go and what to see. Here is the list of the areas that you should see while in this colossal structure:
1. Crown Jewels and the Stone of Destiny
As mentioned above, Crown Jewels will help you avoid a wave of crowds if you go to it first. You may be wondering what is so special about this area. For several centuries, the Edinburgh Castle served as the Royal Palace. Because of its function, it became the repository of confidential documents and other official state papers. At the same time, it was also where the Crown Jewels were stored. However, they were taken away in 1921 when Edward I sent all the documents and the jewels back in London.
They were welcomed back after some time but the castle lost them again 400 years later. At that period, the regalia were sent to the Dunnottar Castle to safely store them. Edinburgh took them back once again in 1707 but they were hidden in public for a long time. The people were angry so they were kept away from sight.
In 1818, the chest where they were placed was finally opened. Since then, the contents which are listed below can be seen at the Crown Chamber:
- A sceptre as old as half a millennium, which was from Pope Alexander VI who gave it to James VI
- A sword from Pope Julius II who presented it to James IV in 1501
- A 16th-century crown that contains a total of 94 pearls and 40 other jewels
All three have great historical significance because they were all used at the coronation of Mary, Queen of the Scots. The important event took place in 1543 and they were a part of it when they were presented to the public for the first time. These jewels are considered the oldest in all the British Isles.
The Crown Chamber also has the Stone of Destiny, which is also known as the Stone of Scone. It is the coronation stone that Edward I took and hid in London. It was only in 1996 when this stone was returned to the Scots.
2. Scottish National War Memorial and the One O’clock Salute
The Scottish National War Memorial is situated on the northern part of the Crown Square. It was built for the brave men and women who died during World War I. All the troops, along with the animals, have their memorial so everyone will remember their contribution. A shrine adorned in silver contains all the recorded names of those who died. A total of 150,000 names are listed on the shrine.
Several well-known artists from Scotland and other places were invited to complete the decorations. The shrine was sanctified officially in 1927.
While inside the castle walls, you may not want to miss the salute that takes place at 1 PM on weekdays. A time cannon is fired near the Half Moon Battery, which also leads to a time ball that drops right into the Nelson Monument on Calton Hill. This salute has been a tradition for numerous years. It is believed that it dates back to the time when ships that were docked on the Firth of Forth used chronometers for telescope training on the castle.
The cannon weighs 18 pounds and was designed in Falkirk during the Napoleonic War in 1810.
3. Half Moon Battery
This attraction is designed for the cannons to protect the castle from its enemies. Today, it now serves a different purpose. The Half Moon Battery is where you can view the beauty of the city and even what is beyond it. It also houses The Seven Sisters, which are actually bronze guns. They were made for James IV around 1500. These guns were to defend the Half Moon Battery, which was constructed on the ruins of David’s Tower that no longer exists today.
You will find the Half Moon Battery at the eastern side of the castle. It overlooks the main entrance.
4. Mons Meg
Back in the day, Mons Meg was considered cutting edge technology for the military. It is a siege gun that weighs six tonnes and was given to King James II back in 1457. This gun is special as it was once used to fire gunstones that weigh about 150kg, which would reach up to 3.2km.
Mons Meg’s name came from a town in Belgium where it was originally made. Three years after it was given to the King, he had it hauled to the Roxburgh Castle to try to conquer it. The distance was 80km, which was a difficult task to accomplish. It was so heavy that even a group of oxen would not be able to move it 5km in one day.
Unfortunately for King James II, he was killed when another cannon exploded. The successor, King James IV, used the gun during his reign. The first one was to attack Dumbarton Castle. The second was during the Norham Castle Siege. Mons Meg was used by the King James V’s navy and her last battle was around 1550.
In 1558, when Mary Queen of Scots got married, Mons Meg was fired over the city to celebrate the event. The gun stone landed in the Royal Botanic Garden. In 1681, the gun’s barrel finally exploded. After spending almost eight decades in England, Mons Meg returned to Edinburgh Castle in 1829. It now sits right at the exteriors of St. Margaret’s Chapel.
5. St. Margaret’s Chapel
This attraction is one of the most popular inside the castle. The Royal Family of Scotland used to come to the chapel to worship. It has become a peaceful private chapel and is thought to be the oldest building in the castle. Visitors can freely enter the chapel and can even have their weddings here. Christenings are also welcome. Make sure you book early to avoid getting rescheduled.
The chapel was built around 1130 by King David I. He named it after Queen Margaret, his mother who was canonised by Pope Innocent IV in 1250. She became a saint after performing numerous acts of charity and by meeting other requirements for canonisation.
Several years later, it was transformed into a place where gunpowder was stored. To prevent any problems, it was updated with a bomb-proof vault. The chapel was almost lost after this change. However, Sir Daniel Wilson rediscovered St. Margaret’s Chapel in 1845.
Today, you will see the original arches of the chapel. Other prominent features, including the stained glass windows, are recent improvements. It always has fresh flowers on display, which the St. Margaret’s Chapel Guild provides regularly. All the members are named after the saint and they all live in Scotland.
To get to the chapel, you will have to pass through the Foog’s Gate.
6. The National War Museum of Scotland
This museum was built only in 1933. It was used to display memorabilia, such as weapons and uniforms that came from the Scottish regiments. In this room, you will also find different paintings, such as the Thin Red Line, which is a famous piece by Robert Gibb.
Other fascinating items that you will see at the National War Museum are handwritten letters from leaders and tantalising Highland broadswords. It also has its own research library. The museum originally was located at a storehouse built in the 1700s. It later became a military hospital.
The museum today is in Hospital Square and you can access it through the right side of the Redcoat Café.
7. Prisons of War
Below Crown Square, the prisoners and pirates were once housed in the vaults present here back in the 1700s until the 1800s. The vaults were destroyed but they were recreated to let visitors see the dark and grim conditions of the prisoners.
It is believed that the first people imprisoned in the vaults were French privateers who were captured in 1758. It was just after the beginning of the Seven Years’ War. Soon after, more prisoners were held with many coming from France, Spain, Netherlands, Ireland, Poland, and America. The youngest was a drummer boy who was imprisoned in 1805 after the Battle of Trafalgar. He was only five years old.
Most of the prisoners were sailors and many of them were from America fighting during the War of Independence. The door even has an early design of the Stars and Stripes flag. Several of the prisoners tried to flee but it was in 1811 when 49 were successful. The hole where they escaped is still visible up to this day.
The Prisons of War has an interesting history that you may want to learn more about. Its entrance can be found within Dury’s Battery.
Other Castle Attractions
There are still plenty of things to see and do while in the castle. If you have time to spare, be sure to head to the following areas:
- The Great Hall with the late medieval ceiling built around 1510 and was dedicated to King James IV
- The Royal Apartments that served as the official residence and refuge of Mary Queen of Scots and the other Stuart monarchs
- The Royal Scots Dragoon Guards Museum that shows the regiment’s history starting from the 17th century when King Charles II founded it
Edinburgh Castle is not only for history buffs but also for those who love shopping. The palace has been updated with cafes and gift shops. Visitors can get their souvenirs and take time sipping tea while in the tea rooms.
Campervan & Motorhome Parking for Edinburgh Castle
Campervans will be able to park at any locations listed in maps, motorhomes will need to use parking without a 2.08m height restriction.
Please check when hiring a motorhome in Edinburgh, what your hired vehicles max height is.