Perched atop Castle Rock, the ancient volcanic plug that towers above the city of Edinburgh, sits the most besieged place in Britain.
Edinburgh Castle has served as a military fortress, royal residence, and prison of war, but today it stakes its claim as the most-visited paid tourist attraction in Scotland. The castle is on the must-see list for every tour group that travels through the capital, drawing visitors with its impressive views, the Scottish Crown Jewels, and ties to Mary, Queen of Scots.
Much like the Tower of London, Edinburgh Castle is a series of independent buildings versus one main palace, and it’s essential for visitors to arm themselves with a map to figure what’s what. Because of this, it gives the visitor somewhat of a disconnected feeling unlike when you visit, for example, Kensington Palace.
The castle is also highly focused on military history, so if that is not a particular area of interest, you might want to skip some of the buildings like the National War Museum. But the stunning vistas of the city all the way to the sea make it worth your while to fight the crowds and step into a place where centuries of royal history have played out.
The Royal Palace
If you’re interested in Mary, Queen of Scots, there is much connected to her at Edinburgh Castle. It’s here in a tiny room that she gave birth to her only child, James VI, in 1566. He was crowned king of Scotland at 13 months old and united the crowns of Scotland and England in 1603.
But much before Mary even existed, early royals like Queen Margaret (later made a saint) spent time at Edinburgh Castle. She died here in 1093 and the small chapel built in her honour by her son, King David I, still stands. It is actually Edinburgh’s oldest building and still hosts events like weddings and christenings.
Another royal highlight of the castle is the vast Great Hall, completed in 1511 for King James IV. The room, with its displays of armour and impressive wooden ceiling, hosted grand banquets and state events. Look up at the stone carvings, and you’ll see heads and symbols of Scotland, such as the thistle.
But my favourite part of the castle was seeing the Scottish Crown Jewels, known as the Honours of Scotland. Just don’t expect a version of the room at the Tower of London that houses the Crown Jewels: at Edinburgh Castle, there is just one glass case in the centre of a quiet, cosy room and no moving walkways to be found. The jewels, however, are just as interesting as their English counterparts.
These are the oldest crown jewels in Britain and include a crown, sceptre, and sword of state. The crown was made for James V, but the Honours were used together for the first time at the coronation of Mary, Queen of Scots in 1543.
The Honours have a wild and interesting history, and at one point were lost for more than 100 years. They were first hidden during the turbulent period of 1651-1660 to keep them away from Oliver Cromwell’s army. They were initially taken to safety at Dunnottar Castle, but after the castle was under siege, a daring plan was carried out to save the crown jewels. The Honours were lowered out a sea-facing window, and a serving woman who pretended to be gathering seaweed took them to be buried under the floor of a village church (at first they were hidden at the bottom of the minister’s bed!).
After the Restoration in 1660, the Honours of Scotland were taken back to Edinburgh Castle. Sadly, the jewels were locked and sealed away in 1707 after the Act of Union between England and Scotland. They weren’t rediscovered until 1818 when the renowned writer Sir Walter Scott found them in a chest inside Edinburgh Castle, and the Honours have been on display in the castle since 1819.
The ancient Stone of Destiny, or Coronation Stone, also can be seen in the castle’s Crown Room. A very helpful docent in the room explained the stone’s history to me, and how it was used for the coronations of Scottish monarchs – and later, those of Great Britain – for many centuries (the actual date of origin is unknown, but we do know that it was captured by Edward I in 1296 and taken to Westminster Abbey).
Touching the stone was a symbolic gesture that the monarch was connected with the land and the people. It was historically kept at Scone Abbey near Perth (which is why it’s also known as the Stone of Scone) and then was on display at Westminster Abbey until it was stolen by some Scottish students in 1950. The stone was later found and returned to England, but in 1996 it was permanently returned to Edinburgh Castle.
The docent I spoke with shared that it was on display at the castle under the promise that it would be returned to Westminster Abbey for future coronations, but let’s hope it’s quite a while until we see the stone make its return to England again.
Want to explore Edinburgh Castle for yourself? Learn more about the castle and buy tickets on their official website.