Centuries of Scottish History Perched on a Hill
I have wanted to go to Scotland ever since I was a little girl. As a teenager I devoured my grandmother’s copies of Mary Queen of Scotland and The Isles and Outlander*. As an adult, I came this close to Scotland, with trips to England and Ireland, but never made it to the promised land. So, when we arrived in Scotland this fall, I was very excited. See?
This is me beaming in front of the Half-Moon Battery at Edinburgh Castle.
Edinburgh Castle is a huge fortress and palace complex built atop Castle Rock. There has been a castle here since at least the 12th century, but the hulking battlements you see here were built in the 16th century.
The current gatehouse was built in 1888 and features statues of Scottish heros William Wallace (a.k.a. Braveheart) and Robert the Bruce as well as the motto “Nemo me impune lacessit” which is latin for “Don’t mess with Scotland”. The gate is a symbol of Scottish independence and fierceness. Today, throngs of visitors pass through the gatehouse to buy their tickets to the castle.
Once inside, you’ll pass through the old portcullis gate. Although it lacks the panache of the later gatehouse, does have a certain fierceness all its own. Take a look at those studs. These doors have kept out attackers since 1573.
Once you are through the gate, you’ll see options to pick up an audio guide or join a guided tour led by a castle steward. We recommend that you wait for the steward. These guides are not only knowledgeable and charming, but hilarious to boot. Not to mention that Scottish accent (swoon). Your guide will lead you up through the castle complex pointing out the major sites and giving you a brief and entertaining history lesson.
The tour ends at the top of the hill in the Crown Square, which is bordered by the Scottish National War Memorial, the Great Hall, the Royal Palace, and the Honours of Scotland.
The Great Hall dates from the early 16th century and boasts a remarkable hammerbeam roof. The red walls bristle with weaponry, which was the result of a Victorian restoration that played up the romantic idea of the fierce and wild Scots of medieval times.
Next to the Great Hall is the Royal Palace, where you can see how those medieval and renaissance Scots (well, the royal ones at least) lived.
The Honours of Scotland are housed next to the Royal Palace. These consist of the Stone of Scone, and the crown, sceptre and sword of Scotland. This section features a brief history of the Honours, complete with creepy dummies. If you don’t care for dioramas and mannequins, breeze through this section until you get to the end, where the actual jewels are located.
As you wend your way back down the hill, admiring the views of Edinburgh all the way, be sure to stop in at St. Margaret’s Chapel. Although it is unassuming on the outside, the inside has been marvelously restored. Built in the 12th century, this is the oldest building in the complex (and in Edinburgh itself).
After you exit the chapel, take a peek over the side of the wall. There is a tiny cemetery for the pets and mascots of military commanders who have served at the castle. This is simultaneously the cutest and saddest thing I have ever seen.
Speaking of military commanders, Edinburgh Castle was a military outpost for much of its life and now houses the Regimental Army Museum and the National War Museum. I’m not much for military history, but I do love a man in a kilt.
Know before you go
Open 9:30am-6pm from April 1 to September 30, Open 9:30am-5pm from October 1 to March 31. Last entry is 1 hour before closing time. Plan to spend at least 2 hours here. The castle is busier around 1 o’clock, since people like to see the 1 o’clock gun.
Stunning views of Edinburgh and loads of Scottish history. Make it your first stop in Edinburgh.
*The Outlander series by Diana Gabaldon are some the most addictive and engrossing books ever published. Luckily, the books are really long and there are 7 (soon to be 8 of them), not to mention various side novellas and collected stories. Read at your own risk!