After our tour of Hadrian’s Wall, Neil and I drove north to Edinburgh (pronounced “Edin-bra” by the locals). I was really excited to check out the attractions because Mary, Queen of Scots, is one of my favourite historical personalities. She had a very dramatic life, and Edinburgh was the setting for some of her most, er, explosive moments. (I love and hate myself in equal measure for saying that).
Edinburgh has been recognized as the capital city of Scotland since at least the 15th century, but it has a much longer history. Archaeological evidence dates the first human settlement in the area to 8,500 B.C.E. The invading Romans reached the area by the end of the 1st century C.E. and encountered a Celtic Brittonic tribe that they called the Votadini. “Edin”, the root of the city name, is a Celtic Brittonic word that would have been used by this tribe. Their (presumed) descendants, the Gododdin, built a hill fort in the area, known as “Din Eidyn” or “Etin” at some point before the 7th century C.E. The modern Gaelic word for the city is Dùn Èideann (“Dunedin” to English speakers).
There are two historic areas of Edinburgh known as the “Old Town” and the “New Town.” The Old Town contains the oldest part of the city. The area retains most of its medieval street plan and contains buildings that date back to the 16th century. However, Edinburgh’s growth was constrained by its city walls and overcrowding in the Old Town had reached a breaking point by the mid-18th century. The outdated layout and style of the older city also didn’t serve the needs or desires of the new professional and merchant classes; there was a threat that the wealthier citizens of the city would leave en masse for London. So the city fathers held a design competition in 1766, seeking submissions for the development of a suburb with a modern layout. James Craig won the competition with his proposal of an axial grid that followed the natural shape of the land. This “New Town” of Edinburgh was built in stages between 1767 and 1850. It is considered a masterpiece of city planning, and many of its original neo-Classial and Georgian style buildings remain. Both the Old Town and New Town of Edinburgh are a designated UNESCO heritage site.
Neil and I spent the bulk of our short time in Edinburgh exploring its Old Town. We started our day on the Royal Mile. “The Royal Mile” is a series of connected streets (the actual street names are Castlehill, Lawn Market, High Street, Canongate, and Abbey Strand) that run through the heart of the Old Town.
The Royal Mile (no rain).
The Royal Mile (after the rain cleared almost everybody out).
The Royal Mile connects two of Edinburgh’s star attractions beginning at the foot of Edinburgh Castle and ending at the gates of the Palace of Holyroodhouse. Steep, narrow streets known as “closes” or “wynds” fork off of the Royal Mile. I’ll discuss these streets later on in the post. For now, we’ll start off with Edinburgh Castle.
Edinburgh Castle is located at the high end of the Royal Mile, atop a volcanic plug that is aptly named “Castle Rock.” Castle Rock rises 80 metres above the surrounding landscape, and so it offers a naturally formidable and defensive position for a fortress. A hill fortress was located here during the Iron Age. There has been a royal castle on Castle Rock since at least the reign of King David I in the 12th century.
There is no doubting that Edinburgh Castle was built first and foremost as a military fortress. There is nothing beautiful or elegant about it. But beauty was not a priority for a castle that has undergone 26 sieges in its 1100 year history, making it “the most besieged place in Great Britain and one of the most attacked in the world.” It continued to be the royal residence until 1633, at which point it progressively became more of a military barracks with a large garrison. Today, the castle is a popular tourist attraction, with some parts of it remaining a military base. A few museums, such as the Scottish National War Memorial and the National War Museum, are also located on site.
As with many older historic points of interest, the structural appearance of the battle-hardened Edinburgh Castle has changed over the years. Most significantly, the medieval castle suffered from heavy artillery bombardment during a brutal siege in the 16th century. As a result, many of the older buildings were destroyed and the ones that exist today were built in the following years. The only three older structures to survive were St. Margaret’s Chapel, the Royal Palace, and the Great Hall.
In this post, I’ll detail the buildings we saw on our visit to the best of my ability. But it has been a year and a half since we were there (a good argument for going back and writing about these attractions now, rather than even later), and I left my guidebook at home in Canada. I’ll probably have to make some revisions after we return but, for now, bear with me.
The entrance to Edinburgh Castle is through this Gatehouse, which was built in 1888 (mostly for cosmetic purposes).
Next, you’ll walk up a long ramp to the Portcullis Gate, which was built in 1584.
The Portcullis Gate was originally part of another Gatehouse, but the building on top of the Portcullis Gate itself was replaced in 1886-1887 by this Baronial style construction, known as the Argyle Tower.
Once you enter through the Portcullis Gate, the Castle grounds are divided into two levels, a Lower Ward and an Upper Ward. The Lower Ward contains most of the buildings, many of them newer (post-16th century siege). These buildings consist of the Argyle Battery, the Mills Mount Battery & One o’Clock Gun, some cart sheds, a Western defensive wall, a Hospital, the Butts Battery, the Scottish National War Museum, the Governor’s House, the New Barracks, a military prison, and the Royal Scots Museum.
Standing on the Lower Ward, looking up towards the Upper Ward.
The One o’Clock Gun, located on the Mills Mount Battery.
The Half Moon Battery (Lower Ward) and The Royal Palace (Upper Ward).
Guns located on the Half Moon Battery.
Various buildings in the Lower Ward.
The Upper Ward occupies the highest part of Castle Rock, and it is entered through the late 17th century Foog’s Gate (formerly known as the “Foggy Gate”), shown below. Large cisterns flank the gate, which helped supply the castle with water (especially important during a siege).
The Upper Ward consists of the three buildings that survived the Lans Siege (St. Margaret’s Chapel, the Royal Palace, the Great Hall), the terrace that exhibits Mons Meg, a pet cemetery, the Half Moon Battery, Crown Square, the Queen Anne Building, and the Scottish National War Memorial.
Looking up to some of the buildings in the Upper Ward.
St. Margaret’s Chapel occupies the summit of Castle Rock. Constructed in the 12th century, it is the oldest surviving building in Edinburgh.
Saint Margaret of Scotland (1045-November 16, 1093) was an English princess of the House of Wessex. Her brother, Edgar Ætheling, was never crowned King. It’s all a little complicated but we’ll just say that the arrival of William the Conqueror and his Norman army put an end to Edgar’s family’s claim. Margaret and her family fled to Scotland. In 1070, she married Malcolm III of Scotland. Her son, David I, had the chapel built to honour her during his reign (1124-1153). Margaret was canonised in 1250.
The interior of the small chapel.
Several stained glass panels were installed in 1922. Below is a depiction of Margaret.
The panel below portrays William Wallace.
Mons Meg is a 15th century siege gun/bombard displayed on a terrace outside of St. Margaret’s Chapel. The gun was made from wrought iron near the city of Mons (now a part of Belgium), in 1449. Eight years later, she was gifted to James II of Scotland by Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy. James had married Philip’s great-niece, Mary of Guelders. (Quite a wedding gift!) The bombard weighs 13,000 pounds (5.9 tonnes). The stones used (shown below the barrel of the gun on the right) weigh around 330 pounds each. Mons Meg was only ever used ceremonially. She was fired to celebrate the marriage of Mary, Queen of Scots, to the French dauphin, François II, in 1558. One of the stones fired on that occasion was found 3 km from the castle.
View from the barrel of Mons Meg.
The Royal Palace contains the former royal apartments, where the Stewart monarchs lived. They were first built in the mid-15th century during the rein of James IV. Mary, Queen of Scots, gave birth in one of these apartments to James VI in June 1566.
The Honours of Scotland (the crown, sceptre, and sword of state) and the Stone of Scone are kept in the vaulted Crown Room of the Royal Palace. You’re not allowed to take pictures in there, so I pulled the following picture off of the Edinburgh Castle website.
There is some debate about when The Great Hall was built, but it is generally thought to have been during the reign of King James IV, in the early 16th century. It is one of only two medieval halls in Scotland that still has its original hammerbeam roof.
The Scottish National War Memorial occupies a converted barrack block. The memorial commemorates Scottish soldiers and those serving with Scottish regiments who died in the two world wars and in more recent conflicts. It was formally opened in 1927.
Views of Edinburgh from the Upper Ward.
Wall defences. It’s interesting to try and figure out where exactly the natural volcanic rock ends and the brick begins.
The Palace of Holyroodhouse, located just over a mile away at the foot of The Royal Mile, became the principal official residence of the King and Queen of Scots in the 16th century. As you’ll see, it’s a little softer around the edges than Edinburgh Castle and thus was a more attractive and comfortable home for the Scottish monarchs. The Palace as it appears today was built between 1671-78 in the Baroque style by Sir William Bruce for Charles II.
The Palace is still the official residence of the British monarch in Scotland. Queen Elizabeth II spends a week there at the beginning of each summer where she carries out a range of official engagements and ceremonies. Because of this, only a few rooms are open to the public, and when we were there you weren’t allowed to take pictures inside. (Though from their website, it looks like they’ve changed that policy since then).
The left-to-centre front side of the Palace of Holyroodhouse. (I really wish we had had a wide-angle lens for this).
The centre-to-right front side of the Palace of Holyroodhouse.
A view of the Palace of Holyroodhouse from above, with the ruins of Holyrood Abbey located at the rear.
Walking around the palace.
Holyrood Abbey, located at the back of the building, actually predates the Palace of Holyroodhouse. According to legend, King David I was out hunting on the grounds of Edinburgh Castle when he was thrown from his horse. He then had a vision of a stag with a cross glowing between its antlers. Taking this as a sign of divine intervention, David founded Holyrood Abbey in 1128 on the spot where he had this vision. A slightly less mystical explanation behind the name of the Abbey is that it refers to a relic that David’s mother, Saint Margaret, possessed: a piece of the true cross, known as the Holy Rood or the Black Rood.
It took fifty years to build the Abbey. When it was finished, it was one of the richest and most powerful buildings in Scotland. It had huge towers that loomed higher than its church, and also contained guest houses, a stable, an infirmary, a refectory, dormitories, a brewery, as well as large vegetable and herb gardens. It generated a huge income from all of these additions. Since the Abbey was close to Edinburgh Castle, various Scottish Kings stayed in the Abbey guesthouse when they came to the city.
The Parliament of Scotland met at the Abbey several times between 1256 and 1410. There is evidence that Holyrood was being used as a royal residence by Robert the Bruce in 1329. In 1500, King James IV ordered the construction of a palace adjacent to the Abbey. He wanted it ready for his new bride, Margaret Tudor¹, whom he married in August 1503. The Palace was built outside of the city walls of Edinburgh, and was consequently surrounded by countryside. It still has that appearance today, as it is located on the ample grounds of Holyrood Park.
Mary, Queen of Scots, is one of the most famous inhabitants of the Palace of Holyroodhouse. She was born in 1542, the daughter of King James V. She was only six days old when her father died and she ascended to the throne. Mary was betrothed to the dauphin of France, François, and spent most of her childhood living abroad with his family while Scotland was ruled by regents (including her formidable mother, Mary of Guise). Mary and François ruled France briefly after his father, King Henry II, passed away in July 1559. In 1560, Mary would suffer two losses: her mother in June, and her husband in December. Scotland needed her, and France no longer had any use for her. It was time for Mary to go home.
Mary landed on Scotland’s shores in August 1561. She set up residence in the northwest tower of the Palace of Holyroodhouse. The palace is where the Queen married her second and third husbands (Henry Stewart, Lord Darnley, in 1565 in the chapel; James Hepburn, 4th Earl of Bothwell, in 1567 in the Great Hall). Holyroodhouse was also where Mary, a steadfast Catholic, and John Knox, a Protestant Reformist, would fiercely debate ideology. Her apartments (shown below; photos taken from the official Palace website) can still be seen in almost exactly the same state they were in when she lived there. These rooms were the scene of the infamous murder of Mary’s private secretary, David Rizzio, by her second husband, Lord Darnley.
Mary, Queen of Scots’ Bedchamber.
Mary, Queen of Scots’ Supper Room. A private staircase links the Supper Room with the private apartments of her second husband, Lord Darnley, below. (Remember this).
Mary’s Outer Chamber. The display cases exhibit some of her personal effects.
On the evening of March 9, 1566, Mary, Rizzio, and four other courtiers had sat down to enjoy their meal in the Supper Room. Darnley and several of his nobles then burst into the room via the private staircase mentioned above. They dragged the Italian Rizzio out of the room, through the Bedchamber, and into the Outer Chamber where he was stabbed 56 times. Quel scandale!
Visiting these rooms was definitely a highlight for me.
Another highlight of the Palace of Holyroodhouse is the Great Gallery. The Gallery contains 110 portraits of Scottish monarchs, completed between 1684-1686, by Jacob de Wet II. Two years! 110 paintings! The collection celebrates the royal bloodline (real and legendary alike) of Scotland, dating back to the mythical (possibly fictitious?) King Fergus I, who ruled in 330 B.C.E., and ending with the man who had commissioned the works, King Charles II.
Mary, Queen of Scots, is the only female monarch in the series.
In 1746, an English military unit stationed at the Palace of Holyroodhouse, Lieutenant General Henry Hawley’s Dragoons, returned to the palace after being defeated by the troops of Bonnie Prince Charlie at Falkirk. They took out their anger at the loss on De Witt’s portraits with their swords. 11 of those 110 portraits have disappeared, thought to have been completely destroyed by the onslaught. Others still bear faint scars. But thankfully, most were successfully restored.
Macbeth, King of (what was then just part of) Scotland, 1040-1057.
I liked the inclusion of the thistle (Scotland’s national flower) on the gates at the Palace, shown below.
Arthur’s Seat, a large hill that was formed by a now extinct volcano, is located nearby in Holyrood Park.
Edinburgh is full of these beautiful brick buildings.
The Scott Monument.
John Knox House.
The Old Town of Edinburgh consisted of the main thoroughfare, The Royal Mile, and had steep, narrow alleyways and courtyards that branched off of it. The Scots term for one of these tiny streets is a “close” or a “wynd.” Many of them had steps and long flights of stairs. We were told that in some of these closes, people setting up booths to sell their wares street-side would have to bolt their tables to the ground to keep them from sliding downhill.
Advocate’s Close, a photo taken in about 1912.
Space was at a premium inside the walls of the Old Town (built in 1560 to protect from an English invasion), so multi-level tenement buildings, as high as eight or even fourteen storeys, were built along the closes to pack as many residents inside as possible. Wealthier residents lived on the top floors, the poorest would live on the bottom. These tenements had no running water, electricity, or lavatories, and some of them no windows. Residents would keep a bucket in the corner of the room to collect their urine and excrement, and throw it in the street outside once a day. They would shout, “gardyloo!” (from the French expression “garde a l’eau”—watch out for the water!) to warn others. If you were on the bottom floor you could just go out the door to dispose of your household waste. But people on the top levels would often just dump them out their windows. The splash-back could often reach up to the second storey! Ugh. The streets were cramped, filthy, and dark because the tall buildings blocked out the sun. It’s no surprise that there were outbreaks of plague, cholera, and other horrible, contagious illnesses.
Tenements in Greenside Place.
Residents who were wealthy enough to do so abandoned the Old Town tenements for the cleaner, more modern living conditions in the New Town. The buildings in the Old Town fell into disrepair, and the impoverished neighbourhoods became increasingly squalid, rife with crime—even murder. Overcrowding continued to be a problem, even with the development of the New Town, as Edinburgh’s population doubled from 82,560 in 1800 to 168,121 in 1861.
In the early morning hours of November 24, 1861, an entire tenement building collapsed, killing 35 residents. The building was at least 250 years old and was comprised mostly of heavily decayed timber. A young boy was discovered in the ruins around dawn. He reportedly cried, “Heave awa’ lads, I’m no’ deid yet!”, and so the incident is known as the “Collapse of the Heave Awa’ Hoose.”
A public outcry following this tragedy led to an enquiry into the appalling living conditions of the Old Town and, in 1867, the Improvement Act was passed to tackle the city’s sanitation and housing problems. A series of changes transformed the Old Town. Buildings that posed safety risks were torn down, and a swift process of modernization saw the building over of several streets, lower floors of houses, vaults, shops, and taverns. It’s often remarked that much of today’s New Town, begun in the 1760s, is older than Edinburgh’s Old Town. Part of this hidden underground city was used as shelter during WWII.
The streets are a little cleaner and brighter to walk down today.
If you’re curious to see a place that transports you back to the Old Town in the 17th century, the “Real Mary King’s Close” is a good way to do that. A tour will take you beneath today’s Royal Exchange building to what remains of Mary King’s Close, a street that was emptied and sealed up in the 19th century. Contrary to a popular myth, it was not sealed in 1644 to trap 600 plague sufferers inside. Neil and I went to this attraction and it was interesting, if maybe a little slick and overproduced. There’s a creepy room where visitors leave dolls for the ghost of a girl who supposedly haunts the area.
Historic Edinburgh really has it all: a hidden underground, political intrigue, castles under siege, plague, murder! It is an interesting city impossibly rich with fascinating stories. I would definitely like to go back and explore more! I feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface.
¹ Margaret Tudor, interestingly, would later be the source for her granddaughter’s later claim to the Tudor throne. Her granddaughter being, of course, my favourite—Mary, Queen of Scots. Margaret was the eldest daughter of Henry VII and Elizabeth of York, and Henry VIII was her younger brother. Margaret Tudor was also the grandmother of Mary’s second husband, Lord Darnley.