Detail of the door of a prison cell in the Argyle Tower with a hand holding a bar

History of the Castle

Edinburgh Castle is alive with exciting tales of its time as a military fortress, royal residence and prison of war. When you climb Castle Hill, you will walk in the footsteps of soldiers, kings and queens – and even the odd pirate or two.

Though parts of it remain in military use, the castle is now a world-famous visitor attraction. It’s also a key aspect of the Old and New Towns of Edinburgh World Heritage Site.

Iron Age Military Fortress

Regiments often had a mascot, many of whom were laid to rest in the Dog Cemetery.

Set upon its mighty rock, Edinburgh Castle’s strategic advantage is clear. It was Iron Age warriors who first saw the site’s military potential and built a hill fort on the rock. Early medieval poetry tells of a war band that feasted here for a year before riding to their deaths in battle.

As well as guarding great moments in history, the castle wall has suffered many sieges. During the Wars of Independence it changed hands many times. In 1314, the Scots retook the castle from the English in a daring night raid led by Thomas Randolph, nephew of Robert the Bruce.

The castle defences have evolved over hundreds of years. Mons Meg, one of the greatest medieval cannons ever made, was given to King James II in 1457. The Half Moon Battery, built in the aftermath of the Lang Siege of 1573, was armed for 200 years by bronze guns known as the Seven Sisters. Six more guns defend the Argyle Battery, with its open outlook to the north.

Some 600 soldiers were housed in the New Barracks, built during the Napoleonic Wars with France. It’s still in use by the military today. Regiments often had a mascot, many of whom were dogs – some of them are laid to rest in the Dog Cemetery, along with other canine companions. But soldiers once brought home a far more unusual four-legged friend to live in the castle stables. (Clue: He also had a trunk.)

Did you know...

In the Second World War, the Crown of Scotland was hidden from the enemy in David’s Tower – under a medieval latrine closet. (That’s a loo, to me and you!)

Hundreds of ‘witches’ were burnt at the stake where the Esplanade is today. Janet Douglas, Lady Glamis, was one of them – she was said to have tried to kill King James V using witchcraft in 1537.

The Russian secret service demanded the blocking of the ‘laird’s lug’ – a spyhole by the Great Hall fireplace – before a planned visit by future Soviet premier Mikhail Gorbachev.

1500s - 1900sRoyal Residence

The Honours of Scotland are the oldest Crown jewels in the British Isles.

Edinburgh Castle was home to kings and queens. Queen Margaret (who was later made a saint) died here in 1093. The chapel built in her honour by her son, King David I, is Edinburgh’s oldest building. St Margaret’s Chapel still hosts weddings and christenings today.

The Great Hall, completed in 1511 for King James IV, hosted grand banquets and state events. But the king had little time to enjoy his new addition. James IV died at the Battle of Flodden in 1513, fighting English forces sent by his brother-in-law, King Henry VIII of England.

Above the door to the Royal Palace are the gilded initials MAH – for Mary Queen of Scots and her second husband Henry Stewart, Lord Darnley. Mary gave birth to James VI in the Royal Palace in 1566. He became king of Scotland at 13 months old and united the crowns of Scotland and England in 1603.

The Honours of Scotland are older than the Crown Jewels on display in the Tower of London. Made of gold, silver and precious gems, the priceless crown, sceptre and sword of state were first used for the coronation of a monarch in 1543, but James V used them in the ceremony for his wife, Mary of Guise' coronation in 1540. The iconic Stone of Destiny, used for centuries to inaugurate monarchs, is also on display in the Crown Room.

Did you know...

Ordnance Survey began life at the castle, in the drawing office of military surveyor William Roy in 1747. His work ultimately led to the national mapping organisation being set up.

Plans were drawn up in the 1800s to replace the castle’s military buildings. But all of the schemes – for a fairytale castle, a French-style chateau and a mock medieval keep – were abandoned in the end.

You can still see the hole that 49 French prisoners of war left in a castle wall in 1811. All but one got away by hacking their way out and using ropes to escape down the south crag.

1700s - 1800sPrisons of War

The first prisoners of war were French privateers caught in 1758, soon after the Seven Years War began.

Not everyone who came to the castle enjoyed their stay. Even royals were sometimes known to complain about the draughts. But life was truly grim for the pirates and prisoners of war who in later years were locked up in the vaults below the Great Hall.

In 1720, 21 Caribbean pirates were held here after being captured off Argyll. Many of the later prisoners of war were also sailors – from France, America, Spain, the Netherlands, Ireland, Italy, Denmark and Poland.

The first prisoners of war were French privateers caught in 1758, soon after the Seven Years War began. A five-year-old drummer boy taken at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805 was the youngest captive.

Some lucky souls managed to break out. In 1811, 49 French prisoners of war hacked through a castle wall. All but one of them got away by using ropes to escape down the south crag.

Did you know...

A Jacobite force failed to capture the castle during the Rising of 1715 thanks to poor planning. The ladder they brought to scale the ramparts turned out to be too short.

Plans were drawn up in the 1800s to replace the castle’s military buildings. But all of the schemes – for a fairytale castle, a French-style chateau and a mock medieval keep – were abandoned in the end.

You can still see the hole that 49 French prisoners of war left in a castle wall in 1811. All but one got away by hacking their way out and using ropes to escape down the south crag.