Edinburgh Castle

Edinburgh Castle
Edinburgh Castle

The best and most well known attraction in Edinburgh is its magnificent medieval Castle, which receives around a million visitors each year.

Portcullis at the Argyle Tower

Sitting atop a dramatic volcanic crag, formed around 70 million years ago, and protected on three sides by sheer cliffs that rise steeply to over 400 feet, the Castle has played a leading role in the history of Scotland for many centuries, with occupation of the site going back going back as long ago as the bronze age in 850BC.

Entry gate and portcullis at the Argyle Tower

Access to the Castle is from the east, over the Esplanade. This connects to the Royal Mile which runs down to the Palace of Holyroodhouse.

Lion Rampant shield

Look above the ancient entry gate at the Argyle Tower with its portcullis and you will see a shield bearing the Lion Rampant, with red body, blue tongue and claws. This is the shield of the Royal Coat of Arms of Scotland. The Crown of Scotland also features above the shield.

The Lang Stairs

After passing through the entry gate and under the portcullis, you will find on your left hand side the "Lang Stairs" These were the original link between the middle and upper wards of the castle.

Foog's Gate

The steepness of the ;"Lang Stairs" meant that a lot of hard work and effort ;required to be expended to transfer goods and provisions up to the highest level of the Castle. A new and comparatively less steep route was therefore constructed, giving access to the upper ward via the quaintly named "Foog's Gate".

The Nor' Loch used to lie below the Castle in Princes Street Gardens

Prior to the 18th century a loch (the Nor' loch) stood on the north side of the Castle where Princes Street Gardens are presently located. The loch was artificial and created by James II in 1450 to supplement the Castle's defences by flooding what was then a marshy area.

Castle at night

Over the centuries however the loch slowly became more and more polluted and when draining commenced in 1759 it had in effect become a stinking open sewer. During the draining process the loch is reputed to have given up many corpses.

View to the north with the Firth of Forth and Fife in the distance

The Castle commands magnificent views over the city and surrounding countryside and its massive walls and battlements give it a truly a formidable presence.

View to Calton Hill

Some of the best views of the Castle can be obtained from Princes Street Gardens, close by its ornamental fountain, from Calton Hill or from Arthur's Seat and Salisbury Craggs.

Arthur's Seat seen from Castle Esplanade
Arthur's Seat seen from Castle Esplanade

The steep craggs of the volcanic core upon which the Castle sits made attack extremely difficult.

Steep crags of the fortress

Many visitors time their visit to the Castle to see the firing of the One O'Clock Gun. Originally used to assist mariners on the Firth of Forth and to allow the townspeople of Edinburgh to adjust their clocks, the firing of the gun is retained now solely as a tourist attraction (daily excluding Sundays).

The One O'Clock Gun is fired

The ceremony is carried out with military precision and the firing of the gun never fails to impress, leaving the assembled crowd invariably with a smile on their face.

Cannons lined up ready to defend Edinburgh Castle

Main attractions of the Castle

Main entrance
Main entrance

Steeped in history, Edinburgh Castle is the number one "must see" attraction for visitors to the Edinburgh, with its high vantage point providing some of the best views over the city. Statues of King Robert the Bruce and William Wallace flank the main entrance.

Statue of King Robert the Bruce

The fortress itself holds many attractions, including the Honours of Scotland (the Scottish Crown Jewels). These are counted among the best things to see by visitors to the Castle. Make up your own mind though. Here is a summary of its main features.

View to Castle from Grassmarket

St Margaret's Chapel

St Margaret's Chapel

This is the oldest building in Edinburgh, dating from the 12th century. Built by King David I (1124 to 1153) as a private chapel for the royal family, he dedicated it to his mother Queen Margaret who died in the Castle in 1093. She was subsequently canonised by Pope Innocent IV in 1250.

Interior view of St Margaret's Chapel

The chapel, which can hold around 25 people, continues in use to this day for weddings and other ceremonies.

Queen Margaret

The Chapel is adorned with lovely stained glass windows featuring Queen Margatet, Saint Columba, Saint Andrew and and William Wallace.

Saint Columba

Crown Square

Crown Square looking towards Royal Apartments and Crown Room

Developed in the 15th century, this is the principal courtyard of the Castle. It is surrounded by a number of significant buildings, including the former Royal Apartments, the Great Hall, the Scottish National War Memorial and the tower containing the Crown Room. The Crown Room holds the magnificent Honours of Scotland.

Ornamental lamp in Crown Square

Honours of Scotland

The Honours of Scotland
© Crown copyright Reproduced courtesy of Historic Scotland

Otherwise known as the Scottish Crown Jewels (note - photography prohibited), these are the oldest regalia in the British Isles, comprising a crown, a sword and a sceptre, dating from the 15th and 16th centuries. The first time they were used together was for the coronation of Mary Queen of Scots in 1543 and the last for the coronation of Charles II at Scone in 1651.

After the Treaty of Union in 1707, the Honours were no longer required and were locked away in a chest within the Castle. There they lay undiscovered for over a hundred years, eventually coming to light again in 1818 after a search of the Crown Room supervised by the great Scottish patriot and author, Sir Walter Scott.

The Great Hall

Hammer beam roof of the Great Hall

With its impressive hammer-beam roof and displays of arms and armour, The Great Hall was built in 1511 by King James IV and used for meetings of the Scottish Parliament prior to the building by Charles I in 1639 of Parliament Hall, located next to St Giles Cathedral.

Fireplace in the Great Hall

Like St Margaret's Chapel, The Great Hall continues to be used to the present day for ceremonial and other occasions, such as the New Year celebrations that are seen each year at Hogmanay and Ne'erday on television in Scotland.

Sunlight reflects through the windows of the Great Hall

Various swords on display in The Great Hall

The Half Moon Battery

The Half Moon Battery is prominent to the right of this photograph

Completed in 1588, this was built over the remains of the former David's Tower, which itself was commissioned in 1386 by Robert the Bruce's son, David II. This Tower had previously been the main entrance to the Castle and huge by the standards of its day.

Part of the remains of St David's Tower

In 1573 when the Castle had been held under siege for over a year (the Lang Siege) the siegers, led by Regent Morton, sought help from Elizabeth I of England. Heavy munitions were brought north from Berwick and set up around the castle. After ten days of massive bombardment much of the castle had been reduced to rubble, including most of David's Tower. Later, the Half Moon Battery was constructed on the site.

The Half Moon Battery curves behing the battlements

This huge, curving walled defence, like the side of some enormous drum, is one of the Castle's most iconic features.

The Royal Apartments

The Royal Apartments
View to the Royal Apartments

These date from the 15th century and include the tiny room where in 1566 Mary, Queen of Scots gave birth to the boy who would eventually become King James VI of Scotland and James I of England on the death of Elizabeth I of England in 1603. Note: The Royal Apartments have gold lettering above the windows.

Queen Mary's Room - The tiny room in which King James VI of Scotland
and James I of England was born at Edinburgh Castle

Henry IV of France called James "The wisest fool in Christendom" but this has subsequently been shown to be far from the truth. Although one of the most successful Scottish monarchs, his success was not mirrored in England where he inherited many problems from his predecessor, Elizabeth I.

James was the target of the infamous Gunpowder Plot in 1605 when conspirators led by Guy Fawkes managed to smuggle 36 barrels of gunpowder into the House of Lords in an attempt to assassinate him. The plot was discovered at the last minute and the conspirators apprehended and executed.

"Guys" continue to be burned each year on bonfire night (5 November) the length and breadth of Britain.

Depicting the birth of James VI of Scotland and I of England in Crown Square

Inside the Royal Apartments, the magnificently restored Laich Hall is now used for state occasions and private dining parties hosted by the likes of the First Minister (of the Scottish Parliament).

The Laich Hall

Mons Meg

Mons Meg

This huge six-ton medieval siege gun, which was last fired in 1681 (when it burst open during firing), is named after the place in Belgium where it was made in 1449.

Mons Meg

The cannon is so big that it is reputed that someone actually gave birth in its barrel!

Mons Meg from door of St Margaret's Chapel

The Scottish National War Memorial

Scottish National War Memorial

This was added after the First World War to commemorate those Scots who fought and died in that war and subsequent conflicts.


Opened in 1927, it was designed by Architect, Sir Robert Lorimer. The Memorial is open to the public, free of charge on application to the Castle Ticket Office.

© Crown copyright Reproduced courtesy of Historic Scotland

National War Museum of Scotland

National War Memorial of Scotland

Formerly known as the Scottish United Services Museum and now forming part of the National Museums of Scotland, this museum displays artefacts and exhibits covering 400 years of Scottish military history. This includes uniforms, insignia and equipment, medals, decorations, weapons, paintings, ceramics and silverware. Opening Times - Monday to Sunday 9.45am to 5.45pm (April to October); 9.45am to 4.45am (November to March) Telephone: 0131 247 4413.

The Prison Vaults

© Crown copyright Reproduced courtesy of Historic Scotland

Although the Castle has been used as a prison since the 12th century, the stone vaults were not built until the late 15th century.

Gloomy cell

The quality of accommodation that prisoners enjoyed was directly related to their status or nobility.

Hammocks used by prisoners in the 18th and 19th centuries

During the 18th and 19th centuries, sailors were imprisoned there from a variety of countries, including two American crewmen who sailed with John Paul Jones (Father of the American Navy), and Frenchmen who fought during the Napoleonic wars. Other nationalities held included Spanish, Dutch and Irish.

Carvings on cell door

Graffiti was carved on the wooden doors of the cells by many of the prisoners held there and give a valuable insight to their feelings and identities.

Dog Cemetery

Dog Cemetery

As everyone knows, Army regiments have mascots and these are often dogs. So what happens when they die? At Edinburgh Castle they are buried in the Dog Cemetery! This picture shows the Dog Cemetery. It has been in use since Queen Victoria's time as a burial place for regimental mascots and officer's dogs.

View from Salisbury Craggs
View from Salisbury Craggs

Magnificent Edinburgh Castle dominates the Edinburgh skyline and is steeped in history. Make sure that you include it as part of your visit to the city.

Picture provided courtesy of Edinburgh Convention Bureau/Edinburgh Brand

Click here for more info on Edinburgh Castle