Edinburgh Castle looms over Scotland’s capital city, its outer walls seeming to merge with the sheer cliff face which has made the castle almost impregnable for over a thousand years. Built on a plug of volcanic rock, Edinburgh is one of the oldest fortifications in Europe. It has withstood wars and outbreaks of plague. Indeed, no other building in Britain can claim to have been besieged as many times as Edinburgh Castle. It has been a royal residence, a barracks, a prison and home to the most powerful symbols of Scotland’s sovereignty. Dark happenings within its walls have inspired scenes out of Game of Thrones. Witches have been burnt beneath its shadow. Yet it seems that neither rock nor wall can restrain the restless spirits which walk within its halls.
AD 638: Din Eidyn Beseiged
Castle Rock has been a site of human activity for at least 3,000 years. According to Scotland’s oldest poem, fierce Iron Age warriors defended the hillfort at Din Eidyn as it was then known in the old Brythonic tongue. The poem ‘Y Gododdin’ recounts how in around AD 600, a force of 300 hand chosen warriors were assembled, some from as far afield as Pictland and Gwynedd to fight against the Angles of Northumbria. After a year of feasting at Din Eidyn, they rode out and attacked Catraeth, which is thought to be Catterick, North Yorkshire. With half the force of their foe, nearly all the warriors were killed. The resulting poem is a series of eulogies marking the bravery of those who lost their lives in the battle. A reference in the poem to King Arthur hints at a link to Edinburgh’s Arthur’s Seat.
Things would never be the same for the Gododdin tribe. In AD 638 Angles continued with their invasion and besieged Din Eidyn Castle. Soon the Gododdin were defeated and Din Eidyn was given its Anglicised name, Edinburgh.
1093: Castle of Maidens
The first written reference to a castle rather than a fort occupying the top of Castle Rock occurs in 1093. Queen Margaret was said to have taken to her bed and died there after the death of her beloved husband Malcolm III King of Scots, otherwise known as Malcolm Canmore.
At the time the Castle was known as the ‘Castle of the Maidens’. There are two legends behind the name. The first was that the Picts kept their virgin princesses in the castle. In another legend, it was said to be named after Saint Moninne, and her nuns who founded a chapel on Castle Rock. Saint Monenna was said to be a friend of Saint Brigit. She arrived from Ireland with eight virgins and a widow. The widow brought with her a son Luger, whom Monenna adopted as her foster son and who later became a bishop. However, this may be another reworking of the Nine Maidens motif.
They may not have been nuns but Pagan priestesses or perhaps the pagan priestesses had long been replaced by nuns as the church spread across Scotland, supplanting pagan beliefs with a form of Christianity mingled with pagan lore. Interestingly the word Cailleach means ‘veiled one’ in Gaelic. It later became the Gaelic word for a nun. Legend has it that the ‘Castle of the Maidens’ at Edinburgh was a shrine to the Nine Maidens, one of whom was Morgan Le Fey of Arthurian legend.
Interestingly, excavations under St Margaret’s Chapel in 1853, recovered a number of human bones. All of them were female.
1130: St Margaret’s Chapel
Saint Margaret’s Chapel was constructed by David I in memory of his mother Queen Margaret. Margaret was later canonised for her work in bringing the Celtic church into line with the more mainstream practices of the Roman Catholic Church.
King David was said to have evicted the former ‘nuns’ who inhabited the site so that a new chapel could be built. Saint Margaret’s chapel is now the oldest building in Edinburgh.
1296: Edward I Captures Edinburgh Castle
Edinburgh Castle started to develop into a royal fortress during the reign of King David I, King of Scots from 1124 to 1153. Things took a sinister twist in Scottish history, on the night of 19 March 1286, when Alexander III left Edinburgh Castle after celebrating his second marriage and overseeing a meeting with his royal advisors. A storm was brooding but the following day would be his new bride’s birthday. He could not be persuaded to wait out the storm. Somewhere near Kinghorn, he became separated from his retinue and plunged over a steep embankment to his death.
His death would ultimately plunge Scotland into a bitter war with England and would see the rise of warriors such as William Wallace and Robert the Bruce. King Edward, I invaded Scotland in 1296, first with his horrific sack of Berwick, followed by his resounding defeat of the Scots at the Battle of Dunbar. All of Scotland’s castles quickly surrendered. Edinburgh was under siege for three days before being captured. It was during this year that the Stone of Destiny was also captured by Edward and taken to Westminster Abbey.
1314: Randolph Retakes Edinburgh Castle
For twenty long years, Edinburgh Castle was held by the English. It was a tactical location which gave the English Army a foothold from which to launch northern campaigns. Then, in a daring night raid, Thomas Randolph, Robert the Bruce’s nephew retook the castle with a mere twenty men. They climbed the cliff face and then scaled the walls.
This was an important turning point in Bruce’s campaign. Three months later, at the Battle of Bannockburn, the Scottish King was able to retake the last of the Scottish castles under English control.
Twenty years later it was recaptured by the English. Then seven years later, Sir William Douglas claimed it back with his men disguised as merchants.
1380: David’s Tower Built
The Wars of Independence took their toll on Edinburgh Castle. Thus in 1380 King David, Robert the Bruce’s son commissioned the reconstruction of the Castle. As part of this, David’s Tower was built. It stood over thirty metres tall and dominated the Edinburgh skyline for some 200 years. It functioned as an entrance to the castle.
Allegedly, when the tower was built, a series of tunnels were built underneath it. A few hundred years later, a passageway was found in the castle’s cellars. An attempt was made to find out its length. A bold piper volunteered to descend into its murky depths, playing his bagpipes so those above him might follow his progress. The crowds followed above, tracing the sound of his music. Suddenly the music died. The piper was never seen again, and the tunnel was promptly sealed up. However, on quiet days, when the traffic dies down, the faint sound of bagpipes is said to echo up from beneath the Royal Mile.
Perhaps the tale is not without foundation. In August 1912, an inspection of the vaults and cellars beneath the castle led to the discovery of a series of underground passageways and chambers.
1440: The Black Dinner
The six-year-old James II became King of Scots in 1437 after the murder of his father, James I in 1437. This was a dark and bloody time in Scottish history, as rival factions sought to control the boy king. Upon the death of his father, James’ mother, Queen Joan, organised the retaliation killing of the rival branch of the Stewart clan who had murdered her husband. However, the killing did not stop there.
William Crichton and Alexander Livingston were in league with each other against the rival faction, the House of Douglas. The Black Douglas was perhaps Robert the Bruce’s ablest lieutenants and the men become firm friends. This favoured position led to the meteoric rise of Clan Douglas. However, some hundred years later, there were those who thought the Douglases were too powerful. They made their move.
Serving as the inspiration for the infamous Red Wedding from Game of Thrones, the ‘Black Dinner’ saw two young nobles lured to Edinburgh castle to have dinner with the ten-year-old King.
The Black Bull’s Head
Archibald Douglas, the 5th Earl of Douglas, had become the de facto ruler of Scotland following the murder of James I, presiding as both Lieutenant General of Scotland and co-regent for James II. However, his sudden death two years later from a fever saw his 15-year old son, William Douglas, become Earl. The rival faction headed by Lord Chancellor Sir William Crichton saw this as an opportunity to break the power and influence of Clan Douglas. The young Earl, along with his younger brother David, was invited to Edinburgh Castle to dine with the boy king.
According to legend, the children were having a good time, enjoying food, entertainment and talking until the end of the dinner, when the head of a black bull was dropped on the table. This was a symbol of death; the death of the Black Douglas. The two Douglas boys were dragged outside, given a mock trial, found guilty of high treason, and beheaded despite the protests of the King.
Sir Walter Scott wrote this of the horrific event:
“Edinburgh Castle, toune and towre,
God grant thou sink for sin!
And that e’en for the black dinner
Earl Douglas gat therein.”
1457: Mons Meg
At the Time Mons Meg was built, the six-tonne siege gun was at the forefront of artillery technology. In 1457, James II was gifted the canon from his wife, Mary of Guelders’ Great Uncle, Duke Phillip of Burgundy.
At the time it was made, the canon was simply known as ‘Mons’ after the town in Belgium where she was assembled in 1449. This massive gun had the ability to fire gunstones weighing 330lb, a distance of almost two miles.
In 1497 Mons Meg was used in the Seige of Norham Castle, when the reigning Scottish monarch, James IV invaded England.
In 1681, during a birthday salute for the Duke of Albany, later to be James VII, Mons Meg’s barrel burst. Because of her huge weight, it was impossible to melt her down. She stands to this day on the ramparts of Edinburgh Castle.
1507: Scotland’s First Fireworks Display
The first fireworks display in Scotland took place at Edinburgh Castle. In 1507 ‘fireball’ fireworks formed part of a spectacular jousting tournament hosted by James IV. The pageant was known as ‘The Wild Knight and Black Lady Tournament’.
1537: Execution of Janet Douglas, Lady of Glamis
On July 17th, 1537, Janet Douglas, Lady of Glamis was executed at Edinburgh Castle after being sentenced to be burnt at the Stake. Her young son, John Lyon, 7th Lord of Glamis, was forced to witness the execution.
Janet’s only crime was that she had been born with the surname Douglas. This coupled with her great beauty had left her at the mercy of two men hell-bent on vengeance. One was a love-crazed admirer whose obsession took a sinister turn. The other was King James V, King of Scots, who was looking for reprisals on her brother, Archibald who had escaped across the border in England and beyond the reach of James’ long arm. Even in death, false accusations would be continued. She would be remembered as someone sentenced to death as a witch.
James V became King of Scots at just 17 months old. His father was killed at the Battle of Flodden. The power-hungry Archibald Douglas saw an opportunity. He wed James’ mother, Margaret Tudor.
Then, in 1525 Douglas took custody of James and made him a virtual prisoner. Archibald Douglas had Scotland in a stranglehold, and he wielded his power with impunity. But such power is a fragile thing. The young King escaped three years later and took control of his kingdom. Hatred burned in James’ veins and he would embark on a ruthless vendetta against all who bore the name Douglas. Meanwhile, Archibald Douglas skipped the country.
Janet Douglas became Lady Glamis through her marriage to John Lyon sixth Lord of Glamis. Alas, in 1528, John Lyon died, and their son John inherited the title, aged 7 years old. Janet was left without a protector. One of King James’ first actions, as he came of age, was to accuse Janet Douglas of poisoning her husband. Implicit with this charge was the idea that she was conspiring with her Douglas relatives against the King. She went on to marry Archibald Campbell of Skipness in 1532.
Janet’s Jilted Admirer
In Robert Pitcairn’s ‘Ancient Criminal Trials’, he states that:
Meantime William Lyon, a near relation of her first husband, having made violent addresses to her, and seeing that she was married to this gentleman, became almost distracted upon the disappointment: but though he had lost her in marriage, yet did not forbear his addresses to her in an unlawful way, and continued to importune her to consent to his designs; which she resented with the utmost disdain, and told him, that she had treated him with the respect due to the relation of her first husband and child, and not out of any regard to his own person or merit; but, since she found that he had such designs, she hated the sight of him, and assured him that she never would comply with such abominable crimes.
William Lyon’s obsession soon turned to hate, and he accused Janet, Archibald Campbell and ‘one John Lyon, an aged Priest, and his own near relation’ of planning to poison the king. He had them arrested. Lyon found the King all too ready to listen to his allegations.
Janet and Archibald Campbell were imprisoned in Edinburgh Castle. However, getting a conviction proved more difficult. James had to resort to torture to extort ‘evidence’ from her servants and family. Young John Lyon was also sentenced to death but was pardoned because of his young age. However, his lands were confiscated.
Meanwhile today it is claimed that Janet’s restless spirit returned to Glamis Castle to become the Famous Grey Lady which haunts its halls.
1566: James VI born at Edinburgh Castle
On the 19th June 1566, the future King James VI of Scotland and I of England was born at Edinburgh Castle. His mother, Mary Queen of Scots, had abandoned the comfort of her usual residence at Holyrood House for the birth. This was small wonder, given that three months earlier, her private chambers had been invaded by a large gang of armed nobles who murdered her private secretary David Rizzio before her eyes. Edinburgh Castle was safer.
In advance of the event, Mary’s furniture and furnishings were moved into the ground floor of the Palace Block at Edinburgh Castle. This included her four-poster bed. When her time came, she withdrew to a tiny room now known as the birth chamber. Few things in life were simple or easy for Mary- including the birth of her son. It was a long and painful labour, but the delivery of a healthy male heir prompted great celebrations.
However, all might not have been as it appeared. In 1800 the skeleton of an infant was found within the castle walls. There was a lot of speculation as to the identity of the child. One of the prevalent rumours of the day stated that the remains belonged to none other than James VI. It was claimed that he had been murdered as a child and a pretender had been put on his place on the throne.
Whether or not the child had been supplanted, a mere fourteen months later, James’ father, Darnley had been murdered, Mary deposed, and the infant crowned king.
1571: The Lang Siege at Edinburgh Castle
The ‘Lang’ or ‘Long’ Siege lasted for seventeen months. The battle was triggered when Mary Queen of Scots married James Hepburn, Earl of Bothwell. This stirred up a rebellion amongst the Scottish Noblemen. Mary was forced to flee to England. Meanwhile, Mary still had some loyal followers who remained in Edinburgh. Among them was Sir William Kirkcaldy of Grange, Governor of Edinburgh Castle. who held the castle against the regents of her son, King James VI.
Queen Elizabeth of England donated twenty heavy guns to the regents. As a result, much of the castle was reduced to rubble, including David’s Tower. Eventually, the water supply was choked, and Kirkcaldy was forced to surrender. Kirkcaldy was executed and his head impaled on a spike as a warning to others.
1633 Last Monarch to stay in Edinburgh Castle
When James Vi ascended to the throne of England, the Scottish Monarchy departed from Edinburgh for London. At this point the castle was left with only a military function. The last monarch to reside in Edinburgh Castle was Charles I in 1633. This was before his coronation as King of Scots.
1639: Edinburgh Castle Captured by Covenanters
It took Covenanter Forces led by the distinguished General Alexander Leslie a mere 30 minutes to capture the Castle in 1639. The Covenanters were members of a 17th-century Scottish religious and political movement, who supported the Presbyterian Church of Scotland. Their name comes from the Solemn League and Covenant they signed in 1638 at Greyfriars Kirkyard. It stated that a King could not dictate what religious beliefs his subjects should have.
Alas, Greyfriars Kirkyard would later be turned into a prison for the covenanters who fought against the king. One of their most ardent opponents was the Royalist General, Tam Dalyell of Binns. He was particularly remembered for his uncompromising suppression of Covenanters and the bloody aftermath after the Covenanter defeat at Rullion Green in the Pentlands on 28 November 1666. He is also said to have played cards with the Devil! Perhaps it is small wonder that his apparition is said to come galloping down Castle Hill on the back of a white phantom horse!
1650: Oliver Cromwell Captures Edinburgh Castle
According to legend, a ghostly drummer is said to be sighted before the castle would come under attack. The last time the drummer appeared was in 1650. These were strange times in Edinburgh. On January 30th 1649, Charles I, the last king to be born on Scottish soil, was beheaded. Strange occurrences began happening around Scotland’s capital. Unusual sword-shaped meteors appeared in the sky, as well as spectral soldiers riding on horseback over the nearby hills. Then a headless drummer began playing his drums every night upon the castle’s battlements. One of the sentries took aim and fired his musket at the shade. The figure promptly disappeared, leaving no trace. The Governor of the Castle, Colonel Walter Dundas reported that the drummer first played an old Scots march followed by the beat of a tune known to the English forces. Finally, the phantom played a French rhythm.
The Battle of Dunbar occurred soon after. Afterwards, Oliver Cromwell marched on Edinburgh. The Castle was besieged for three months before, Colonel Walter Dundas surrendered.
Sometimes the phantom beating of drums can still be heard but the drummer has not been seen again.
1745: The Last Siege of Edinburgh Castle
The Jacobite Rebellions would once more see Edinburgh Castle under attack. Jacobitism was the political movement, fighting to restore the Stuart Monarchs to their thrones in Scotland, England and Ireland. The 1715 rebellion saw the Jacobites come perilously close to claiming the castle by scaling the north walls. This resulted in a strengthening of the castle’s artillery defences.
The 1745 rebellion, led by Bonnie Prince Charlie, saw the capture of Holyrood Palace at the opposite end of the Royal Mile. Although an attempt was made on Edinburgh Castle, he did not have the necessary firepower to mount a serious assault on the castle. This was to be the final siege of Edinburgh Castle.
1758: Edinburgh Castle’s First Prisoners of War
Edinburgh Castle was a formidable stronghold and the most secure lock-up in Scotland. In 1758, it would house its first Prisoners of War- French Privateers captured soon after the Seven Years War began. The vaults under the castle would be home to countless Prisoners of War in the period between 1758 and 1814.
Conditions in the castle vaults were grim. One of the prisoners made a bid for freedom, hiding in a barrow filled with manure. Alas, imagine his horror, as the barrow was emptied down the rocky slopes of the castle. The poor unfortunate did not make it and his apparition is said to haunt the castle to this day. Those who encounter him are met with the salubrious scent of dung!
However, a group of French soldiers had more luck with their bid for freedom in 1811. Forty-nine French prisoners hacked their way out and used ropes to scale down the south crag. A hole is visible on the castle wall to this day.
In 2003, a group of construction workers, carrying out some restoration work at the castle, claimed they were harassed by the ghosts of prisoners from the Napoleonic Wars. Some of the workmen refused to work on their own.
1818: Honours of Scotland Rediscovered In Edinburgh Castle
The Honours of Scotland is the title given to Scotland’s Crown Jewels which consist of the Crown, Sceptre and Sword of State. They are the oldest Crown Jewels in Britain.
They have led a checkered life. As Oliver Cromwell marched into Scotland, the Crown Jewels were spirited away to prevent them from falling into his hands. Between 1651 and 1660, they lay buried at Dunnottar Castle, near Stonehaven and later under the floor of nearby Kinneff Old Church.
Following the Act of the Union in 1707, they were locked in the Crown Room at Edinburgh Castle and forgotten about. Then in 1818, Walter Scott ‘rediscovered’ them. They now are on display for the public to see. However, during World War II, the Crown of Scotland was hidden away in a medieval latrine closet (or toilet) in David’s Tower.
1996: The Stone of Destiny Returns to Scotland
The Stone of Destiny is an ancient symbol of Scotland’s monarchy. For centuries it was used for the inauguration of Scottish Kings. That is until Edward I of England confiscated it in 1296 and carried it over the border. It was built into a new throne at Westminster Abbey and used for Coronation ceremonies.
It may have seemed that the Stone of Destiny was a permanent fixture at Westminster Abbey, but the Independence Movement was beginning to take hold in Scotland. The Stone was a symbol of Scotland’s Sovereignty. A group of students from Glasgow University set out to remind the Scottish people of their sacred Stone. Ian Hamilton, Gavin Vernon, Kay Matheson and Alan Stuart got together and planned out their daring heist. In the early morning of Christmas Day 1950, the students broke into the Abbey. The students used a mackintosh to drag the stone over the tiled floor. The students escaped back to Scotland and the Stone remained hidden for several weeks.
On the 11th of April 1951 the Stone of Destiny was significantly placed at Arbroath Abbey. It was here that the Declaration of Arbroath was signed, the place where the people of Scotland had declared their self-determination during the Scottish Wars of Independence. The Stone was returned to a repaired Coronation Chair in time for the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953.
Return to Edinburgh Castle
Then, on the 3rd July 1996, John Major, Prime Minister of Great Britain announced to the House of Commons that the Stone of Destiny would be returned to Scotland. Margaret Thatcher had never been popular with the Scottish people. When John Major took over as Prime Minister, he found that the Scottish people were very dissatisfied with their place within the Union. Many saw this move as a political ploy to resurrect the Conservatives failing support in Scotland.
On Saint Andrews Day, 30th November 1996, 10,000 people lined Edinburgh’s Royal Mile to witness the Stone of Destiny’s return to Scotland for the first time in 700 years. In a service at St Giles Cathedral, the Moderator of the Church of Scotland, the Right Reverend John MacIndoe, formally accepted the Stone’s return.
The Stone was taken to Edinburgh Castle where it now lives with the Honours of Scotland, the Scottish Crown jewels.
Ironically John Major’s plan did not work: the 1997 General Election saw the Conservative Party emerge without a single Scottish seat in Parliament.
2001: A Modern-Day Ghost Story
In November 2001 kitchen staff reported a haunting presence in the restaurant. A soldier’s nineteenth-century tunic was part of a Greyfriars Bobby display. The arm of the tunic was seen to move as though beating a drum. The tunic was stored in a glass case, so it was impossible for the movement to have been caused by a draft.
Alas, it was too much for one of the restaurant staff- he returned home to his native France!
Today Edinburgh castle stands as a monument to Scotland’s often troubled history. Its walls are steeped in the sweat and blood of those who once walked its corridors, some of which are loath to leave.