Ten Facts You May Not Know About Edinburgh Castle

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Perched high above Scotland’s capital city, Edinburgh Castle is a historic fortress that’s occupied Castle Rock since the 12th century. It’s had a long and colorful history throughout the centuries.

Currently the castle is the most popular paid attraction in Scotland. More than 1.5 million visitors pass through the castle gates each year. Additionally, the castle hosts the annual Military Tattoo, which takes place in the esplanade every August.

I’ve had the pleasure of visiting Edinburgh Castle twice. There is always something new to learn about this imposing fortress.

Check out these ten facts you many not know about Edinburgh Castle.

Ten Facts You May Not Know About Edinburgh Castle title meme

Most Besieged Place in Europe

Edinburgh Castle squared off against hostile forces a remarkable 23 times!

Notable sieges include the Longshanks Siege of 1296 when Edward I plundered the castle and sent its treasures to London. And during the Lang Siege, a government resistance from 1571 – 73, the castle declared its support for Mary Queen of Scots.

The last siege occurred during the Jacobite Rising in 1745, when Bonny Prince Charlie tried to take the fortress. He failed.

Sits Atop a Volcano

The volcanic explosion that created Castle Rock occurred millions of years ago.  Archaeological evidence shows that humans settled on the rock around 850 BC.

Builders constructed the castle in the 12th century, over the plug of the volcano’s vent.

Ten Facts You May Not Know About Edinburgh Castle rock
Ten facts you may not know about Edinburgh Castle – castle rock was once a volcano

The Castle is Haunted

It’s no surprise that this ancient structure claims to house a few ghosts. After all, the city of Edinburgh is considered one of the most haunted places in the world.

When tunnels were discovered beneath the castle and the Royal Mile, a young piper entered the passages, playing his bagpipes as he walked. Above ground, people tracked his progress by following the sound of the pipes. Suddenly, the pipes fell silent about half way down the Mile. Rescuers searched the tunnels but never found the piper. Today the faint sound of his bagpipes occasionally echoes through the tunnels beneath the castle and the Royal Mile.

In the castle dungeons, watch for the headless drummer boy who haunts that area. Other mysterious occurrences include misty figures that appear, sudden drops in temperature and invisible hands that tug at clothing and hair.

Oldest Building in Scotland

Due to battles in and around the castle, most sections have been destroyed and rebuilt. However, St Margaret’s Chapel remains intact, making it the oldest building in the country.

Queen Margaret married Scottish King Malcolm III around 1070. She was considered a good woman who cared about others. When Malcolm died in battle, Margaret died of a broken heart, a few days later. Their son, David I, built the chapel to honor his mother.

When Robert the Bruce captured the castle in 1314, it’s the only structure he spared.

Ten Facts You May Not Know About Edinburgh Castle St Margarets
Ten facts you may not know about Edinburgh Castle – St Margaret’s chapel is the oldest building

The Castle Grounds Contain a Dog Cemetery

Tucked into a garden, visible from the Argyle Battery, is a canine cemetery. This small patch of ground is dedicated to the dogs of the Scottish battalions. There lies Jess, the mascot of the Black Watch 42nd Highlanders and Dobbler, who accompanied the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders from  Sri Lanka to South Africa.

The dogs buried here are honored for their loyalty and service. Visitors cannot enter the cemetery however it can be viewed from above.

Time Keeping Gun

Since 1861, a gun fired from the castle grounds allowed sailors passing by in the Firth of Forth to adjust their chronometers to the correct time. Indeed, the whole city could set their clocks and watches by the castle gun.

Although no longer needed today by sailors, the ritual is now a tradition. The gun is fired daily at 1:00 pm, much to the delight of visitors.

Ten Facts You May Not Know About Edinburgh Castle gun
Today the gun is an L118 Light Gun, put into use in 2001.

An Elephant Once Lived at the Castle

In 1838, the 78th Highlanders returned to Edinburgh with an elephant. The elephant lived in the castle stables while his comrades lived in the barracks. He marched at the head of the band in regimental parades and developed a fondness for beer.

It’s told that the elephant reached into the canteen each night, for a beer before retiring. The memorial to the 78th Highlanders, on display in the esplanade, features an elephant carved into a stone at the foot of a Celtic cross.

The Scottish Crown Jewels Were Hidden Too Well in the Castle

Known as the Honours of Scotland, the Crown, the Sceptre and the Sword of State were used in Scottish coronations. However, after Scotland and England united under one crown in 1707, the Honours were locked into a chest for safe keeping and hidden away in the castle.

A hundred years passed and the location of the crown jewels was forgotten.

A party of searchers, that included Sir Walter Scott, found the chest in 1818. The Honours are on display again, in a protected room in the castle.

Sculpture depicting the crown jewels
Ten facts you may not know about Edinburgh Castle – the crown jewels were hidden away…and it took 100 years to find them again.

University of Edinburgh Students Will Not Enter the Gates

There’s a story told down through the years that if a University of Edinburgh student enters the castle gates, he or she will fail their final exam.

While it’s just a legend, many students are unwilling to visit the castle while studying at the university. They prefer to wait until they graduate!

The Castle Dungeons Held Many Prisoners of War

Edinburgh Castle dungeons housed at least 1,000 prisoners in the 18th and early 19th centuries. Prisoners from the Seven Years’ War, the American War of Independence and the Napoleonic Wars all occupied the dungeons.

Interestingly, 21 pirates of the Caribbean were found guilty of piracy and held there while awaiting execution. They were hung off the coast of Leith.

Ten Facts You May Not Know About Edinburgh Castle dungeoons
Ten facts you may not know about Edinburgh Castle – the dungeons held more than 1000 prisoners over the years.

Visit Edinburgh Castle

I enjoyed both of my visits to the castle. As one with Scottish DNA, it is a moving experience for me. There’s so much history and many stories to absorb while wandering that large complex.

The castle is open again and welcoming visitors from 9:30 am to 6:00 pm. Tickets MUST be purchased in advance through their website.

You can explore the grounds on your own or join a guide for an in depth tour. There’s a wonderful tea house on the grounds along with a cafe.

Any trip to Edinburgh, for those new to the city, should include a stop at Edinburgh Castle. Located at the top of the Royal Mile, the castle is impossible to miss. In fact, one of the things that I love about Edinburgh is stopping occasionally as I wander to orient myself by locating the castle. It’s a symbol of the city and therefore, significant to me.

Have you been to Edinburgh Castle? Did you learn something new about that fortress?

Me with the castle behind me
The castle behind me.

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The Infamous Theft of the Stone of Destiny

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I first toured Edinburgh Castle in 2014, with my cousins Mindy and William. On that dreich day in August, we stood huddled around our tour guide Jonathan as he spoke passionately about Scotland’s Stone of Destiny, housed nearby in a room of the castle.

With his long red hair blowing in the wind and fire in his fierce blue eyes, Jonathan epitomized the proud Scots warrior, ready to defend his beloved country. I shivered as he spoke in his heavy Scottish brogue and it had nothing to do with the cold. He shared how the stone left Scotland for a time…a very long time…and eventually returned home where, he declared vehemently, it will remain.

And he intrigued me with a tale of the infamous theft of the Stone of Destiny.

When my cousins opted to leave the castle complex to attend a whiskey tasting, I chose to stay behind and see this Stone of Destiny that stirred such passion in our guide.

The Infamous Theft of the Stone of Destiny title meme

The Stone of Destiny Backstory

The Stone of Destiny, also known as the Stone of Scone and in England, the Coronation Stone, is an oblong block of red sandstone. This rather ordinary looking block of stone served for centuries as the coronation stone for the monarchs of Scotland.

The Scone Abbey near Perth, Scotland originally housed the artifact. Historian Walter Hemingford described the stone as “hollowed out as a chair on which future kings were placed for their coronation, according to custom.”

The stone measures 26 inches by 16.7 inches by 10.5 inches. A roughly etched cross decorates one surface while embedded iron rings aid with transport. It weighs 335 pounds.

In 1296 the English king Edward I took the stone as spoils of war and moved it to Westminster Abbey. A special wooden coronation chair became the stone’s resting place. Edward sought to claim status as the “Lord Paramount” of Scotland with the right to oversee its king.

All subsequent English monarchs sat in the chair, above the stone, when crowned. Queen Elizabeth II last used the coronation chair in 1953.

The Infamous Theft of the Stone of Destiny coronation chair
The Infamous Theft of the Stone of Destiny – illustration of the Coronation Chair with the Stone

A Daring Rescue Plan

In 1950, more than 650 years after the stone left Scotland, a group of Scottish college students concocted a bold plan…steal the Stone of Destiny and bring it home.

A law student at the University of Glasgow, Ian Hamilton joined with Alan Stuart, Kay Matheson and Gavin Vernon to break into Westminster Abbey and recover the stone.

Ian read everything he could find about the Abbey and scouted out the building several times. On one visit, he deliberately stayed past closing time, hiding near the Coronation Chair. A janitor discovered him and thinking the young man drunk, offered him a coin and let him out a side door.

During these surveillance trips, Ian found the side doors made of pine, making them easy to break into after hours.

On Christmas Eve, 1950, Ian and his companions drove to London in two separate cars. Arriving early on Christmas Day, the group parked near the Abbey. Kay remained in a running car, ready for a quick get away, while the boys stealthily entered the Abbey. That’s when the plan began to fall apart.

The Infamous Theft of the Stone of Destiny top view
The Infamous Theft of the Stone of Destiny – top view

Stealing the Stone of Destiny

The heavy stone rested in a chair made specifically for it. The young men found it difficult to remove the stone and ultimately broke part of the chair. Tugging the stone free at last, it fell to the floor, breaking toes on one of the men’s foot. More alarming to them, the stone broke in two.

Ian quickly grabbed the smaller piece and carried it to the car where Kay waited. He stashed the stone segment in the back seat. As he re-entered the Abbey, he heard a police officer approaching. Dashing back to Kay, Ian took her into his arms and kissed her. Questioned by the policeman, the pair claimed to be a couple searching for accommodations for the night.

Once the officer left, Kay drove off with the smaller stone segment hidden beneath a blanket. When Ian returned to the Abbey, he discovered the other men had fled. With great determination and ingenuity, the lad used his coat to laboriously drag the heavier stone segment out of the building.

As he heaved the stone into the trunk of the second car, his comrades returned. They all left together.

The theft discovered, roadblocks sprang up on all streets out of London. Kay did not draw suspicion, as a single girl driving a car. She made it through and crossed the border, taking her part of the stone to her family’s farm in Scotland.

The young men chose to hide the larger segment in England, fearing they could not make it across the closed border. They buried the stone in an empty field in Kent. Eventually they returned for the stone and successfully transported it to Scotland.

The Infamous Theft of the Stone of Destiny side view
The Infamous Theft of the Stone of Destiny – side view

Back to England

With the help of the Scottish National Party leader, the courageous college students had the stone repaired by a stone master. The theft made international headlines and brought a united sense of joy to the Scottish people.

As the investigation into the theft of the Destiny Stone came closer and closer to the perpetrators, the four decided that they had accomplished their purpose. By stealing the Stone of Destiny and bringing it home they raised awareness of Scotland’s subordination to England.

The four contacted two Arbroath town councilors and turned over the stone.

On April 11, 1951, the councilors helped the college students set up the stone on an altar in the abandoned Arbroath Abbey and called the authorities. The English got the stone back and returned it to the Coronation Chair. The students disbanded and never met again. Ian completed his studies and became a criminal lawyer.

The way was paved, however, for the stone to return to its rightful place in Scotland. In 1996 the English handed over the Stone of Destiny, on the condition that they may “borrow” it for any future coronations.

The Infamous Theft of the Stone of Destiny Robert the Bruce
The Infamous Theft of the Stone of Destiny – statue of Robert the Bruce

Viewing the Stone of Destiny

Twice I’ve viewed the Stone of Destiny in Edinburgh Castle. Both times I felt deeply moved.

The stone rests within a plexiglass case along with the Crown Jewels of Scotland. I can’t touch it yet I feel the hum of sacred energy that flows from it. My Scottish DNA responds, causing my eyes to fill with tears and my heart to beat faster. Photographs are not allowed so I spent several long minutes studying the stone, searing its image into my mind and soul.

What an amazing history this stone possesses. I love the courage and resourcefulness of the four young adults who accomplished what no one else dared. They took back what was rightfully theirs. That feat ultimately resulted in a permanent return of the stone and the Scottish are extremely protective of it now.

As an older adult, Ian said:

“When I lifted the stone in Westminster Abbey, I felt Scotland’s soul was in my hands.”

What a marvelous representation of Scotland’s hardy, warrior soul is the Stone of Destiny. Long may it remain in Edinburgh.

The Infamous Theft of the Stone of Destiny group photo
Group photo at Edinburgh Castle, September 2017

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High Atop Castle Rock

Edinburgh Castle dominates the skyline of this historic city. Located atop an extinct volcano, in the heart of Old Town, the fortress stands as a stark reminder Scotland’s more turbulent times, when wars were fought between countries and even between clans.

Touted as Scotland’s most visited landmark, Edinburgh Castle draws in more than a million visitors a year. We made our way to the top of the Royal Mile to explore this ancient castle and learn about its place in Scottish history.

Here are additional photos from our time

within the castle compound.

Looking toward the Firth of Forth, east of Edinburgh.

There has been a royal castle on this rock since the reign of King David I, in the 12th century. Most of the castle’s original structures were destroyed in the 16th century during the Lang Siege, due to artillery bombardment, with the exception of Saint Margaret’s Chapel, the Royal Palace and the Great Hall.

Stained glass window and huge painting in the Great Hall.

We spent time wandering in the castle prisons, where the somber energy was heightened by dark shadows and the interesting play of light in stone passageways and long, dormitory style rooms. There was a sacredness present there, that told of survival rather than captivity, and life rather than death. Some of my favorite photos of the castle were taken in the prison.

Hammocks strung above narrow cots.

I love the light finding its way through these shuttered windows. It symbolizes hope to me.

Although the prisons could be considered depressing, I found a resilient beauty in them. The stone chambers would have provided unyielding barriers to the men within, however, their souls were not contained. We viewed etchings and carvings the prisoners made on wooden doors and upon the stone walls themselves. The creative pictures were vital reminders of home and life and hope.

The One O’Clock Gun is fired every day, except Sunday, at precisely 1:00. It is a time signal, fired for the ships in the harbor, since 1861.

There is a castle tea house in the compound, where I enjoyed a cup of hot lemon grass and ginger tea.

We enjoyed our time on Castle Rock. The views of the city are amazing. I stood peering over the battlements, and imagined what Edinburgh looked like in the centuries past. Remove the cars and buses, and much of it probably looked the same as it currently does. I felt the solidness and permanence of this stronghold and my Scottish blood rejoiced.

The statues of Robert the Bruce and William Wallace were added to the gatehouse entrance in 1929. They stand as silent sentinels, defenders of Scotland’s freedoms. I feel the castle itself is a sentinel, watching over the city from atop its stony perch, a grounding force for Edinburgh’s residents and visitors. Long may it stand.

Exploring Edinburgh Castle

The focus of our second, and final, day in Edinburgh was the castle perched solidly atop volcanic rock, high above the sprawling city. The weather was decidedly Scottish…cool and drizzly, with periods of light rain. We weren’t deterred. Donning hoodie jackets over warm layers, we set out on the day’s adventures.

Here are the highlights of our explorations:

Edinburgh Castle has existed in varying degrees of size and fortification since the second century AD. Margaret’s Chapel is the oldest surviving structure in the castle complex, and also the oldest in Edinburgh. Most of the other buildings have been destroyed during bombardments and rebuilt.

Our tour guide, Robby, was knowledgeable and guided us expertly around the castle grounds, telling stories and sharing interesting facts.

Looking out over the battlements, toward the Firth of Forth. The castle is at the top of the Royal Mile, in the heart of the Old City. Edinburgh’s New City stretches out toward the water.

And looking to the west.

The stone structures comprising the castle are beautiful. The castle grounds spiral upward by way of cobbled courtyards and streets. The former royal residences are at the peak, where they were most protected. Today the castle house’s numerous museums and exhibitions and it is one of the most visited sites in the world.

The Great Hall.

The Royal dining room, and a sculpture representing the crowning of Robert the Bruce, located in an alcove off of the room containing the Crown Jewels of Scotland and the Stone of Destiny. Photos were not allowed in the Crown Jewels room.

I love the Stone of Destiny, a slab of ordinary looking stone that the kings of Scotland were crowned upon. King Edward I of England took the stone, and for 700 years, it rested beneath the throne of the English monarchy. But it was officially returned to Scotland in 1996.

Group pic in front of the castle.

We walked through a stark recreation of the living conditions in the castle’s prison rooms, where prisoners of war were held. Americans ended up in here as well, when they were captured as enemies against Great Britain. The rooms, while fascinating to explore, held a troubled energy that empathetically created discomfort in my chest. We viewed the original wooden cell doors, where prisoners had scratched words of hope and detailed works of art, including an American flag.

We enjoyed a light lunch in the castle’s tea room, and later shopping on the Royal Mile. However, most of our day was spent within the castle walls, looking, listening, learning. This was not just a tourist stop for us. The history here is part of our history as well.

The Scots are my people. This is my land. My heart dwells here in joy and peace, and embedded in my DNA are characteristics that sprang from this rich and fertile land. I’ve loved every moment spent in Edinburgh.

Tomorrow we head south to Lauder, in the Borders. This area of Scotland has great significance for my family. I am looking forward to visiting Thirlestane Castle again and

sharing that journey with my mom, sisters and niece.

Alexander McCall Smith wrote about Edinburgh: “This is a city of shifting light, of changing sky, of sudden vistas. A city so beautiful it breaks the heart again and again.”

I so agree. I love this city. My heart has been pierced by its beauty and energy. Edinburgh, I will be back.

Day 224: Edinburgh Castle

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The focus of today’s first was a visit to Edinburgh Castle, in the heart of Old Town. At the top of the Royal Mile is the gate to the castle. With a sense of awe we passed through that massive gate and entered a different world.

Once through the gate, it’s like being in a small city. A small fortified city. Built upon volcanic rock and overlooking both Old and New Towns, the castle of Edinburgh is an imposing fortress. Some sort of structure has sat atop that hill for more than 2000 years. From its vantage point, the castle has never been taken by force.

We opted to take a guided tour, rather than just wander around. Our tour guide, Jonathan, had a Scottish accent and the look of a Scottish laird with his red hair and beard. It was blustery and cold today so Jonathan sported plaid slacks rather than a kilt.

He expertly guided us through the castle grounds, relating stories and interesting facts. At the highest point, near the great hall and residential quarters, he set us free to explore.

Mindy and I had already spied our next stop…the castle tea room. Harry is good natured about our new obsession with afternoon tea and indulges us. And obsessed we have become. We have a good breakfast early in the day and then we skip lunch and have afternoon tea instead, which traditionally is between 3:00-5:00. We then have a late supper, between 7:30-9:00. We have wholeheartedly adopted the customs of this friendly group of people!

We enjoyed our tea and getting out of the cold wind for a short time. Mindy and Harry left to investigate the Whiskey Experience shop while I chose to remain in the castle.

On my own, I climbed the tower to view the Honours of Scotland, the royal crown, sword and sceptre. Our guide had explained how, in 1707, after England and Scotland united, the Crown Jewels were hidden away in a secured vault until they were rediscovered by Walter Scott in 1818. The pieces are on display now at the castle, along with the Stone of Destiny. Scotland’s first king, David I was crowned sitting on this large chunk of sandstone. All the kings of Scotland have been crowned thus. When Scotland united with England the Stone of Destiny was moved to Westminster and the kings and queens of England have been crowned with the stone beneath their throne. For 700 years the Stone of Destiny remained in England. It was recently returned to Scotland. The Scots will allow the stone to return to England for any future crownings but our guide told us, fiercely, that the stone will never again be away from Scotland for such a long period of time.

I stood before the Stone of Destiny and felt Scotland’s rich heritage so deeply. I wanted to touch the stone, as a way of acknowledging that I too am fulfilling my destiny. Alas, the stone is encased in glass, protected as it should be. It was enough to hear the story and see the stone.

I visited the residential palace and saw the room King James VI of Scotland and I of England was born in. It was a small room for a man who became so important. I also visited the chapel of St. Margaret, which is the oldest building in the castle complex. The original castle was destroyed in the 1300’s and was rebuilt in sections. I stood the longest on a battlement overlooking New Town as it marches down to the water, the Firth of Forth. So many have stood where I stood and looked out over the city during the past 2000 years. I felt such a kinship with the Scots. My ancestors. My people. Nearby a Scottish flag curled around the flag pole, temporarily snarled. I stood and willed it to catch the breeze and unfurl, so I could capture a picture. As I stood, camera ready, the wind picked up. The flag rippled and twisted and patiently, I waited. With a loud snap it untangled and unfurled, flying unfettered above the castle. I captured the image and smiling, wound my way down through the stone passageways to the gate. I didn’t shout it out, but in my heart rang a cry of freedom!

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