A Brief History of Edinburgh Castle

Apr 12, 2018

The parapets of an ancient castle looming high over the cityscape from atop its volcanic perch. Edinburgh Castle is an iconic sight to many locals and tourists alike. The walled fortifications of the 12th-century bastion are the capital’s most visited landmark.

The Castle in its current guise was built during the reign of David I, but the history of the area stretches back much further than this 12th-century monarch.

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Though the fort sits atop Castle Rock, this ancient volcano first formed 340 million years ago. Long since extinct, the rangy peak lent itself to the art of defence, providing an importance vantage point over the surrounding area.

The summit of Castle Rock stands at a height of 130 metres above sea level, with its steep slopes and scraggy sides making it a difficult prospect for even the most skilled of climbers.

Early human habitation of Edinburgh’s Seven Hills extends back to the Iron Age, but the Castle first appeared as a military position in the 12th-century. Prior to this, there is considerable evidence to suggest some kind of edifice occupied the Rock, known historically as the Maiden’s Castle.

As the seat of power within Scotland and the chief defensive structure within the capital, the castle would prove an important flashpoint in the centuries to come. As Scotland and England warred and fought for independence, the castle changed hands time and again, regularly coming under siege of receiving damage at the hands of invading forces.

The 1357 Treaty of Berwick ended the Wars of Independence. The deeds of William Wallace and Robert the Bruce would become the stuff of legend, but the long campaigns had left Scotland with a vast rebuilding project.

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Edinburgh Castle had not escaped damage, and under the reinstated King David II, rebuilding began as the castle became the seat of the Scottish government. The castle grounds saw much expansion during the next century; today’s Great Hall was added in 1511, whilst the now destroyed David’s Tower had been erected in the 1370s.

The English invasion of 1573 saw Edinburgh Castle besieged once more. A close ally of Mary, Queen of Scots, forces at the castle were locked in a stand-off with English troops for the following two years. Much of the castle would be destroyed once more, in a period that became known as the Lang Siege.

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Edinburgh Castle fell to the English again during the 17th century and the English Civil War. Oliver Cromwell launched an invasion of Scotland following the nation’s declaration of allegiance to King Charles. The capital was plunged into another siege, this one stretching three months.

Even though Charles I had unified England and Scotland under a single crown, still Edinburgh Castle was subject to death and destruction. The 18th-century Jacobite rebellions, a series of uprisings aimed at reinstating the Stuart monarchs to the throne, saw a number of skirmishes and assaults on the city, with Jacobite forces getting as far as the Royal Mile.


The castle has been relatively peaceful since then. It has seen use as a political prison housing enemies of the crown, and more recently as the Scottish National War Memorial.

These days, the castle is Scotland’s premier tourist attraction; engrossing museum and the holding place of the Scottish Crown Jewels.

Though political power now lies elsewhere, and Castle Rock’s days as a defensive fortification are long gone, the castle is still an important icon of Scottish culture and an ode to the nation’s rich and tumultuous history.

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