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Edinburgh Castle is simply magnificent. It occupies the summit of an ancient plug of volcanic rock towering 260ft or 80m above the city it dominates, and is visible for tens of miles in every direction. No fairytale castle, this is the real thing, an uncompromisingly defensive structure that seems to grow organically out of the living rock beneath it. Over the centuries Edinburgh Castle has been continuously adapted to meet the military needs of the day. And over the centuries its strength has been tested on no fewer than thirteen occasions, successfully or unsuccessfully, by siege or by stealth.
Edinburgh Castle is a large and complex structure. On this page you find the story of the castle from ancient times until today. The Edinburgh Castle: Lower Castle page looks in more detail at the Lower and Middle Wards of the castle; and the Edinburgh Castle: Upper Castle page covers highlights of the Upper Ward and Crown Square. We also have a feature on the National War Museum housed within the castle. Prices and opening hours for Edinburgh Castle are linked from the Visitor Info section on the right.
The site of Edinburgh Castle was occupied as early as 900BC. By the time the Romans made their brief visits to Scotland in AD80 and AD139 (see our Historical Timeline) it was an important fort of the Votadini people, later known as the Gododdin, who called it Din Eidyn. Din Eidyn was besieged and captured by the Angles in AD638. They Anglicised the name to Edinburgh, which is how it stayed after they were evicted by the Scots under Malcolm II in 1018.
Edinburgh Castle started to develop into a royal fortress during the reign of David I from 1124 to 1153. Edward I of England took the castle after a three day siege in 1296. The Scots retook it in 1314 by scaling the rock at night, but the English were back in possession by 1335, only to lose it once more to the Scots by stealth in April 1341.
The Stewart dynasty saw Edinburgh Castle grow in importance. James III, who ruled from 1460 to 1488, greatly extended the castle to serve as his permanent home. He started the development of the palace buildings around Crown Square, which culminated with the completion of the Great Hall by James IV in 1511.
It was also the Stewarts who later developed the Palace of Holyroodhouse, at the lower end of the Royal Mile, as a more comfortable palace in peaceful times, leaving Edinburgh Castle to serve as a military fortress and a bolt-hole in times of strife. It was because she felt under threat that Mary Queen of Scots chose to give birth to the later James VI of Scotland and I of England in the castle on 19 June 1566.
After Mary's flight to captivity in England the Governor of Edinburgh Castle, Sir William Kirkcaldy, continued to support her claim to the throne. From the summer of 1571 the castle was besieged by supporters of Mary's infant son, James VI. The Lang (long) Siege lasted until May 1573, when 20 heavy guns on loan from Queen Elizabeth I of England arrived in Edinburgh. After a ten day bombardment the garrison surrendered.
Charles I briefly stayed at the castle in 1633, the last monarch to do so. In 1650, Scottish support for the claims of Charles II saw Edinburgh Castle serving as headquarters for Cromwell's invading Parliamentary Army. Although Cromwell was at the head of the last hostile army to arrive in Edinburgh from the south, the city and its castle remained in danger from a series of Jacobites rebellions for a further century. The castle was initially held for James VII/II in 1689 before surrendering to supporters of William and Mary.
In 1715 the Jacobites very nearly captured Edinburgh Castle by scaling the rock, as Robert the Bruce's men had done 401 years earlier. And in 1745, although Bonnie Prince Charlie's army took the city, their lack of heavy guns meant the castle held out easily.
Although Edinburgh Castle has not seen action since 1745, a lot of today's castle dates back the next great military scare, the threat of Napoleon at the end of the 1700s. The biggest of these additions, the seven storey "New Barracks", finished in 1799, dominates the castle's western end and was intended to house 600 troops.
As early as 1818 the potential of Edinburgh Castle as a visitor attraction began to be appreciated by Sir Walter Scott. It was he who uncovered the Honours of Scotland (the crown jewels) in a locked room in the bowels of the castle, where they had been placed in 1707. They remain on view today.
During the Victorian era a number of schemes were proposed to make Edinburgh Castle a more attractive feature on the city skyline. The grandest and more bizarre were discarded, but they did result in a number of developments, including the rebuilding of the Gatehouse in 1888 and the restoration of the Great Hall in 1891.
Edinburgh Castle remains a military base today. And while few would begrudge the Army School of Piping its inspirational home, having the country's most popular tourist attraction and a military base under the same roof inevitably leads to compromises, including the excavation in the 1980s of a tunnel through the castle rock to allow military traffic access to the barracks without endangering tourists. What this means for the visitor is that parts of the castle are out of bounds. As a result you don't really get the total experience you find, for example, at Stirling Castle.
Neither is it as easy to form a connection with the real people who have lived and fought here over the past three thousand years. Rather than experiencing the castle in its entirety and as a castle, the sense is more of a range of attractions housed within the wider structure. Nonetheless, Edinburgh Castle remains an unmissable part of any visit to the city, not least for the unsurpassed views of Edinburgh itself.
But wouldn't the views be even better from a restaurant or visitor centre on the top floor of the New Barracks? Restoration of Stirling Castle to the beauty and the deep sense of history you experience there today had to wait until the military moved out in 1964. As a visitor you are left with a strong sense that Edinburgh Castle's vast potential will only fully be tapped after a similar process has taken place here.