No matter where you explore in Edinburgh, whether in amongst the Old Town’s closes or the New Town’s ordered thoroughfares, the mammoth bastion of Edinburgh Castle hangs in the air just at the edge of your peripheral vision, and in many ways it has been the same apparition here on Traveling Savage. I’ve referred to Edinburgh Castle on many occasions. I’ve posted photos of it from the Sir Walter Scott Monument and Arthur’s Seat and named it my number one castle to visit in Scotland. I’ve mentioned it in countless other posts, too, but to my consternation and slight embarrassment – despite visiting Edinburgh Castle at least three times – I’ve yet to write a more in-depth article on Scotland’s most impressive structure.
Finally, that all changes today.
Edinburgh Castle demands your time. The great Royal Mile leads up to the castle’s perch, and, as I’ve already mentioned, you can see it from just about every spot in the city. The castle grounds within the walls form a small, tiered town that provide incontrovertible evidence for why the castle was never taken by force. To ignore Edinburgh Castle is to be willfully contrary, and it would be a decision forever dripping with regret.
Edinburgh Castle is under the stewardship of Historic Scotland, and these days an adult ticket costs £16. It’s not a cheap visit, but if you take your time and do Edinburgh Castle right you’ll spend around three hours traipsing over cobbled lanes, exploring museums, gazing across the city, and looking upon some fascinating relics. If other Historic Scotland sites are on your itinerary, consider getting the Explorer Pass – it will save you money. I rarely recommend ponying up for audio guides at visitor attractions, but Edinburgh Castle is one where I suggest you get it. The audio information complements the signs scattered around the castle and adds a richness to the experience you won’t get listening only to the wind howling in your ears. If the audio guide doesn’t interest you, know that there are guided tours happening throughout the castle grounds. No one will bat an eye if you have happen to overhear a tale or two.
Take a look at this map of the castle for a sense of scale. After passing through the front entrance and getting your ticket and audio guide, a neat cobbled lane leads up to the castle gate proper and Argyle Tower. Soak in the brisk wind and dark stone walls and forget for a moment that you aren’t a royal guard in the Middle Ages. Once beyond the castle gate, drift over to the Argyle Battery of canons on your right – ignore the stair on your left for now – and take in the view over New Town. You’ll come back to this area on your way out and it makes a nice place to rest. If it’s clear you’ll notice the Firth of Forth glimmering in the distance. Just beyond the Argyle Battery you’ll see the One o’Clock Gun, which is still used to sound 1pm each day. Steps lead further down to the Western Defences where you can have a quick look around.
The lane winds past a café and a shop and forms a hairpin as it climbs to overlook the Argyle Battery. Great buildings rise up on your right, but hold off on exploring them until a bit later. For now, pass through Foog’s Gate and stop at St. Margaret’s Chapel and Mons Meg. Mons Meg is a medieval bombard – a massive canon – built in 1449 that was used in sieges during the 15th century. The 15-foot long canon fired 20-inch caliber stone balls weighing 400 pounds at targets two miles away! Because the gun is so massive, it could only be fired 8-10 times each day due to the build up of heat during ignition. The barrel burst in 1680 upon one such occasion and since then it has been merely a showpiece.
St. Margaret’s Chapel is an unassuming square building that happens to be the oldest surviving structure in all of Edinburgh. The chapel was built during the reign of King David I, between 1124-1153, in Romanesque style and named after David’s mother who fled from Wessex during the Norman invasion. Much of what you see in the interior dates from restoration work in the 19th century, but it’s amazing that this building is going on 1,000 years old.
Just beneath Mons Meg lies the soldiers’ dog cemetery. Cats around Edinburgh meow at this injustice. If you need to get back to the entrance quickly, head down the Lang Stairs which deposit you at the castle gate.
Following the lane takes you to the Forewall Battery and the Half-Moon Battery, two impressive displays of armaments meant to deter prospective besiegers. Canons line the battlements facing down the Royal Mile and across the northern face of Old Town. More grand views await you here, but if the dark entices you consider going down into the Fore Well hewn from the volcanic stone beneath the castle.
Pass through the arch into Crown Square where you’ll find the Royal Palace and David’s Tower. This is the heart of Edinburgh Castle and it is within the Royal Palace that you can view the crown jewels of Scotland and the Stone of Scone after a lengthy but interesting exhibit. The jewels are supremely impressive and a definite highlight of the visit, but the Royal Palace’s Great Hall is a stunning space glinting with stained-glass windows and an army’s worth of swords, pistols, and shields. Take your time here!
On the Crown Square you’ll also find another café, the Scottish National War Memorial, and the Prisons of War Exhibition. Both are worth your time, especially if you’re a museum person or simply want to get your money’s worth out of the visit.
Upon leaving Crown Square you’re presented with several museums to while away time. Pop into the Military Prison and then take a look at the last battery, Dury’s Battery, which overlooks the southwest side of Edinburgh. The buildings in this area are the ones I told you to ignore on your ascent up to St. Margaret’s Chapel and Mons Meg, but now, as you wind down back to the castle gate, consider stopping into The Royal Scots Regimental Museum, The Royal Scots Dragoon Guards Regimental Museum, the New Barracks, the Governor’s House, and the National War Museum. There’s a lot to take in here, but, to be fair, much of it will interest only a subset of visitors.
The sun is probably setting by now. You’re wind-whipped and overloaded with history. Have a seat by the Argyle Battery and savor the view one last time. Edinburgh Castle is a wondrous structure that you must visit when you come to Edinburgh. There are loads of secrets here and even more untold stories. Now find some for yourself.