No trip to Scotland would be complete without a visit to Edinburgh Castle. Go anywhere in the city and it is hard to overlook the majestic castle sitting high atop Castle Rock. The castle is the most-visited paid tourist attraction in all of Scotland and second only to the London Tower in the entire United Kingdom. But with so much to do in Edinburgh itself, you can easily overbook your schedule and miss visiting the castle.
Castle Rock has been used by inhabitants dating back to at least the second century A.D. according to archeologists. Not much is known about these early settlements but assuming that the archeologists are correct, Castle Rock may be one of the longest inhabited sites in all of Scotland.
Geology. Edinburgh Castle has served many purposes but its primary function has been as a fortress thanks to geology. Castle Rock, on which the castle sits, is the remnants of an extinct volcano. Receding glaciers at the end of the last Ice Age were not able to erode the tough basalt rock left by the volcanic eruptions resulting in 430 feet (130 meters) high sheer rocky cliffs on the north and south sides of Castle Rock. There is also a steep ascent to the west side made it rather difficult for an attacking army to approach the castle from the north, south, or west sides. The east side, where the glaciers deposited sedimentary rock as they receded, has a gentle slope to the surrounding area only 260 feet (80 meters) below making it the only side of the castle that an attacking army could easily approach. The same characteristic that makes the castle easily defensible also makes it hard for the inhabitants to leave in the case of a siege of which there were many.
Various Uses. Since its origins, Edinburgh Castle has primarily served as a fortress and the castle has played a part in many conflicts to include the Wars of Scottish Independence. But the castle also served as a royal residence from the 12th century until early 1633 when King Charles I, the last royal to stay at the castle, spent the night before his Scottish coronation there. After that time, the castle was primarily used as a military barracks and it housed a military garrison until about 1923. The castle is still used as a military barracks to this day, although mainly as an administrative center. The castle served as a prison until shortly after an 1811 prison break when 49 prisoners escaped. Currently, the castle is home to the Scottish National War Museum and the National War Museum of Scotland. Some buildings house military regimental museums. The castle also hosts each August the Edinburgh Military Tattoo (music festival) and the annual Edinburgh Festival.
Buildings. Many of the medieval era early buildings no longer remain. The aerial bombardment during the 16th Lang Siege destroyed most of the buildings. But the three notable structures that pre-date this era are the St. Margaret’s Cathedral from the 12th century (the oldest structure in Edinburgh), the Royal Residence, and the 16th century Great Hall, although the interior of the Great Hall has undergone extensive renovations over the years.
One O’clock Gun. Monday through Saturday (except on Good Friday and Christmas) the castle fires the One O’clock Gun at exactly 1 pm. The tradition started in 1861 so ship captains in Leith Harbour could set the time on their chronometers. With modern navigation tools and watches, the need for the daily firing has come and gone but the tradition lives on and is a must-see event if you find yourself at the castle at that time.
Tickets and Getting There. Be sure to check the castle website (www.edinburghcastle.scot) latest information about tickets and schedules. In Summer months, the castle is open from 9:30 am to 6:00 pm and in the winter months, the castle closes an hour earlier at 5:00 pm. It is highly recommended that you purchase your tickets online to get the best price and your desired timeslot. Also, the castle does not have a parking lot for visitors. It is a short but entirely uphill walk from Waverly Train Station. Some tour hop-on hop-off tour buses do make a stop at the castle.
Edinburgh Castle is just one of those sites that you must see when you are in the city. Make it a whole day visit and be sure to visit The Royal Mile, an eclectic mix of shops, restaurants, and attractions that forms the main thoroughfare of Edinburgh’s Old Town and leads up to the castle from Hollyrood Palace. Hollyrood Palace, the official residence of royalty for the past 500 years, is also a must-see attraction when in Edinburgh.