Europe in the Middle Ages
Life in Medieval Castles
Medieval Castles > Castles Scotland > Edinburgh Castle
Location: Edinburgh, Scotland
Built in: First records date back to the 11th century
Medidative people will find a charm in a certain conancy between the aspect of the city and its odd and stirring history. Few places, if any, offer a more barbaric display of contrasts to the eye. In the very midst stands one of the most satisfactory crags in nature, a Bass Rock upon dry land, rooted in a garden, shaken by passing trains, carrying a crown of battlements and turrets, and describing its warlike shadow over the liveliest and brightest thoroughfare of the new town.
From their smoky beehives, ten stories high, the unwashed look down upon the open squares and gardens of the wealthy; and gay people sunning themselves along Princes Street, with its mile of commercial palaces all beflagged upon some great occasion, see, across a gardened valley set with statues, where the washings of the old town flutter in the breeze at its high windows. And then, upon all sides, what a clashing of architecture!
In this one valley, where the life of the town goes most busily forward, there may be seen, shown one above and behind another by the accidents of the ground, buildings in almost every style upon the globe. Egyptian and Greek temples, Venetian palaces and Gothic spires, are huddled one over another in a most admired disorder; while, above all, the brute mass of the Castle and the summit of Arthur's Seat look down upon these imitations with a becoming dignity, as the works of Nature may look down upon the monuments of Art.
But Nature is a more indiscriminate patroness than we imagine, and in no way frightened of a strong effect. The birds roost as willingly among the Corinthian capitals as in the crannies 'of the crag; the same atmosphere and daylight clothe the eternal rock and yesterday's imitation portico; and as the soft northern sunshine throws out everything into a glorified distinctness or easterly mists, coming up with the blue evening fuse all these incongruous features into one, and the lamps begin to glitter along the street, and faint lights to burn in the high windows across the valley the feeling grows upon you that this also is a piece of nature in the most intimate sense.
That this profusion of eccentricities, this dream in masonry and living rock, is not a drop-scene in a theatre, but a city in the world of every-day reality, connected by railway and telegraph-wire with all the capitals of Europe, and inhabited by citizens of the familiar type, who keep ledgers and attend church, and have sold their immortal portion to a daily paper.
By all the canons of romance, the place demands to be half deserted and leaning towards decay; birds we might admit in profusion, the play of the sun and winds, and a few gypsies encamped in the chief thoroughfare: but these citizens, with their cabs and tramways, their trains and posters, are altogether out of key. Chartered tourists, they make free with historic localities, and rear their young among the most picturesque sites with a grand human indifference. To see them thronging by, in their neat clothes and conscious moral rectitude, and with a little air of possession that verges on the absurb, is not the least striking feature of the place.
The Old Town, it is pretended, is the chief characteristic, and, from a picturesque point of view, the liver-wing of Edinburgh. It is one of the most common forms of depreciation to throw cold water on the whole by adroit overcommendation of a part, since everything worth judging, whether it be a man, a work of art, or only a fine city, must be judged upon its merits as a whole. The Old Town depends for much of its effect on the new quarters that lie around it, on the sufficiency of its situation, and on the hills that back it up. If you were to set it somewhere else by itself, it would look remarkably like Stirling in a bolder and loftier edition. The point is to see this embellished Stirling planted in the midst of a large, active, and' fantastic modern city; for there the two re-act in a picturesque sense, and the one is the making of the other.
The Old Town occupies a sloping ridge or tail of diluvial matter, protected, in some subsidence of the waters, by the Castle cliffs, which fortify it to the west. On the one side of it and the other the new towns of the south and of the north occupy their lower, broader, and more gentle hill-tops. Thus, the quarter of the Castle overtops the whole city and keeps an open view to sea and land. It dominates for miles on every side; and people on the decks of ships, or ploughing in quiet country places over in Fife, can see the banner on the Castle battlements, and the smoke of the Old Town blowing abroad over the subjacent country. A city that is set upon a hill. It was, I suppose, from this distant aspect that she got her name of Auld Reekie. Perhaps it was given her by people who had never crossed her doors; day after day, from their various rustic Pisgahs, they had seen the pile of building on the hill-top, and the long plume of smoke over the plain; so it appeared to them; so it had appeared to their fathers tilling the same field ; and as that was all they knew of the place, it could be all expressed in two words.
There is a silly story of a subterranean passage between the Castle and Holyrood, and a bold Highland piper who volunteered to explore its windings. He made his entrance by the upper end, playing a strathspey ; the curious footed it after 'him down the street, following his descent by the sound of the chanter from below; until all of a sudden, about the level of St. Giles's, the music came abruptly to an end, and the people in the street stood at fault with hands uplifted. Whether he was choked with gasses, or perished in a quag, or was removed bodily by the Evil One, remains a point of doubt ; but the piper has never again been seen or heard of from that day to this. Perhaps he wandered down into the land of Thomas the Rhymer, and some day, when it is least expected, may take a thought to revisit the sunlit upper world. That will be a strange moment for the cabmen on the stands beside St. Giles's, when they hear the drone of his pipes reascending from the bowels of the earth below their horses' feet.
Of all places for a view Calton Hill is perhaps the best; since you can see the Castle, which you lose from the Castle, and Arthur's Seat, which you cannot see from Arthur's Seat. It is the place to stroll on one of those days of sunshine and east wind which are so common in our more than temperate summer. Upon the right, the roofs and spire of the Old Town climb one above another to where the citadel prints its broad bulk and jagged crown of bastions on the western sky. Perhaps it is now one in the afternoon ; and at the same instant of time, a ball rises to the summit of Nelson's flagstafF close at hand, and, far away, a puff of smoke followed by a report bursts from the half-moon battery at the Castle. This is the time-gun by which people set their watches, as far as the sea-coast or in hill farms upon the Pentlands. And while you are looking across upon the Castle Hill, the drums and bugles begin to recall the scattered garrison; the air thrills with the sound ; the bugles sing aloud ; and the last rising flourish mounts and melts into the darkness like a star: a martial swan-song, fitly rounding in the labours of the day.
The Castle of Edinburgh was originally denominated Castelh Mynyd Agned, that is, "the fortress of the hill of Agnes ; " and the hill itself was termed Mynyd Agned Cathre gonion, which implies in the language of the ancient Britons, "the Hill Agned nigh the fortress." From which appellations it would appear that the Castle was founded after the introduction of Christianity to Scotland. At a subsequent period, the fortress was called Castrum Puellarum, because, as some assert, the daughters of the Pictish chiefs received "their education" in the Castle.
It is beyond a question that a very short period would have been sufficient for all the instruction which the rude chieftains of the Picts were anxious to bestow on the daughters ; but the Castle answered a more needful purpose, by protecting those high-born damsels from the indignities to which they might have been subject in a residence of less strength, while their fathers and brothers were despoiling neighbouring territories, and making free with the families of conquered rivals. Some persons have wished to ascribe a very remote origin to Edinburgh Castle ; but it is certain that a battle was fought on the site of the building by Arthur, King of the Britons, towards the close of the Fifth Century.
The ground-plot of the fortress occupies about six acres. At the western extremity is the outer barrier, which is formed of strong palisadoes. Beyond this are a dry ditch, a draw-bridge and a gate, defended by two flanking batteries.
In the south-east quarter of the castle, state-prisoners were formerly kept, and here, in an apartment called the crownroom it is by some pretended that the regalia of Scotland are still deposited. It is well known that they were lodged here, with much formality on the 26th of March, 1707.
Neither history nor tradition records any circumstance in which Edinburgh Castle is conspicuous, till the year 1093. On the authority of Fordun and Dalrymple, the following story concerning that period is related:-when Malcolm Canmore was slain in battle, his widow, Queen Margaret, took refuge in the Castle of Edinburgh, where she very shortly died. « Donald Bane, uncle to Malcolm's children, having usurped the throne, now besieged the Castle in which the orphan-heir to the crown resided. The usurper, presuming from the steepness of the rock that Malcolm's children could escape only at the gates, ordered them alone to be guarded. But those in the garrison, knowing this, conveyed the body of the Queen through a postern gate on the west side of the Castle, to the church of Dunfermline, where it lies interred : and the children escaping to England, where they were protected and educated by their uncle, Edgar Atheling."
After the murder of James I. at Perth, the son and successor of that Monarch, who inherited the crown at the age of seven years, was placed under the care of Crichton, the chancellor, while Sir Thomas Livingstone was appointed regent. But a quarrel occurring between the two great officers of state, James was detained, in splendid confinement, at Edinburgh Castle, by Sir William Crichton. But the Queen-Dowager, who favoured the opposite party, resolved to rescue her son, and place him in the hands of the regent.
In pursuit of this purpose, she paid a visit to the youthful Sovereign, during which she affected to display great friendship towards the chancellor, and asserted an intention of never interfering in matters of state. Crichton was deceived by these assurances, and readily granted the Quen permission to remove certain articles from the Castle, which would be wanted by her in the course of a pilgrimage to a church in East Lothian, which she was on the point of undertaking.
The effects were conveyed from the Castle at an early hour of the morning, and among them, concealed in a trunk, was removed the young King, who was supposed to be asleep and secure in his chamber. A vessel was ready, and he, the same night, reached Stirling, where he was received with open arms by the triumphant Queen and regent.
But the fruit of the Queen's ingenuity was soon wrested from her by the superior address of the chancellor. Crichton knew that the King hunted frequently in the woods near Stirling, and he watched an opportunity during the absence of the regent, to conceal himself, and a determined band, in the deep shade of a wood through which it was likely the King would pass. James fell into the snare, and the chancellor, with many protestations of respect, and much show of real courtesy, conducted him to his former place of secluded residence.
The over-weening power and extreme insolence of the Earl of Douglas caused a reconciliation to take place, shortly after this event, between the chancellor and the regent, who were mutually apprehensive of the ill consequences of a division in the state, while the ambitious Douglas was daily increasing in authority and turbulence. Convinced of the inefficacy of the executive power to inflict justice on the Earl, or to put a stop to his oppressive proceedings, the two new co-adjutors resolved on proving the sincerity of their alliance, by the assassination of their rival; and, for this purpose, the chancellor decoyed him into the Castle. Lord Douglas was treated with so much well-counterfeited respect that he felt assured of security, and consented to share a banquet with the King and the two great officers who ruled in the Monarch's name.
Here smiles and hilarity prevailed : the regent flattered the pride of Douglas, and the chancellor pressed his hand, with warm assurances of attachment. But, towards the conclusion of the entertainment, a bull's head was set before the unsuspicious guest. Douglas understood the fatal symbol, and sprang from the table; but he was instantly surrounded by armed men, who dragged him, in spite of the King's tears and supplications, to the outer court of the Castle, where he was murdered.