Edinburgh Castle

Edinburgh Castle: History and Legend

Situated on top of a volcanic hill in the city of Edinburgh the city’s castle is a shining example of Scotland’s architectural and cultural heritage. Its imposing walls, which encircle more than 2000 years of history, have inspired the imaginations of residents and visitors alike, resulting in a long list of fables and legends that have accumulated over the centuries. A small introduction by FastPassTours.


A 1000 year-old history

Comfortably planted on Castle Rock, one of the city’s highest peaks, Edinburgh Castle can trace its history, albeit with humble beginnings, back to the first century AD. The original iron age dwellings gave way, almost a thousand years later, to an imposing royal fortress occupied by David I, King of Scotland.

The building, an enduring witness to the region’s history, has repeatedly been at the centre of conflict between the opposing crowns of England and Scotland. The city was attacked for the first time at the end of the thirteenth century, during a siege by the English. It would later see its defences destroyed by the Scots themselves while taking the city back. A few decades later, King Edward III would follow in his predecessor’s steps and once more take the castle from the Scots. His men fortified the hill before losing it again in an assault led in 1341 by William Douglas.

The Berwick Treaty, signed in 1357 between the kings Edward III of England and David II of Scotland would officially put an end to the second war of Scottish independence. During the ensuing lull, the local ruler took the opportunity to rebuild the castle and use it for storing arms, while residing at the Palace of Holyroodhouse just a few kilometres away.

In the sixteenth century, the castle was once again severely damaged as a result of another conflict between the two rival kingdoms. The building as it stands today corresponds to the renovation work undertaken at the end of this bloody siege. Additions were, however, made over the centuries, like the north and west bastions and cells to lock up prisoners of war

Ghosts and investigations

With numerous conflicts to its name, Edinburgh Castle quickly got a reputation for being the home to many ghosts, like those of the Douglas family from Glamis. Falsely accused of witchcraft, Janet Douglas, Lady Glamis, was burned at the stake on the esplanade in front of the fortress. Her burning was an act of a personal revenge by King James V, after being locked up for several years by Archibald Douglas, Janet’s brother. The king took his wrath out on several of the family members, with trials leading to imprisonments, executions and torture.

Locals maintain that the ghosts of the victims of this bloody purging still haunt the castle today. As for Lady Janet, her tortured soul is reputed to haunt the Douglas family home in the north of Scotland. Apparently her ghost is regularly seen kneeling in front of the chapel and to this day there is always a chair set aside for her.

Edinburgh Castle was also the subject of one the largest investigations into paranormal activity every undertaken. The study, carried out in 2001, involved nearly 200 people, including nine researchers. The principle was simple: explore the rooms of the castle without revealing to volunteers what parts were reputed to be haunted. Following the controlled test, it turns out that 51% of participants experienced “paranormal experiences” in so-called “sensitive” areas as opposed to only 35% in rooms without any special history. These manifestations were usually experienced as a sudden drop in temperature or the feeling of being restrained by one’s clothes. Edinburgh Castle and the city in general are now a popular destination for those interested in macabre tourism. Each year, many visitors eager to learn more about the dark tales and other obscure legends, come to visit the city.

The Stone of Scone

Located in the Crown Room of Edinburgh Castle the Stone of Scone (or Stone of Destiny) is a powerful and ancient symbol of the Scottish monarchy.

It reputedly dates back to biblical times. It is believed that Jacob himself used it as a pillow. The stone was an important part of the coronation ceremonies in Scotland and the Scottish kings would put their hands on it during their ascension to the throne. As part of the ceremony, the future kings would get up on the small monolith before swearing their oath. At the time the artefact was kept at the now ruined Scone Abbey near the city of Perth. According to tradition, no king could rule Scotland without sitting on the Stone of Scone. Another tradition dictated that, as long as the stone was in Scotland, the Kingdom could only belong to the Scottish.

Jacob’s Pillow” however, was stolen by the English following the victory in 1296 of Edward I over the troops of King John Balliol of Scotland. The stone was taken to Westminster Abbey, and symbolically placed under King Edward’s Chair. This humiliating gesture was of course intended to assert the dominance of the English Crown over the Scottish people. A legend maintains, however, that the monks of Scone Abbey hid the original stone in the River Tay and let the unsuspecting invading troops take possession of a fake stone. They must have hidden the original very well though because it was never found again.

La pierre du Destin

In 1950, Scottish students actually managed to make off with the stone while visiting Westminster. Unfortunately for them, the historical stone broke into two pieces during the extraction. The small group, after much effort, nonetheless succeeded in reaching Scotland and handed their prize over to an important Glasgow politician. A few months later, thinking that the British government wouldn’t claim it back, the stone was placed on the altar of Arbroath Abbey, a highly symbolic place where the Scottish declaration of independence was signed in 1320. It was a miscalculation on their part, as the stone was discreetly repatriated to Westminster by the British police, and in doing so, further degraded relations between the two countries.

It was not until 1996 that the English returned the Stone of Scone to the Scots who placed it in its current home, Edinburgh Castle.

A source of inspiration for writers of pop culture

The narrow streets of Edinburgh along with its architecture, pubs and, of course, its beautiful castle have been a rich source of inspiration for many writers, both classical and contemporary. One of the most famous examples being J.K. Rowling, creator of the Harry Potter saga, who had taken up residence in this city.

Elephant House

Si la magnifique forteresse n’est pas au coeur de la littérature de l’écrivaine anglaise, sa stature a sans aucun doute eu un rôle à jouer dans l’ambiance si particulière de la série. Il est notamment possible de l’apercevoir depuis les fenêtres de « The Elephant Pub », un café-restaurant ou J.K Rowling avait l’habitude de venir écrire. Cet établissement, dont la vitrine affiche modestement l’inscription « The birthplace of Harry Potter » (« Le lieu de naissance de Harry Potter »), est aujourd’hui l’un des lieux les plus prisés des fans de la saga. D’autres sites de la ville écossaise ont inspiré l’auteure, à l’image des petites échoppes de Victoria Street, rappelant le Chemin de Traverse, ou encore les pierres tombales du cimetière de Greyfiars. Le château de Poudlard, lui, a sans aucun doute été inspiré par plusieurs édifices moldus. La forteresse dont il est question dans cet article, bien entendu, mais aussi le Collège Heriot, dont la vie scolaire est organisée sous la forme de quatre maisons rivales ayant chacune un nom et un emblème.

In the world of animation, the artist Sylvain Chomet, known for the excellent “The Triplets of Belleville” was also behind “The Illusionist“. Many of the city’s most emblematic places, including the castle, can be seen in this film, which was set in Edinburgh in the 50s.

The city history was also a source of inspiration to George R.R. Martin, author of the hugely successful Game of Thrones saga. The writer found inspiration in local history, a notable example being the Black Dinner. In the fifteenth century, a power struggle was taking place while the country waited for the young king James II to come of age.

Une grande fête est organisée dans le château d’Édimbourg, réunissant de nombreux nobles écossais dont les fameux Douglas. Ces derniers attisent la jalousie des autres familles de par leur position et leur influence. Après leur avoir servi une tête de taureau noir, un symbole évoquant la mort, les clans Crichton, Livingstone et Buchan exécutent William et David Douglas. Jacques II, impuissant devant la scène, s’en sort toutefois indemne. Un destin heureusement moins funeste que Robb Stark, son pendant de Westeros.

The Ghost of the Missing Edinburgh Piper Boy

Another of Edinburgh’s famous ghosts is that of a young piper boy who is said to haunt the city streets. A few centuries ago, the guards of the royal fortress discovered the entrance to a network of tunnels running under the castle. Because of the narrow access, they decided to send a young boy with his bagpipes into the tunnels. He was to play the pipes as he progressed through the tunnels so that those outside could follow his progress.

The idea worked initially with the guards successfully following the sound of the pipes above ground. But then, for some unknown reason, the music stopped. The soldiers returned to the entrance to the tunnels and attempted to call the child, but with no success. The next day, the guards found the bagpipes. There was no trace of the child however. Following the tragedy, the entrance was sealed up so that no one could ever get lost in the tunnels again.

The locals claim, however, to still hear the faint sound of bagpipes, especially near the Royal Mile, one of the city’s main streets. And each time the music stops with a piercing cry, supposedly that of the child abandoned to his lonesome fate.