The focus of our day trip to Edinburgh was to visit the Castle. I had not been to Edinburgh Castle for almost 20 years, bizarrely Mr Pict had never been despite us living in the city centre for five years and – obviously – none of the Pictlings had ever been.
Edinburgh Castle is very distinctive, a large fortress sitting atop an extinct volcano. There has been some sort of castle on that site since at least the 12th Century and it has, therefore, evolved over a lengthy span of history, gradually transitioning from being a royal residence to being a military barracks.
The kids instantly found Edinburgh Castle to be enchanting because it is just the type of castle children conjure up in their imaginations. From walking through the thick outer walls beneath a portcullis, to walking the battlements, to clambering up cobbled paths and exploring murky dungeons, there was plenty to spark their interest. We decided, however, that a tour of castle highlights would be best rather than slogging around every section of the site and risk the kids disengaging.
We all enjoyed perusing the view from the castle ramparts. We had clear views over Princes Street Gardens, the New Town and the West End, the Mound, Waverley Station and all the way across to Calton Hill. While the adults reminisced about the places we could see, the boys enjoyed clambering onto the many canon. On the subject of canon, the kids were able to see the famous one o’clock gun. It has been firing since 1861, a way for ships in the Forth to gain an accurate time for setting their clocks by, and the tradition has continued long past its maritime relevance. I used to love listening for it when I was wee and was visiting my Gran and it was always entertaining to see visitors to the city, not aware of the tradition, give a startled jump when it banged. We were in the Castle at one o’clock but sadly it was a Sunday and the gun is silent on Sundays and other pertinent days throughout the year. The other famous canon within the castle walls is much older: Mons Meg. Mons Meg is a medieval canon and apparently has the largest calibre of any canon in the world. It suffered an injury in the late 17th Century and has just been on display ever since. Nowadays Mons Meg is famous for its role in Hogmany celebrations as it is fired at the beginning of the fireworks display, an indication of the passing of the old year into the new year.
We spent a great deal of time on the Citadel, the upper level of the castle accessed via the arched Foog’s Gate. There we visited St Margaret’s Chapel, a tiny building believed to be the oldest building still extant in Edinburgh. Margaret, a Wessex princess and the wife of Malcolm III of Scotland, was renowned for her piousness and good deeds. Margaret did not actually worship in the chapel. It was built in the reign of her son David, in the 12th Century. We also enjoyed the panoramic views from Half Moon Battery which took in such places as the Salisbury Crags and Arthur’s Seat and the area of Edinburgh where Mr Pict and I had once lived.
We joined the line to view the Honours of Scotland which was effectively a conveyer belt of people. The line was in constant motion and it was absolutely necessary to keep pace with those in front and behind or else risk getting completely snaggled up. The system was a plus in that it removed the tedium of queuing. The lines snaked through displays and dioramas depicting the history of Scotland’s crown jewels, from their manufacture by skilled artisans to their use in royal ceremony through to their disappearance and rediscovery by the novelist Sir Walter Scott. After about 20 minutes we finally ended up in the room where the actual Honours – a crown, sceptre and sword – were showcased alongside the Stone of Destiny, a block of sandstone once used in the coronation of monarchs and the object of much conflict and controversy between Scotland and England. We then segued into the rest of the Royal Palace in order to see the apartments where Mary Queen of Scots gave birth to James VI and I in 1566. As the chap who united the thrones of Scotland and England, I thought it might be handy for the boys to have that connection to his personal history to act almost as a mnemonic for his role in history. I also knew we were going to be visiting another Mary Queen of Scots site so I wanted them to be considering her importance to Scottish history too. Sadly, all but the oldest found the rooms dull so I think that was an education fail.
Much more impressive to the kids was the Great Hall, a spacious Renaissance room with a hammerbeam roof. It was converted into barracks during the Commonwealth with floors being added to split it into three storeys and then became a military hospital before being restored at the close of the 19th Century. What the boys loved about it was that the walls were lined with hundreds of swords and other pointy weapons and there were suits of armour throughout too. Along with the huge stone fireplace, it made them think of the hall at Hogwarts School. My Dad and I then had a wander into the Scottish National War Memorial which commemorates those killed in the two World Wars and more recent conflicts and houses the Rolls of Honour.
Next up were two prisons. The first we visited was the Victorian military prison, a collection of spartan cells, a basic shower room and a room for ablutions. The boys all enjoyed pretending to be prisoners while their granddad was the prison warden. The kids learned about the type of offences that would have led to soldiers being sent to the cells and the types of repetitive or physically exhausting punishments they would be given. I was hoping their might be a moral in the tale. We then went to see the vaults where prisoners of war were once housed. These were dank and dark with hammocks hanging everywhere. The standard conditions had been recreated to bring the scene to life so the children were able to comprehend what life would have been like there for the prisoners – from America, France, Spain and Holland – cooped up together, keeping themselves entertained by crafting, eating food the kids would find ghastly. They were shocked to learn that the prisoners would have included cabin boys, some as young as six years old. We also saw the prison’s original wooden doors which were covered in carved graffiti.
The prisons were our last stop on our jaunt around Edinburgh Castle. Sans kiddliwinks it would be easy to spend at least a couple more hours touring the buildings and absorbing the history. There are just so many layers of history at Edinburgh Castle and we barely skimmed the surface.