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Edinburgh Castle: facts, fiction and urban legends

Sep 23, 2016 10:09 am Best Western Plus Bruntsfield Hotel

Edinburgh Castle is the jewel in the crown of Scotland’s tourism industry, the most visited attraction in the UK outside of London. Over 1.5 million people visited the castle in 2015 and numbers have been increasing in recent years. The castle dominates the Edinburgh skyline and is host to the International Military Tattoo and spectacular fireworks during the Festival, and the central point of the New Year and Hogmanay celebrations every year.

One of the main reasons the castle is so popular is the history behind it. There are many great stories, unusual facts, fictions, misconceptions, myths and urban legends associated with Edinburgh Castle. We have highlighted a few of these in this article.

FACTS

1. Edinburgh Castle is built on a volcano

Many tourists are amazed when they first hear this and can’t quite believe it. The castle is built upon the massive Castle Rock, part of an ancient extinct volcano which was formed 350 million years ago. Archaeologists have established human occupation of the rock since at least the Iron Age (2nd century AD).

2. Witches were burnt at the stake here

Edinburgh Castle burned more witches than anywhere else in the country during the 16th Century. During this time over 300 women were tortured at the castle then burned at the stake on Castlehill. One famous victim to the witch trials was Dame Euphane MacCalzean, who was accused of witchcraft for using a spell to sink a vessel out of Leith. She was also accused of attempting to destroy King James VI's ship as it entered North Berwick. Visitors today can see a memorial to the witches at the top of the Royal Mile, on the Castle Esplanade.

3. The castle housed many prisoners of war

Edinburgh Castle was used as a prison in the 18th century and early 19th century. Prisoners from the Seven Years’ War, the American War of Independence, and the Napoleonic Wars were locked away in the dungeons over the years. It was also used as a prison during World War I.

4. There is a swastika in the castle

A swastika is contained within the decorated stained glass windows, designed by Douglas Strachan, of the Scottish National War Memorial, which was built within the castle grounds during the 1920s. The swastika emerged as a symbol for good fortune in ancient India. It became a sacred symbol in Hinduism and Buddhism and was also used by several Native American tribes before the Nazis adopted it as a symbol of Aryan purity. Historians agree there are no sinister motives for the swastika's appearance in the memorial at the Castle, which opened in 1927 and commemorates the dead from both world wars and the conflicts, which have followed.

5. The KGB requested a spyhole be covered up

Edinburgh Castle’s Great Hall has a small window high above the fireplace, known as ‘laird’s lugs’ (the Lord’s ears), as it allowed residents to eavesdrop on conversations taking place in the Hall below. In the early 16th century King James IV would spy through this little hole to eavesdrop on meetings taking place in the Hall below. So effective are ‘laird’s lugs,’ as a means of eavesdropping that when Gorbachev planned his visit to the castle for a conference in 1984, the Soviet national security insisted the hole be bricked over.

6. The Castle is the most attacked place in the UK.

Edinburgh Castle has been attacked more times than any other place in Britain with 23 recorded attempts to take the castle! From 1296 to 1341 the castle went back and forth between Scottish and English hands several times during the Wars of Independence and then in 1571 English forces attempted to capture Mary, Queen of Scots in a siege which became known as the “Lang Siege” as it lasted over 2 years. By 1573 all of Mary’s supporters surrendered to the English and David’s Tower (where the dragon was seen) was destroyed. The next siege came in 1610 when Oliver Cromwell executed Charles I and led forces against Scotland and in August 1610 the castle was once again in English hands. The Jacobite Risings of 1688-1746 saw many attempts by the Scots to recapture their castle but were never successful.

FICTION

7. Edinburgh Castle was built by the Romans.

There is no record of any Roman interest in the location during General Agricola's invasion of northern Britain near the end of the 1st century AD. In fact the first castle that existed on the rock was known as “The Castle of the Maidens”. According to legend, the castle had been a shrine to the “Nine Maidens”, one of whom was Morgan le Fay. Castle Rock had been a military base and royal residence for centuries. However, the edifice that is now known as Edinburgh Castle was built during the 12th century by David I, son of Saint Margaret of Scotland.

8. Mons Meg is the name of the One O’Clock Gun

This one is a popular misconception. Mons Meg was the name given to the bombard used in sieges until the middle of the 16th century, after which it was only fired on ceremonial occasions. On one of these occasions in 1680 the barrel burst, rendering Mons Meg unusable. In 1754 it was taken to the Tower of London along with other unused weapons but was returned to Edinburgh Castle in 1829 where it has since been restored but is now on display only. The One O’Clock Gun is in fact a smaller cannon, which was first used in 1861and needed 4 men to load and fire from the Half Moon Battery. In 1953 the cannon was replaced with a 25 pound Howitzer and is now fired from Mill's Mount Battery on the North face of the Castle every day at 1pm, except Sundays.

9. The Stone of Destiny kept at the castle is fake

The ‘Stone of Destiny’ or ‘Stone of Scone’ is kept at the castle with the crown jewels of Scotland. The stone is the traditional coronation stone of all Scottish and English Kings and Queens and has been much fought over by England and Scotland over the ages. As legend has it, the real stone was swapped for a fake either in the 13th century or the 1950’s, while the authentic stone remains secretly hidden. In reality, the stone was sent back from Westminster Abbey to Scotland in 1966 (on the 700th anniversary of its removal) and is now located at Edinburgh Castle.

URBAN LEGENDS

10. The haunted castle

Many ghosts have been reported here, including a headless drummer (seen in 1960), a ghostly piper and one of the dogs buried in the pet's cemetery in the castle. One of the more infamous stories about the castle ghosts is that of the lone bagpiper. As the story goes, when the tunnels underneath the Royal Mile were first discovered a few hundred years ago, a piper boy was sent down to investigate, playing his bagpipes along the way so people above could track him. When the music suddenly stopped playing around half way down the Mile, a search party was sent down to retrieve the boy, however he was never found. Several search parties combed the tunnels, looking for him, but the body was never retrieved. People say his ghostly pipes can still be heard in the castle as he eternally walks the dark tunnels underneath.

11. The dragon on top of St David’s Tower

In 1558 several people reported seeing a dragon on top of St David’s Tower, which used to be the most prominent building in the castle. In a Catholic country on the brink of Protestant Reformation this was interpreted as a bad omen, possibly relating to the Catholic Mary Queen of Scots. David’s Tower was destroyed during the Land Siege of 1571-3, but chambers under the half moon battery, originally part of the David’s Tower, can still be visited today.

12. University students are cursed to fail their exams if they enter the castle

Legend has it that any student of Edinburgh University who passes through the castle gates will fail their final examinations. While it might all sound a bit far fetched, many students are unwilling to visit the castle in their time at the university, preferring to play it safe until they’ve graduated.

 

These are just some highlights of the many fascinating stories surrounding the Castle and part of the reason why so many people visit Edinburgh Castle year after year. These wonderful facts and tales really bring the place alive and create special memories for visitors, many of which are keen to return to Edinburgh for another visit.

If you have any interesting facts or stories about Edinburgh Castle, please let us know in the comments section below.