Scottish skies lit with fireworks over 500 years ago

Final preparations are made for the festival fireworks at Edinburgh Castle. Picture Toby Williams
Final preparations are made for the festival fireworks at Edinburgh Castle. Picture Toby Williams
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SCOTLAND’S earliest public fireworks display was held nearly 60 years earlier than previously believed, new research into historical archives has revealed.

Researchers have discovered the first display was staged in honour of King James IV at Edinburgh Castle.

The capital landmark is internationally renowned for modern-day pyrotechnic extravaganzas marking key events such as the arrival of a new year, but ancient records show the tradition began more than 500 years ago.

Experts had previously believed the first fireworks were set off in Stirling in 1566, but new evidence has been uncovered putting the date 59 years earlier, in 1507.

It is thought that “fireballs” featured in a great tournament staged by the Scottish ruler at the base of Castle Rock, in the area now known as King’s Stables Road.

Researchers investigated records and documents detailing the castle gun house, the accounts of the Lord High Treasurer and detailed inventories listing the valuables held at the castle in the 15th and 16th centuries. The discoveries have helped shed new light on the extent of the landmark’s association with fireworks throughout the centuries.

Records also detail another royal display planned for the castle a few years later, to mark the coronation of James V’s first wife, Queen Madeleine, in 1537.

The spectacle included giant Catherine wheels made from sulphur, oil, petrol, mercury, and other items. But unlike today’s version, the originals were thought to have spun horizontally rather than vertically.

Three years later, in 1540, King James V commissioned a fireworks display to celebrate the coronation of his second wife Mary of Guise, the mother of Mary Queen of Scots. The show cost £57-6s-1d, a huge sum of money in the 16th century.

The accounts of the Lord High Treasurer from that year suggest James V played a key role in putting the display together. His notes describe the spending as “fyre werk schot devisit be the Kingis grace” – fireworks devised by the king’s grace.

Steve Farrar, interpretation officer for Historic Scotland, said the latest research into the castle’s history has yielded some wonderful discoveries. “We now know that Edinburgh Castle was the backdrop for Scotland’s first fireworks on record, during the early 1500s, while King James V went to great expense to celebrate the coronation of both his first and second wives by commissioning pyrotechnic displays.” he said.

“Fireworks are synonymous with the castle today, and we are provided with a great opportunity to share this colourful story with our visitors.”