Edinburgh Castle: When was it built and who owns it?

Scotland’s most visited historic site sits on a rock forged some 340 million years ago with this complex, living monument bearing withness to the nation’s great turning points ever since.

Dominating the skyline of the city, Edinburgh Castle can be seen for miles around with it not only serving as a mass tourist attraction, but a place of state and an icon of Scotland.

A royal residence, military garrison, prison and fortress, it has borne witness to power, politics, struggle and fight. Visitors here trace the lives of soldiers, kings and queens – with the fate of pirates, witches and Jacobites also woven into the castle’s fabric.


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Castle Rock, on which this complex monument is perched, was forged by volcanic activity around 340 million years ago when the famous ‘crag and tail’ form was pushed up from deep below the earth’s surface. With its stunning strategic position and natural defences, humans have made their home on the rock from the late Bronze Age, at least 900 BC, with it intensively settled in the Iron Age following the construction of a hill fort. Early medieval poetry tells of a war band that feasted here for a year before riding to their deaths in battle.

Captured by the Angles of Northumbria in 600, the name changed from Din Eidyn to Edinburgh with its future as a royal residence then opening up.


Queen Margaret, wife of Malcolm III, was associated with the castle in the early 1000s with David I transforming life on the rock with the building of a formidable residence. The castle was taken by the English and reclaimed several times during the Wars of Independece and destroyed on the orders of Robert the Bruce before being rebuilt and later serving as the the permanent residence of James III, who made Edinburgh the capital of Scotland.

During his reign, the castle was where all but one of the Parliaments of his reign gathered and it has remained a place of politics and high power ever since.

The Honours of Scotland were hidden away following Edward I’s invasion of the 13th Century. Among them were the the Stone of Destiny and the Crown of Scotland, which was refashioned for James V into the piece you see today. His wife, Mary of Guise died at the castle in 1560. Later, their daughter, Mary Queen of Scots gave birth in 1566 to the future James VI within its walls.

Her ‘birth room’ is among those open to the public with the Grand Hall witness to many feasts held in her name, not least the state banquet held to mark her return to Scotland from France in 1561. Think dancing, music, court jesters and wine.


With the powerful Stuary dynasty in residence at the castle came, of course, destruction. When supporters of Mary were pitted against those who backed her infant son as monarch – with a set of Protestant lords effectively installed as rulers – during her captivity in England, the castle lay at the heart of the Land Siege. As civil war broke out in Scotland, Sir William Kirkcaldy of Grange held the castle in support of the exiled Queen.

Kirkcaldy, well-prepared and defiant to the end, held the castle from June 1571 for many months until April 1573. The English then launched a devastating bombardment and he castle’s defecnces were shattered – as was significant support for Mary in Scotland.


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James VI’s later persecution of those believed to be witches was cruelly felt within the confines of the castle complex, with John Fain, secretary of the North Berwick Witch Coven – which the king claimed had led to a storm that put his wife’s life at risk in the North Sea – was among those burned on Castle Hill.

Over two years, at least 60 women and men were brought from North Berwick to Edinburgh Castle and brutally tortured with many tortured, hanged and burned. The Witches’ Well was installed in 1894 as a modest memorial to those who suffered and died here.

The early 1700s found the prison at the now heavily-fortified castle full of pirates following a mass capture of men in Argyll, who were caught while abandoning their ship, The Eagle, which was later found to have a hold full of gold. Following a six-month trial, 12 of 21 men were found guilty with two key figures hanged at Leith Sands on December 14 1720, their bodies left hanging in chains between the high and low water mark as a warning to others.


The 18th Century also brough Jacobites to the castle, which had earlier been captured following the overthrow of James VII by forces loyal to the new sovereigns. An aborted

attempt by Prince Charles Edward Stuart to land in Edinburgh and launch a rising in 1708 led to the building of further defences at the castle with the barracks at the Queen Anne Building barracks also constructed. But the improvements were not enough to deter the Jacobites, with supporters of the Old Pretender – the father of Bonnie Prince Charlie – and his claim to the throne almost penetrating the western defences during the 1715 Rising.

Further defences are ordered but the castle was besieged for a final time during the early stages of the 1745 rising. A large garrison of government troops was found at the castle, where a number of key Jacobites were imprisoned after Cullloden. The Jacobite Rising also led to further garrisons and defences built. Edinburgh Castle may have stood the test of time but there is no doubt that, over time, the might of this spectacular sight has been tested as history bore deep into its very core.


The castle, for centuries part prison, part fortress and royal residents, assumed a different role as a national monument in the early 19th Century following a mass break out of prisoners.

A mass prison break in 1811, in which 49 prisoners of war escaped via a hole in the south wall, persuaded the authorities that the castle vaults were no longer suitable as a prison.

Responsibility for the site was transferred from the War Office to the Office of Works with it passed into Historic Scotland care in 1991.



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