Brian Ferguson: A modern-day use for Scotland’s castles has been found

Edinburgh Castle on a cold autumn morning. Picture: Shutterstock
Edinburgh Castle on a cold autumn morning. Picture: Shutterstock
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It is approaching 10pm on a Friday night at Edinburgh Castle. Darkness has long since descended on the 12th century landmark, but its squares, courtyard, stairwells and lanes are bustling with activity.

Crowds are being entertained by musicians and magicians, taking selfies in fancy dress and tucking into fresh pizza and cold beer. The busiest crowds are crammed into two tents erected beneath the illuminated bronze equestrian statue of Field Marshal Earl Haig outside the Scottish National War Museum. Inside are hives of activity, including face-painting, craft-making and handling historic objects. It is noticeably busier there than the castle’s Redcoat Cafe, despite its transformation by a glitter ball, light effects and DJs.

Welcome to “Edinburgh’s Oldest Knightclub”, an event offering a glimpse of a possible future for Scotland’s most famous historic landmark. I’m lucky enough to have been at plenty of after-hours events inside the gates of Edinburgh Castle, but all have been invite-only affairs using only a small part of the historic site.

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Friday’s “Knight at the Castle,” the first major public after-hours event to be staged inside its gates, was something of a revelation.

It was about as far removed from a nightclubbers’ event as could be imagined, yet that was the demographic that, even in the darkness which shrouded the castle, appeared to make up the majority of those in attendance.

Many of those present seemed, not surprisingly, keen to take the chance to simply gaze out in awe at the city’s landscape.

It inspired my own thoughts about why Edinburgh Castle’s gates had not previously been opened for such an event, particularly when the attraction is regularly overwhelmed during the day. If it is logistically possible to get 8,000 ticket-holders in and out of the temporary stands erected for the Tattoo in the summer, how difficult can it be to regularly accommodate up to 1,500 visitors, well below the castle’s normal capacity, in the evening?

But what if it joined forces to stage after-hours events with attractions across the city on a regular basis? Could a new-look Scottish National Gallery host evening events allowing people to look on Princes Street Gardens and the Balmoral Hotel? The National Museum, which has hosted hours events for several years, is another obvious participant. But it is not hard to imagine Greyfriars Kirk, the City Art Centre, the City Chambers and the Scottish National Portrait Gallery as perfect evening settings.

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Edinburgh Castle is also arguably the country’s most precious public asset. Encouraging as many people as possible to visit it should be a priority for the Historic Environment Scotland agency. That must mean that the Edinburgh Castle event is not a one-off but a catalyst for further experimentation around the country. It is worth remembering that a record five million people flocked to its visitor attractions last year, a 17 per cent increase in the space of a year. But how often do members of the public get the chance to venture inside the hugely atmospheric attractions it cares for after dark? Everyone is familiar with iconic images of Stirling Castle, Linlithgow Palace, Urquhart Castle, Iona Abbey and Skara Brae but they are rarely even lit up.

If the National Trust for Scotland can be persuaded to join the party, then Falkland Castle, Glefinnan, Culzean Castle and Robert Burns’s birthplace at Alloway in Ayrshire could also come into play. Then it could be time to shine a new light on some of the nation’s most precious assets.