Sarah Joss: Finders keepers

One of the best-kept secrets in Edinburgh, Craigmillar Castle is well worth a visit

Despite having lived in the capital for more than 20 years, like so many of the city’s residents I’d never actually got round to visiting Craigmillar Castle. My twins Caitlin and Lucy enjoy a good castle, especially if it has a prison. Not yet four, they already recognise a medieval bread oven when they see one. So, I decided it was time to check out Edinburgh’s other castle.

Expecting a small, mostly ruined building I was surprised to find a well-preserved castle in fantastic condition with numerous rooms, nooks, crannies and stairs ideal for tiring the legs of intrepid explorers.

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The castle is famous for hosting Mary Queen of Scots. The pact to kill her husband, Lord Darnley, known as the Craigmillar Bond, was formed there in 1566.

A large wooden doorway leads from the outer to the inner courtyard. Inside, we were greeted by two very impressive, extremely climbable looking yew trees and a choice of doors into the castle itself. We soon became engrossed in a maze of spiral stairs, rooms and corridors. The castle was originally owned by the Preston family and successive owners have added, altered and repurposed, resulting in an intriguing higgledy-piggledy layout. Doors have been blocked off, windows widened, kitchens converted to bedrooms, others to stables. Stairways all over the place create a labyrinth any minotaur would be proud of.

Lucy’s favourite part of the castle proved to be the rooftop, offering fantastic views of East Lothian, Arthur’s Seat, Edinburgh Castle and the Pentlands, as well as Craigmillar Castle Park, which would once have been the castle’s hunting ground.

As well as the views outwards, there is a dramatic view downwards through the machicolations (gaps for pouring boiling oil and projectiles down on attackers’ heads). The girls were suitably impressed.

After the breezy heights of the roof, it’s a relief to return to the Lord’s Hall. Complete with wooden doors and leaded glass windows, the hall and its adjoining rooms are a cosy haven. The room also contains one of the castle’s many fine fireplaces. Caitlin climbed into it to have a good peer up the chimney.

With so many rooms to explore and with most of the property still roofed, the castle is an all-weather attraction, although at its best on a good day for the views.

The toilets are in a courtyard outside the castle. The number for the keycode is on the entrance ticket. Despite being told to hang on to this, I’d somehow misplaced it. Faced with desperation on the faces of the twins, I eventually managed to dredge it up from memory. Mad panic ensued once we got back outside and couldn’t spot Lucy anywhere. Thinking she was locked in we began frantically trying to recall the correct code. It turned out that, in typical Lucy style, she had run ahead and was just around the corner. Now that’s relieved.

Craigmillar Castle is run by Historic Scotland, see www.historic scotland.gov.uk for opening times. Adults £5, 5+ £3, concessions £4.

Joss is a contributor to Edinburgh For Under Fives – for information on the latest edition, see www.edinburghforunderfives.co.uk