Category Archives: Scotland

Edinburgh Castle: Royals, Riches and Wars

Edinburgh Castle

You can’t miss Edinburgh Castle. Perched high on a volcanic plug at the top of the Royal Mile, it looks over the city of Edinburgh. The moment after I had checked in to my hotel and dropped my bags on the floor, I made a beeline for it. I knew nothing about the castle, apart from glimpses of it serving as the backdrop for the Edinburgh Military Tattoo.

Little did I know that it has been a royal residence since the 11th century when King Canmore and his queen, Margaret, first moved in, and from the late eighteenth century it has served as Edinburgh’s military base. With the audio guide in hand, I found myself spending most of the day wandering around the castle grounds, discovering more about the history of Scotland and Edinburgh Castle. There is much more to Edinburgh Castle than what I had seen on TV.

Spend a day exploring Edinburgh Castle

Edinburgh Castle consists of a collection of buildings whose purposes have evolved over the years.

Edinburgh Castle in the early morning sunshine
Edinburgh Castle in the early morning sunshine from Grassmarket

There are gates and portcullis to walk through and Argyll’s Tower and the ruins of St David’s Tower to discover. You could spend some time in the cosy St Margaret’s Chapel (where you may have to queue to get inside!), which holds the distinction of being the oldest building in Edinburgh.

St Margaret's Chapel
Inside the cosy St Margaret’s Chapel

There are batteries, such as the Argyll Battery and Half-Moon Battery, that look over the city of Edinburgh. From here you can see the Royal Mile, Princes Street, Calton Hill and out to the Firth.

The view over Edinburgh from the Argyll Battery
The view over Edinburgh from the Argyll Battery

Listen out for the one o’clock gun

Every day (except for Sundays, Good Friday, and Christmas Day), the one o’clock gun is fired. If you’re visiting the castle around 1PM, head over to the Redcoat CafĂ© at the Argyll Battery to see it for yourself. The gun was traditionally fired so that ships floating out in the firth had an audible signal (together with the visual clue of a time-ball being dropped at the Nelson Monument on Calton Hill) and could set their time appropriately.

While you’re on the Argyll Battery, also check out Mons Meg, a cannon that was used in battle in the 1400s.

Into military history? There’s stacks of it here!

Not only will you find the large Scottish National War Memorial right in the middle of Edinburgh Castle’s grounds, there are several war museums to visit, including the Regimental Museums of The Royal Scots Museum and The Royal Scots Dragoon Guards.

Military museum signpost at Edinburgh Castle
Some of the military museums you can visit at Edinburgh Castle

There’s also an exhibition about Prisons of War, about prisoners of the Napoleonic Wars from countries including France and America. They were held at the castle, and the exhibition tells visitors about the wars and the living conditions of the captured prisoners during their time at Edinburgh Castle.

Keep an ear out for the Weaponry talks on the Half-Moon Battery, an amusing story about the weapons used by the clans of the Highlands through to the soldiers in the more recent wars.

The Weaponry exhibition at Edinburgh Castle
The Weaponry exhibition on the Half-Moon Battery at Edinburgh Castle

Finally, tucked away next to the army barracks is the National War Museum, which tells Scotland’s history of war, complete with a display of uniforms, flags, weapons and touching stories of what war was like for the Scots.

See the medieval Great Hall

Medieval Great Hall
The fireplace in the medieval Great Hall of Edinburgh Castle

The medieval Great Hall with its famous hammerbeam roof is lined with striking displays of suits of armour and swords. There’s something surreal about looking at a suit of armour, and imagining wearing it yourself and trying to move around in it.

Visit the Royal apartments

The Royal Apartments
The Royal Apartments, where the Honours of Scotland are housed

On display in the Royal apartments are the rooms where Mary Queen of Scots lived, as well as where she gave birth to James I, who would be the first Scottish king of both Scotland and England.

The rooms themselves are sparsely decorated, with little furniture on display, but that helps you focus on the architectural details. I especially liked the carved white ceiling of the apartments.

And don’t forget to view the Honours of Scotland…

The Honours of Scotland, consisting of the Crown, Sceptre, and Sword of State are on display in the Crown Chamber and are the oldest crown jewels in Britain. This is the only place in the castle where photos are not permitted.

… and wonder about The Stone of Destiny

Scottish tour guides love to tell their audiences stories about The Stone of Destiny, which was taken by King Edward I in 1296 and fitted into the Coronation Chair when English kings and queens were crowned, before eventually being returned to Edinburgh Castle in 1996.

In the 1950s, while the Stone was housed at Westminster Abbey, four Scottish students broke in and took the stone back to Scotland, where it disappeared until it turned up at Arbroath Abbey a few months later and was returned to Westminster Abbey.

And then there’s the greatest joke – that the Stone of Destiny on display in Edinburgh Castle isn’t actually the real Stone at all, but a prank played on the English when they first took the stone from Scotland. Rumour has it that the English were given the stone that was covering up a lavatory, while the real Stone of Destiny was hidden away, meaning that the Kings and Queens of England have been crowned while sitting over a toilet seat!

What you need to know:

  • Photos can be taken in all rooms except for those housing the Honours of Scotland
  • Visit the official Edinburgh Castle website for more information about visiting the castle

Climbing the Scott Monument for the best views of Edinburgh

A lone bagpiper plays Amazing Grace as locals hurry along their way to work. The morning sun is hidden behind clouds that threaten rain. We stand on the edge of the East Princes Street Gardens and stare up at the 200 feet tall gothic tower before us: the Scott Monument.

The Scott Monument in the East Princes Street Gardens
The Scott Monument in the East Princes Street Gardens

The largest monument in the world to commemorate a writer, the Scott Monument is dedicated to the life and works of Sir Walter Scott, author of Rob Roy and Ivanhoe.

From ground level, the top of the Scott Monument looks a long way up, much higher than the advertised 287 steps. 287 steps sounds easy (after all, in the last week we’ve conquered the 366 steps in the Belfry in Bruges and the 387 steps of Notre Dame de Paris, not to mention the 669 steps up to the second level of the Eiffel Tower!), but the black spire of the Scott Monument seems like it will take some effort getting to.

After finding the entrance and paying the four pounds to get in, we are presented with certificates certifying that we have climbed all 287 steps. My brother suggests we fill in the certificates and save ourselves the climb. Instead, we begin the ascent.

The certificate for climbing the Scott Monument
The certificate for climbing the Scott Monument

Getting to the first of the four levels feels like an achievement. While the stairs start off being wide, by the time you burst out on to the landing, the staircase walls are literally closing in on you: as you climb up the top of one of the towers and the walls become slanted.

View over the North Bridge from the Scott Monument
View over the North Bridge from the Scott Monument

The view from the first platform is worth the admission alone. You have a 360 degree view over Edinburgh, over to the castle, down Princes Street, across to the North Bridge and Calton Hill and out to the Firth of Forth. There are statues and gargoyles staring down at the people below. On this level, there is also a small museum about Sir Walter Scott and the building of the Scott Monument.

The next set of stairs are noticeably narrower than the first, although the third set are wider.

It’s the fourth (and final) set of stairs that present a problem. Not only are they narrowest stairs but the ceiling becomes lower, too. My 6 foot tall brother was worried he wouldn’t be able to make it to the top because he wouldn’t fit through the narrowing gaps. Though he did make it to the top, the folks at the Camera Obscura would later tell us that a Welsh rugby player hadn’t been so lucky, and needed the fire brigade to come and rescue him when he found himself stuck in the Scott Monument!

It is a bit scary – even though there is a sign at the entrance that you should keep to the right when passing other people on the stairs, you begin to hope you don’t meet anyone coming the other way, because there just isn’t enough room in the stairwell to push past someone, and you don’t want to go all the way back to the previous level only to climb more stairs!

Edinburgh Castle from the Scott Monument
Edinburgh Castle from the Scott Monument

The stairs are all part of the fun, and can easily be forgotten once you’ve made it to the top and can look over one of the best views in Edinburgh (and earned the right to fill in your certificate)!

The Scott Monument as night falls
The Scott Monument as night falls

Have you climbed the Scott Monument? Share your experience in the comments – I’d love to hear what others thought!

Remembrance Day

On the 11th of November at 11AM, we stop to remember the men and women who have given their lives in the service of our country.

This year marks 96 years since the Armistice was signed between the Allied Forces and the German forces on November 11 1918, ending the Great War.

A wreath of poppies on the wall of the National War Memorial of Scotland
A wreath of poppies on the wall of the National War Memorial of Scotland

Armistice Day, as it is called here in the UK and Europe, was commemorated with the traditional two minutes silence at 11AM.

The National War Memorial of Scotland
The National War Memorial of Scotland

Later, as part of our visit to Edinburgh Castle, we spent some time paying our respects in the National War Memorial of Scotland and learning more about the Scottish experience of war in the National War Museum.

Lest we forget.

Eilean Donan Castle: The Most Photographed Castle In Scotland

Eilean Donan Castle
It feels surreal to be standing in front of Eilean Donan Castle

Eilean Donan Castle is one of the most recognisable of Scotland’s many hauntingly beautiful castles. Standing on its own island where Loch Duich, Loch Long and Loch Alsh converge, the lone castle shrouded in mist, set against the stunning backdrop of the tree-covered mountains makes for the ideal photograph!

Eilean Donan Castle
The isolated Eilean Donan Castle is one of the most photographed castles in Scotland

Over the years, Picts, Vikings, Highland clans and Jacobites have all fought over the island, and the castle itself has been constructed and destroyed several times. What you see today is a restoration that took Lieutenant Colonel John MacRae Gilstrap and his Clerk of Works Farquhar MacRae twenty years to turn Eilean Donan from a ruin into a livable castle.

It feels surreal to stand in front of a building that is so iconic. While we didn’t have time to explore the castle, I definitely plan on returning to Eilean Donan Castle one day.

What you need to know:

  • In Gaelic, Eilean Donan translates to ‘the island of Donan’. Donan was a bishop who was thought to live on the island in the seventh century.
  • Many films, including Highlander, The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, The World is Not Enough, Elizabeth: The Golden Age and Made of Honour have used Eilean Donan castle as a setting, helping it to become one of the most recognisable castles in Scotland.
  • Can’t wait to visit? See the picturesque Eilean Donan Castle in real time by viewing Eilean Donan Castle’s webcam or visiting Eilean Donan Castle’s official website

The Long Way to Lews Castle

What does a castlephile do when she has a spare couple of hours in Stornoway? Convince her new travelling companions to visit the local castle, of course!

Our target for today was Lews Castle. After consulting the map, it looked like we would have to take the scenic route to get to the castle, which (rather strangely) would take us right through the middle of the local golf course. The golf course was easy enough to find, and with an entrance like this, we thought we were on the right track.

Raon Goilf gate
En route to Lews Castle: The entrance to the Stornoway golf club

The signs for Lews Castle pointed into a forest that bordered the golf course, so we left the safety of the sealed road and hit a dirt track. We couldn’t see any sign of a castle. We weren’t even sure in which direction the town was. Should we turn back before we got lost? (And risk the local golfers laughing at the disoriented tourists?)

Almost on the verge of giving up, we noticed groups of university students appearing from somewhere up the hill. We decided to press on a bit further, although the castle was still nowhere to be seen. We heard whirring in the distance. A car engine spluttered. And then the roof of the castle appeared out of the leaves.

The restoration works at Lews Castle
The restoration works at Lews Castle

Unfortunately, the castle was closed for renovations. And the fence to keep us out of the workzone made it difficult to take a nice photo of what was a very pretty eighteenth century castle.

Lews Castle
Despite the restoration fencing, Lews Castle is very striking
Lews Castle
I thought that this was the best photo I was going to get of Lews Castle!

Admitting defeat, our next challenge was getting back to Stornoway. We could go back the way we had come through the golf course, but taking our chances, we decided to follow the students down a path that we hoped would take us safely back to Stornoway.

Five minutes later, we found ourselves back on Stornoway’s main road … only to look back and see this!

Lews Castle
Finally – the perfect view of Lews Castle from across the bay in Stornoway

What you need to know:

  • Stornoway is the largest town on the island of Lewis and Harris

The Randomness of Calton Hill

An observatory. A set of Greek columns. A tower. Oh, and a Portuguese cannon. I’m sure they all tie together somehow. But when you first make the climb up to the top of Calton Hill, what you’ll find seems all a bit … random.

Calton Hill
Calton Hill

Scotland’s National Monument

The National Monument
The National Monument on Calton Hill

Firstly, those Greek columns. While they look like they’ve been transplanted from a mountain in Athens, they actually form the National Monument, a memorial to the Scots who died in the Napoleonic Wars. Designed to be a replica of the Parthenon, the monument was left unfinished when funds ran out.

Nelson Monument

Nelson's Monument
Nelson Monument

Always eager to climb up things, I paid the four pounds entrance fee to climb the tallest monument on Calton Hill – Nelson Monument. After being encouraged all the way up the spiral stairs with messages printed on the wall like “You’re almost to the top!” I came out to the viewing deck. It was a bright and sunny day but taking photos proved challenging due to the fact that a strong wind made me cling to the railing so I wouldn’t fly away.

View from Nelson's Monument: Holyrood, Salisbury Crags and Arthur's Seat
View from Nelson’s Monument: Holyrood, Salisbury Crags and Arthur’s Seat
The Palace of Holyrood House
The Palace of Holyrood House

It was an unbelievable view. You could look down onto the Palace of Holyroodhouse and its gardens, with Arthur’s Seat towering behind it. You could follow the line of Princes Street up to Edinburgh Castle. You could look over the streets of the New Town, or out to the Firth. (I was glad to get back inside the tower and out of the wind, though!)

The view down Princes Street
The view down Princes Street
The view of the North Bridge from Nelson's Monument
The view of the North Bridge from Nelson’s Monument

The City Observatory and Old Observatory House

The Old Observatory House
The Old Observatory House

Amongst the other monuments on Calton Hill, was the Old Observatory House and the City Observatory. The Old Observatory House is actually available to be rented, with accommodation facilities to sleep eight people.

The Portuguese Cannon

Sign describing the Poruguese Cannon

There was no real explanation as to why this was here. It did look cool, though.

Portuguese Cannon
The Portuguese Cannon

The Dugald Stewart Monument and the Best View in Edinburgh

Dugald Stewart Monument
Dugald Stewart Monument – the place to take iconic photos of Edinburgh

If you want the perfect guidebook photo of Edinburgh, this is where to take that photo. Position yourself with the Dugald Stewart Monument to your right, focus on Edinburgh Castle in the background, and you’ll be standing in the spot where it seems that most travel brochures of Edinburgh are taken.

Whether it is for the unlikely collection of monuments or for the panoramic views of Edinburgh and beyond, make sure you include Calton Hill on your Edinburgh itinerary!