On a chilly morning in early November 2007, some 30 SCA members and guests gathered on the Esplanade at Edinburgh Castle for the Historic Scotland "Heineken Tour" (reaching those parts other tours don't reach!). As it turned out, the response to this visit had been so high, that the numbers had to be divided into two separate visits. We were to be the first batch, with a subsequent tour scheduled in early 2008.
Sue Brash acted as official sheepdog, and we were all safely corralled when Chris Tabraham, Principal Historian for Historic Scotland (HS), arrived to start us on our tour. He led us up through Crown Square, then down into what seemed to be the bowels of the castle, and out to a vaulted chamber off a narrow passage at the back of the prison. A welcome cup of coffee was available to us here, in what is now the Education Centre for the castle. During coffee, we were introduced to Peter Yeoman, Senior Archaeologist for HS, and he and Chris gave a brief presentation on the history of the castle, and what we would be seeing on our tour.
For those few who don't know, Edinburgh Castle is the most visited Ancient Monument in Scotland – and second only to The Tower of London across the whole of the UK. Although little is known of the earliest buildings on the site, recent archaeology has discovered evidence for a settlement of round houses dating back to the late Bronze Age (about 900BC). A wealth of Roman material was also found, suggesting close contact between the Romans and the local Votadini tribe, later known as the Gododdin, who are known to have occupied the castle rock around 600AD. A royal castle was built at Edinburgh towards the end of the 11th century, and by the start of the 12th century the castle served as a royal residence, a storehouse, sheriff's HQ, and as a prison. Edinburgh not being the formal "capital" of Scotland until the end of the Middle Ages, the oldest surviving structure which can currently be seen is Saint Margaret's Chapel, probably founded by her son, King David I (reigned1124-1153).
During the Wars of Independence, the castle was often in English hands, although it changed hands more than once. Around 1386, David II began work on a massive 30m high L-plan tower on the eastern heights, the remains of which were re-discovered following a Royal Commission inspection in 1912. Masonry in a coal cellar next to the soldiers' canteen, under the Half Moon Battery, indicated much earlier building work. This area is not currently open for public access, although some enterprising visitors had discovered it, and had to be ushered out before we could enter. Doorway and window features are clearly visible in this very early tower, now enclosed and protected by the "new" external defences. Inside the doorway is a pit, supposedly where the King kept lions as a demonstration of his wealth – or an implied threat to potential enemies! Along a short passage from the entrance to the original tower is a modern access down to a lower chamber of the original tower.
We were also conducted through the vaults, originally constructed at the turn of the 15th /16th C above the rock-face to create a level surface for the Great Hall. Once used as a store for Mons Meg, the great siege gun of James II, the vaults have been used for many things. The current display represents use as accommodation for prisoners of numerous "unfriendly" nations of the 18th and early 19th centuries – clearly unpleasant, but less so for those with money to buy a little more comfort. The stonework and remaining doors contain interesting graffiti, some of which is explained in historical context in an adjoining exhibition. Also on display are examples of the handicrafts of the prisoners, which would have been sold by them to bring in a little cash to improve their lot.
After lunch, we were shown the castle mortuary – seemingly small for the size of the garrison, although there was suggestion it would be a good size for a micro-brewery! We then moved on to the back of the castle tunnel, excavated through the rock from the castle esplanade (the entrance is to the right of the castle as you look from the esplanade). Although constructed mainly to provide space for a new ticket office (!) and vehicular access to the inside of the castle, it allows for better marshalling for those performing at the Tattoo. Whilst individual views will vary on the rights and wrongs of building the tunnel on a major site, given some of the problems experienced on others, the excavation did provide a wealth of artefacts and archaeological evidence of earlier occupation of the castle rock. We were privileged to see some of these and other items retrieved through ongoing archaeology at the castle.
On our way back, to the Education Centre, we had an opportunity to go down into the cells under the Great Hall range – each a large, vaulted space, with a narrow, very steep stair case access.
After a summing up session, Sue gave our thanks to Chris and Peter for their and their colleagues time, and for a comprehensive and extremely interesting tour of little seen parts of one of our nation's best known and important historical landmarks. On behalf of the Association, a commemorative oak plaque of the Association's crest, carved by Paul Mowbray, was presented by Paul to Chris and Peter as a record of our visit.
An added bonus to our castle tour was the opportunity to visit the early 18thC town house of Lachie Stuart, of Ballone Castle in Cromarty. The house is one of only a few remaining merchant's houses, and the only one on the West Bow. The house now comprises the Anta shop, and is easily recognisable by its pink colour. It has an unusual Dutch gable end, and oval flight holes under the eaves, built for the family's doves.
The house was built around 1705, just before the Act of Union, for Thomas Crocket, a Dutch merchant. He and his family would have been very close to the major social, political and military happenings of the time. The building has done well to survive the many changes in Edinburgh over the last 300 years, and outlived many others. Used as individual bedsits in the 50's and 60's, the house has been restored in recent years to reflect more closely its history. Much of panelling throughout the house is contemporary with the building, and has been repainted in Anta paints, in soft shades similar to the original. Many original features, including a priest hole, have been retained. The top part of the building is let out seasonally. Our thanks to Lachie for allowing us to upset the rhythm of the shop, and see a fine example of historic Edinburgh architecture.
A J Bain