With a groan and a twitch of my (somewhat bleary) eyes I reached over to turn my alarm off. Why is that infernal contraption going off? Surely it must be Saturday. Yesterday was Friday, so this must be the weekend?
Yes, my internal musings were correct, it was indeed the weekend. But this was no ordinary weekend, this is Historic Scotland’s Free Weekend Pass ‘event’*. A weekend in which you can get free access to all of Historic Scotland’s numerous buildings and attractions, all for the measly price of giving them your email address.
Now this seemed far too good an opportunity to miss. Since both Mel and I moved back to Edinburgh in July we’ve been talking about going to Edinburgh Castle, however, something has always got in the way. In the summer it’s packed with tourists and at £14 to get in it’s quite expensive (especially during a period of unemployment). Our appetites for our visit were moistened back in September when we got a sneak-peak ‘behind the scenes’ tour of the preparations for the Virgin Money Fireworks Concert at the end of the Festival, but then I (rather inconsiderately) got a job and the 12th Century fortress once again got put on hold.
No matter where you are in Edinburgh you are never too far from a view of our most famous and recognisable monument. Perched upon an outlet of and extinct volcano – named, hugely imaginatively, Castle Rock – the castle sits aloft of the city, looking down on its inhabitants and to the hills or water (depending on which direction you look) beyond. It is (in a slightly stylised form) the symbol of Edinburgh, appearing on the city’s coat of arms amongst a whole raft of other emblems (including our rugby team’s logo and my old school’s coat of arms) and, of course, one of the UK’s most visited attractions.
We decided to go just after opening time as we decided that this would, in all likelihood, save us from the majority of the visitors and allow us to spend a quiet hour or so there before doing a bit of Christmas shopping. Whilst we arrived roughly on time we got a bit carried away with our visit and didn’t end up leaving until just after one. A full set of the photos can be found here on Flickr.
As with most people walking through that famous gatehouse we headed up the cobbled street that leads up to the Lower Ward. Being the history buffs that we clearly are (not) we headed straight for the Argyle Battlements, so that we could look out over the New Town and the northern side of the city. Having thoroughly studied the view (and been asked three times to have our photo taken by the Castle’s photographers – I’d like to think it’s because we’re so good looking and not because they can sell you them at the end) we proceeded down to some of the lower battlements – although not the lower one on the Western side as they were closed off – to look out at the New Town at a slightly different angle.
Having admired how picturesque our city is and how big Inverleith Park is (see its post for more details) we went to have a look at the One O’Clock Gun exhibition, which details how in times of old the city observatory on Carlton Hill signalled the hour at which the gun went off. From here we headed west to the battlements over the national war museum and look out to Costorphine Hill. We almost got blown off for our troubles. The wind had been getting strong since I got up and by this point – exposed on the highest point in the town centre – it was pretty strong; in fact the Castle actually closed early, I later found out, due to the high winds. Once inside the museum, however, the only wind was the hot air coming from the video feature on our nation’s military background, which was clearly written by a propaganda ministry/for a nationalist party political broadcast. This aside, the museum was very well put together, charting all aspects of the armed forces from pre-Acts of the Union (those from Scotland and England officially creating the UK) right up to a phone card (and other artefacts) from Kosovo in the mid nineties.
From one museum to another we next went to the regimental museum of the Royal Scots. This infantry regiment served in almost every campaign of the British army for just under 400 years. Their museum also contains their 148 battle honours, from Tangier in 1680 up to the first gulf war in 1991. I think this is one of the most interesting parts of the Castle, with its collection of stories and objects covering hundreds of years and thousands of souls; but also one of the saddest as it was all brought to an end with merging of all the Scottish regiments in 2006. I think the two walls of medals, only a tiny fraction of those that have been awarded, say it all.
Standing at the heart of the Upper Ward in Royal Square is the National War Monument. Built in 1927 on the former sight of St Mary’s Church it now commemorates those who have died in the two world wars and later conflicts. The walls are lined with friezes to each Scottish regiment, marking in stone the conflicts they have fought in and with the names of those who perished in the first and the second world wars at the base. At either end of the monument are the two huge stained glass windows that make up the friezes for the navy and air force. At the heart of the building is the shrine that holds the casket containing Roll of Honour. I think that the building’s statues perfectly encapsulate its significance – Courage and Peace, Justice and Mercy, and most importantly a figure rising from a phoenix, representing the survival of the spirit. A thoroughly fitting and moving tribute.
The other sides of Royal Square hold the Great Hall and the Royal Palace. The Palace is not the grand affair represented by its rival at the other end of the Royal Mile at Holyrood, but cramped and enclosed. There is, however, one room which is rather stunning, with a beautiful fireplace. The Palace also hold the Scottish Crown Jewels, however, having joined a slow procession around their (fairly poor and uninteresting) exhibition before it I’m afraid to say I was rather bored by the time we got to the jewels and perfectly happy to have a quick look before heading out into the buffeting winds again.
Our final stop before leaving was the One O’Clock Gun. Originally used (in conjunction with the time ball on Carlton Hill) as a time signal for ships in the Firth of Forth and port of Leith the gun has been firing at 1pm six days a week (excluding Good Friday and Christmas Day) since June 1861, interrupted only during the world wars. As with (what seemed like) every other visitor to the Castle we decided to watch this spectacle before taking our leave. Stupid as it sounds – considering that the sound makes people jump down in the New Town and beyond – it was louder than I was expecting, and you can really feel the shock wave pass through you.
With the exception of our fireworks tour I genuinely cannot remember the last time I went to Edinburgh Castle. I went with my parents many times when I was younger, but never at an age were it meant anything more than fighting, explosions and canons. I am glad that I’ve now been and can appreciate it, both for the huge depth of detail in the fantastically well-constructed displays and exhibitions, and for what and who it stands for. Like many countries Britain’s history is a fairly bloody one, but those who have fought for her beliefs, historically to the present day, are forever remembered here. As its tagline suggests Edinburgh Castle is the Defender of the Nation.
*The M&S TV advert voice is optional, but recommended, for this sentence.