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An instantly recognisable silhouette in the Scottish capital’s skyline and sitting atop volcanic rock, Edinburgh Castle is the most iconic of all Scottish landmarks and boasts a history that stretches back more than 3,000 years.
From a Bronze Age settlement to Scotland’s leading visitor attraction, welcoming over 1.6 million visitors each year, the stronghold has a rich past and has been witness to key moments throughout Scottish history.
While most know the castle is home to The Honours of Scotland – Scotland’s Crown Jewels – and the famous medieval six tonne siege cannon, Mons Meg, its Executive Manager, Nick Finnigan, has gathered together some lesser known facts to share ten things that you (probably) didn’t know about Edinburgh Castle.
1. The castle was once home to an elephant
On returning to Edinburgh Castle from an expedition to Sri Lanka in 1838 the 78th Highland Regiment brought back an elephant as their regimental mascot. It soon became a familiar sight in and around the city and even developed a taste for beer. The elephant’s toenails are now on display in the Scottish National War Museum, within the castle walls.
2. The walls have ears…
In the castle’s Great Hall there is a small, barred window above and to the right of the fireplace. Known as the ‘laird’s lug’ (‘lord’s ear’), it allowed the king to hide away and listen in on and see what was happening in his court below. In 1984, ahead of a scheduled visit from Mikhail Gorbachev, the KGB asked that the ‘lug’ be bricked up on security grounds.
3. What could’ve been
In 1862 David Bryce, a local architect, put forward proposals for the addition of a large Memorial Keep at Edinburgh Castle to commemorate Prince Albert. If this had gone ahead it would have altered the capital’s skyline dramatically.
4. It’s a dog’s life
There’s a small grassed area of the castle which, since the 1840s, as served as the dog cemetery and the burial spot for regimental mascots and soldiers’ dogs. Amongst the canine companions buried here is Dobbler, who for nine years, until his death in 1893, followed the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders in campaigns across the world including China, Sri Lanka and South Africa.
5. Third time’s a charm
The boom of the One O’clock Gun has been a familiar sound across Edinburgh for 155 years. Accounts from the 7th June 1861 state that the first two firings were unsuccessful…so, it’s true what they say about third time’s a charm. It was originally introduced to aid shipping and navigation for Scotland’s bustling chief port of Leith and further afield.
6. It contains the oldest building in Edinburgh
St Margaret’s Chapel was built by King David l in honour of his mother, and is thought to date back to at least 1130. The chapel is not only the oldest building in the castle, but the oldest in Edinburgh.
7. You can see one of the earliest depictions of the Stars and Stripes
The castle’s cells have held prisoners of war from all over the world. One of the earliest depictions of the ‘Stars and Stripes’ on record can be seen at the castle, carved into a wooden cell door by an American prisoner.
8. Most besieged place in Britain
Edinburgh Castle has been under siege more than any other place in Britain. Over the centuries it has witnessed at least 23 different attempts of varying success. These included everything from a group of 30 men climbing up the steep rockface to re-capture the castle in 1314, to a small group of Jacobites who got to the castle walls and realised the ladder they had brought wasn’t quite long enough to reach the top of the castle ramparts.
9. Over 1,000 performers take to the castle’s Esplanade each August
These days the castle is still besieged, but this time by visitors from across the world. Every year around 1,200 performers take to the esplanade in a display of music, dance and culture as it provides the stage for the firm favourite and long-running fixture in the capital’s event calendar – The Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo.
10. From ‘fyre werk’ to fireworks
The castle is synonymous with impressive choreographed pyrotechnic displays that entertain, and mark some of the most significant events in Scotland such as Edinburgh’s Hogmanay. However, the landmark’s association with this particular form of entertainment dates back some five centuries to the 1500s, when it staged Scotland’s first recorded use of ‘fyre werks’ or fireworks. It is thought that ‘fireballs’ were used by King James in 1507 as part of a great tournament.
Castlehill, Edinburgh EH1 2NG, edinburghcastle.gov.uk
Main image: Gareth Davies/EdinburghExpert.com