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The castles of Edinburgh and Stirling

In the history of Scotland, castles play a big role. Many great and mysterious events took place within the keeps of these bastions of a powerful aristocracy. Homelier versions such as Balmoral serve as comfortable vacation homes for the Queen. However, it is formidably built fortresses such as those at Edinburgh and Stirling that capture the minds of castle enthusiasts whenever they think about Scotland.

Edinburgh’s castle on the rock

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Edinburgh’s skyline is dominated by the castle that bears its name. The castle is built upon the hard rock that once filled the core of an extinct volcano. Historians believe that a castle has been built here since the 11th Century. Over the years, new structures have come and gone, torn down by invaders or replaced with newer buildings. The castle consists of a series of walls protruding outwards in various angles and the famous round battlement that we normally see in pictures of the castle. Within the walls are several buildings. Probably the earliest among these is St. Margaret’s chapel, built in the early 12th Century. Another interesting structure is David’s Tower, believed to have been built by King David II between 1368 — 1371. This L-shaped building used to have a drawbridge.

 

The castle is said to be the scene of scandals and ghosts are believed to haunt its many rooms and corridors. Mary, Queen of Scots, gave birth to her son, who eventually became James VI of Scotland and James I of England. It was said that she did so as she feared that her husband, Edward Darnley, would kill her. There had been an outburst earlier in Hollyroodhouse, the official palace, in which the Queen’s Secretary had been murdered. The Queen felt safer within the walls of the castle. Of ghosts, there is the story of the piper who seems to lead people into a hidden passageway, but the sound only fades further into the ground, when people attempted to follow it to find a way through the walls. Another famous wraith is the drummer, who is said to beat a drum on the battlements in warning when the city faces danger.

If you are up to braving a chance encounter with a ghostly host, you can join the over one million visitors who make the visit to the Castle. It is the second most popular attraction of its sort in the United Kingdom, after the Tower of London. In a way, it shares some similarities with the Tower. It is the primary traditional military command post of the capital of the capital city of a British Kingdom, and former residence and prison for Royals, with more than its fair share of documented executions. But for the tourist, a more significant similarity is that Edinburgh serves as the repository for the Crown Jewels of Scotland. The Scottish Crown is a gold circlet first worn by Robert Bruce and nearly 400 years older than the present English Crown. Other noteworthy jewels are the Sword of State from the time of James IV and a scepter made for James V. A more modern structure within the castle is the Scottish National Shrine, dedicated to the war dead of Scotland from the two World Wars. A modern tradition is the one o’clock gun salute, when a cannon is shot to mark the time for ships sailing in Leith harbour.

War marks the spot of Stirling Castle

 

The name of Stirling was imprinted upon the world’s consciousness with Mel Gibson’s Oscar-winning movie, Braveheart. The real site of the battle looks far different from how the movie portrayed it. Likewise the dress — the real Scottish soldiers very likely wore chain mail and armour, with metal helmets. They are not likely to have survived the kind of battle fought had they been wearing large tartan robes and no headgear. The real battle was centered upon the bridge crossing the river Forth. William Wallace, leader of the Scottish patriots, ambushed the English army as they were making their way across the narrow bridge. The battle inflicted huge injuries upon the English and is still commemorated as a major victory by the Scots.

Much of the oldest medieval parts of the castle have been removed over the years of conquest and invasion. The present castle’s major structures largely date from the 15th Century. The palaces of the castle are more renaissance than medieval, and were mostly the work of the Stuart Dynasty. Like all self-respecting Scottish castles, this one has its ghost stories too. The most famous is that of the Green Lady, who might either be Mary Queen of Scots or a woman whose husband was killed in a war with the English King, Edward I.

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If you make a visit to the castle today, you will be able to see, in the distance, the William Wallace Monument (pictured above). In an era of nostalgic nationalism, a public subscription was raised to build a monument to one of Scotland’s most memorable heroes. It is in the form of a medieval style tower keep. Visitors up to it can make the way to the top via a winding spiral stairway. On display is a sword claimed to be William Wallace’s. It is heavy and long, and is displayed pointing earthwards in a transparent case.

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