Sassy, stentorian and Sassenach-baiting tours by guides from Historic Scotland (the governmental heritage agency which manages the sight) provide a useful introduction to the buildings within the citadel walls, which span early medieval to Victorian times. They'll explain the role of two guns - the 'One O'Clock Gun' - fired at that hour daily in response to a dropped signal ball on Calton Hill, which has its origins as a time signal for shipping in the nearby Firth of Forth, and Mons Meg, a 15th-century 'bombast' or supergun. It gets fired 'with a bit of smoke and mirrors', during Edinburgh's world-famous Hogmanay (New Year's Eve) celebrations.
The earliest surviving building, St Margaret’s Chapel, is a tiny 12th-century memorial to the canonised queen who died in 1093. Timelines in the nearby Honours of Scotland exhibition help first-timers grasp the genealogy of wearers of the Scottish Crown which, together with the 16th-century sword and sceptre is dramatically and reverentially displayed. They share top billing with the plain sandstone Stone of Destiny, coronation talisman of the ancient kings. This was restored to Scotland in 1996, 700 years after its removal to Westminster Abbey by marauding English forces. Doubts as to its provenance linger, centring on the suspicion firstly, that England’s Edward I was palmed off with a fake, or secondly that the students who temporarily ‘liberated’ the stone from London in 1950 duped the authorities by returning a replica. Their story is told in the recent low-budget (Glasgow University stands in for Westminster Abbey!) caper movie Stone of Destiny.
Next door you’ll find the most atmospheric part of the royal quarters within the castle – the glorified cupboard or ‘cabinet’ where Mary, Queen of Scots gave birth to the child who became James Vi of Scotland (and later also James I of England, when he inherited its crown after the Union of the Crowns which followed the death of the childless English Queen Elizabeth I in 1603). The Great Hall, with its magnificent hammerbeam ceiling, is rather more regal in scale. The castle honours those who served king and country in two regimental museums and in the worthwhile National War Museum. Those who paid the ultimate price are remembered in the moving and dignified Scottish National War Memorial, a homage to the 150,000 lost in the First World War (when Scotland suffered disproportionate fatalities), and later casualties. The combination of Arts and Crafts sculpture, and stunning stained glass, by the acclaimed craftsman Douglas Strachan, is genuinely moving. An exhibition focuses on the castle's role as a holding place for Prisoners of War from numerous conflicts, but the display boards detailing life for prisoners - in terms of rations, dress and time-passing pursuits, is more engaging than the rather humdrum effort at recreating the scene via tableaux.
During August the castle esplanade hosts the Edinburgh Military Tattoo, a celebration of military music and feats of technical derring-do staged by representatives of armed forces from around the world.
Edinburgh Castle, Castlehill Edinburgh EH1 2NG, Scotland
Summer: 1 April - 30 September Daily 9:30am - 6pm (subject to change during the Edinburgh Military Tattoo in August).
Winter: 1 October - 31 March, Daily 9:30am - 5pm. Closed 25 and 26 December. On 1 January Castle is open 11am – 5pm.
Cost: Offpeak (1 October - 31 May)
Adults: aged 16 - 59 £14.50
Children age 5 - 15: £8.60
Children under 5 free
Concession: age 60 and over, unemployed: £11.60
Historic Scotland members free
Peak (1 June - 30 September)