By Danièle Cybulskie
To visit Edinburgh, Scotland is to be awed by its formidable castle, looming over the city from its high perch atop the hill, a sheer drop on three sides. It’s hard to forget your first sight of that great beauty, or of the Palace of Holyroodhouse (Holyrood Palace), the royal residence that sits at the other end of that long street, the Royal Mile. While both of these places are bursting with history, my personal favourite is a lesser-known castle, found on Edinburgh’s outskirts: Craigmillar Castle. A short, city bus ride away from the town centre (by The Royal Infirmary), Craigmillar Castle is an extremely well-preserved example of a medieval Scottish castle, and its various improvements over three hundred years. Though it is now a ruin, it is so beautifully intact that you get a real sense of the layout, and how it would have been used centuries ago.
Craigmillar Castle sits on a hill to the southeast of Edinburgh, giving it a spectacular (and strategic) view of Edinburgh Castle, the city, the great hill of Arthur’s Seat and the Salisbury Crags, as well as the Firth of Forth, and the long, much flatter land to the southwest and southeast. As castles go, this is an excellent location: just far enough from the edge of the medieval city to be away from the bustle, while still being close enough to get there in a hurry; placed well to see ships coming up the Firth of Forth; and situated high enough to see anyone coming from miles away. You can still access the high towers and walk along the tower house wall, giving you a sense of what the guards and family members would have been able to see in the castle’s glory days.
Inside the castle are bedrooms and a great hall, the wide stone fireplaces still intact, though the wooden ceilings are long gone. One bedroom even has the luxury of a garderobe (an ensuite bathroom), and there are many windows throughout. There is even a surviving bread oven and a prison cell (also with a convenient toilet facility for its prisoners). Cupboard and closet spaces abound, giving you a sense of where things may have been stored, and there are back staircases, such as the one that goes straight from a bedroom to the wine cellar below. These are the things I love about Craigmillar, as they speak to the human element. Walking the halls, you start to imagine it as a functioning residence, instead of a pile of stone.
While Craigmillar Castle has some fortifications, such as a curtain wall, machicolations, and pistol holes, it was constructed (according to Historic Scotland) in the late fourteenth century, after the storied wars of Robert the Bruce versus Edward I, when the country had settled down somewhat. This is probably one of the reasons it is so well preserved: unlike Stirling Castle (and others), it wasn’t razed in order to make it useless to the enemy. Instead, Craigmillar Castle’s history is largely peaceful, despite the plotting that may have gone on inside. According to its Official Souvenir Guide (by Historic Scotland), in 1566 several earls met at the castle and came up with the “Craigmillar Bond”: an agreement to murder Mary Queen of Scots’ husband, Lord Darnley. (Darnley was indeed murdered the following year. pp.24-25). Craigmillar seems to have been a place that Mary often enjoyed staying, whether she knew about the plotting earls or not.
Some of the quirky details that make Craigmillar Castle unforgettable for me are the former fishpond in the shape of an enormous letter “P” (for Preston, the founding family); the two great trees that have grown up on either side of the main doorway – inside the courtyard; a dovecot, still in great condition; and the chapel, small and roofless in the corner of a courtyard, with the graves of the recent owners of the castle. Clearly, the castle is still beloved to more than just me.
If you only have time to visit one castle in Edinburgh, Edinburgh Castle itself is certainly worth your time, but if you have an open afternoon and decent hiking boots, humble Craigmillar Castle is a beautiful example of what a castle was to its people – a building with its function still evident in its rooms, and in the many small treasures you may find there. To learn more about Craigmillar Castle (and many more amazing Scottish castles), have a look at Historic Scotland’s website. If you’re anything like me, after five minutes or five hours in Craigmillar Castle, you still won’t want to leave.
You can follow Danièle Cybulskie on Twitter @5MinMedievalist