A tour of history in and around Edinburgh

A holiday in central and southeast Scotland in June provided a great opportunity to explore some of the rich and fascinating history in the region, and read some of the great ghost stories.  So, in this post I visit 5 castles, 1 palace, a WW1&2 airfield and two notable pubs.

Stirling Castle

Stirling Castle
History: Possibly the most important of the castles in Scotland and has a history that reads like a who’s who of history, Mary Queen of Scots loved it, was crowned here and sent James there to grow up, William “Braveheart” Wallace grabbed the castle after the battle of Stirling bridge, James V and IV hung out here and the Scottish Highlanders used it until 1964.
Ghosts: Possibly Mary Queen of Scots or her lady in waiting have been seen (throughout the trip I had a feeling Mary’s ghost was fairly busy in Scotland) – known as the “green Lady”, ghostly footsteps coming from floors above and apparently a highland ghost that can be mistaken for a tour guide.  There is also a ghost photo of what looks like a ghost of a regimental guard walking through one of the arches.
Walking Around: Stirling Castle is possibly as big as Edinburgh castle; walking up, it’s surrounded by steep hills so ideal for defence.  We’d made the trip on the train from Edinburgh and the Scottish summer rain had just started as we approached the castle.  A few of the inner buildings have been restored to their medieval styles, and the knights and ladies have been replaced by costumed actors to give an impression of life.

Stirling Castle with ladies inside Stirling Castle with throne Stirling Castle with Knight inside

Still – they give good shelter from the pouring rain that we endured on the day of our visit.  Away from the redecorated sections were many lower areas, down to the simple rock, that’s how I like it.

Craigmillar Castle

Craigmillar Castle

History: Built from the 14th century onwards.  Mary Queen of Scots came here to seek refuge and whilst here her advisers secretly agree to murder her husband Lord Darnley, her son James VI planned his marriage to Anne of Denmark here.  It was also used for the filming of Ivanhoe in the 20th century.

Craigmillar Castle looking down
Walking Around: Of all the castles we visited on our Scotland trip Craigmillar was the best to walk around, we caught the bus up to Edinburgh hospital and it was just a short walk up the hill from there.  Inside the castle there are lots of spiral stair cases with views over in the sea and Edinburgh from the battlements, being slightly tall I’m not a massive fan of ancient spiral staircases as I tend to bang my head on the low ceiling above but these were quite spacious with wide steps.  What I really liked about this place was that it was fantastically intact so not a complete ruin, but it hadn’t been redecorated either and was largely original rock.  I get a buzz from walking through the rooms imaging the historical figures that would have walked through these corridors.  The prison down below with it’s low ceiling and lack of any sunlight gives a feeling for what it would have been like should you have been caught stealing someones turnips in the middle ages.  Some rooms were labelled, others left it up to you to imagine what they might have been used for.  It’s now inhabited by various gulls and pigeons that gave us a bit of a fright as they jumped out at us whilst exploring the upper floors.

Craigmillar Castle  Craigmillar Castle Prison

Edinburgh Castle

Edinburgh Castle

History: Here since the 11th century and rebuilt in stone since the 14th century Edinburgh castle sits happily on a massive rock which is a sight that always impresses me when I arrive at the train station in Edinburgh.  Playing a part in many historical conflicts, the castle has a history of being destroyed and rebuilt – for the last time in the 17th century when Oliver Cromwell  moved in.

Edinburgh Castle

Very busy on the day

Ghosts: A legend of a piper that was sent down to check the length of a discovered tunnel, the idea being that he’d play the pipes and people above ground could trace his progress – only the pipes stopped and he never returned.  No one dared mount a rescue mission although his pipes can still (it’s said) be heard.  There is also a phantom drummer, a headless man and a phantom coach pulled by black horses that goes rattling off down the Royal Mile. A spooky place!
Walking Around: Going in just before the 1 o’clock gun probably wasn’t the best plan for a quiet look round the castle, the place was completely rammed with others also keen to explore the historic location – it’s not as easy to soak up the historical when the place is so bustling with other tourists who like me have been drawn here today.  Like Stirling, investment had been made in many areas to give the castle a medieval feel.

Edinburgh Castle Gun 1

Putting the big shell in the cannon

raising the barrel of the cannon

Raising the barrel of the cannon

1 o'clock cannon goes bang


There was lots to see in the castle I took a trip down into where the prisoners of war were kept in the vast vaults below the castle.  There is also a military history museum where they have many exhibits from the two world wars and the participation of the highland guards.  The Crown Jewels are on display but there’s a big queue going in so I give that a miss for another time.  Today I was happy to just stand up top with the cannons on the battlements and admire the views in all directions.

Dirleton Castle

Dirleton Castle

History: Built by a Norman Knight in the 12th century, captured by Edward the 1st in the thirteenth century, Robert the Bruce ordered its destruction in the fourteenth century, and it came under siege from Cromwell in the seventeen century.  Also in the seventeen century, witches were imprisoned here by witch finder John Kincaid.

Dirleton Castle  Dirleton Castle

Dirleton Castle Murder Hole

Murder Hole for dropping rocks on intruders

Walking Around: Not too far to drive from Edinburgh, Dirleton is set in some beautiful gardens.  Standing itself up on a rock Dirleton is still in great condition, a well preserved ruin set on a large rock.    Entry is via a timber bridge across the ditch where a drawbridge would presumably of once been used, as you enter you can see the murder hole above you where rocks and oil could have been dropped on those attacking the castle, ouch.  Similar to Craigmillar, you can walk around Dirleton and get a real buzz for the history walking around the place.  Particularly when you go down into the dungeon and see the entrance to the pit (you can’t get into the pit – I wasn’t keen on doing so).  The dungeon was dingy enough and I was glad that I had company down there.  The gardens surrounding the castle are a treat themselves and if the web is to be believed they feature the world’s largest herbaceous border.

Tantallon Castle

Tantallon Castle

History: in the fifteenth century James IV lays siege, in the sixteenth century gunners fire on English ships as they engage with the French near the Bass Rock (you get a great view of the Rock from here!), Mary Queen of Scots visits in 1566, the castle enjoyed 300 years of both sieges and banquets before the castle is wrecked by Cromwell’s big guns in 1651.

Tantallon Castle

the window where ghosts have been photographed - not today!

Ghosts: There is a great photograph of a ghost looking down from one of the windows http://news.scotsman.com/scotland/Photo-spooks-experts-in-hunt.5128231.jp sadly on the day we went it didn’t make an appearance for my picture on the side.
Walking around: Walking up to Tantallon I am immediately struck by its awesome red sandstone walls.  Despite Cromwell’s best efforts there was still lots to see at Tantallon, and you can get very high. Too high for my liking.  Those with vertigo might have problems just looking off the cliff edge from the gardens above the Forth estuary, standing on the battlements I decided against going up to the top of the mid tower.  Gannets and Gulls around the castle have homes and we were shouted at several times during our visit.  Down below you can see the dark and confined prison for common criminals, though you received better treatment if you were a criminal of higher class!  With the views I think parties (or banquets!) back in the fifteen century here would have been quite amazing.


Tantallon Castle Tantallon Castle

Tantallon Castle

The view from (almost) the top

Linlithgow Palace

Linlithgow Palace
History: William the 1st “The Lion” sealed a charter in the twelfth century here, James III added to the palace including the SW tower, Margaret Tudor received the palace as a wedding present, James V remodeled it in the fourteenth century, and Mary Queen of Scots was born here, in the sixteenth century Anna of Denmark spent time here with her husband James VI, In the seventeenth century Oliver Cromwell decided he likes the palace so much he turned it into his own residence and adds fortifications.

Linlithgow Palace Linlithgow Palace Fountain

Ghosts: A blue lady that walks from the palace to the nearby church of St Michael, and a ghostly figure at the top of one of the towers.
Walking Around: Linlithgow was a joy to look around, in the centre a courtyard with original fountain.  All four walls are intact and we explored up and and down the spiral staircases to see kitchens, halls and lodgings.  Down below the ground the wine cellar was seriously huge, and the palace even had its own brewery – they must have had some great parties here back in the day!

Linlithgow Palace
Outside the palace we visited the “Four Marys” pub for lunch where the food was great, as was the beer I enjoyed my Belhaven “Four Marys” beer.  Linlithgow is only a couple of train stops from Edinburgh so was well worth a look.

Pubs: The Last Drop & The White Hart Inn

Inside the last drop - enjoying a pint of bellhaven best

Inside the last drop - enjoying a pint of bellhaven best

History: Two pubs on the Grassmarket near where many executions took place in the seventeen century.  The cellars from the White Hart Inn date to 1516, and the body snatchers Burke and Hare would apparently lure victims back to their apartments before murdering them and selling their bodies.  Cromwell also liked to have a few pints here – maybe if he spent more time enjoying Belhaven Best and less time popping his guns at Tantallon the castle would have lasted a bit longer.
Ghosts: The Last Drop has a small girl ghost, someone who calls your name out to you.  Reading Alan Murdie’s book “Haunted Edinburgh” it is suggested that the White Hart Inn could be one of the most haunted pubs in all of Scotland, a “shadowy form” at the doorway behind the bar amongst other spooky occurences.

   Last Drop White Hart Inn

Drinking: Can you beat a pint of Belhaven Best in Edinburgh? Probably not and that’s what I was enjoying in these taverns on the hot days that we were visiting.

East Fortune Airfield – home to the Museum of Flight

East Fortune Airfield
History: One of the best preserved airfields from the 1st and 2nd world wars.  Constructed in 1915 to help Britain defend from the attack of German Zeppelins, in 1919 the first British airship to cross the Atlantic set off from here, during the second world war it served as a training base.

Control Tower

Walking around: I think old air fields are fab – the feeling of abandonment and imagining what they would have been like only 70 years ago with the roar of engines from the big bombers, chocks away!  Across the fields you can still see the control tower, scattered all around the air fields are the shelters from attack.  The filling station with pipes coming out of the ground remains.  Inside the hangars are a range of planes old and new including Concorde and the Jaguar below.

Inside a hangar at East Fortune

Everywhere you look there are buildings that probably haven’t changed very much since the second world war.  We were invited inside to see the reconstruction of a fully operational Sopwith Biplane – a definite highlight of the trip seeing such an old plane being constructed by hand – a project that they’ve been working on for 8 years.

Sopwith Biplane project at East Fortune Airfield

And there my trip to historic Edinburgh comes to a close.  On our last night we see the Red Arrows flying over the city in preparation for the next days “Armed Services Day”.  As our train pulled out of Edinburgh at noon on Saturday the Red Arrows do a fly past (for us!) up the Royal Mile.

Essential Reading:

Alan Murdie’s “Haunted Edinburgh”

The great guides on Dirleton, Tantallon, Craigmillar castles and Linlithgow Palace published by Historic Scotland and available from the locations.

Castles by Plantagenet-Somerset-Fry

Gordon Rutter’s Paranormal Edinburgh


2 thoughts on “A tour of history in and around Edinburgh

    • Thanks Jo! – you’d love it if you visit – it’s amazing how many there are so near each other busting with history!

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