City of Edinburgh

Welcome to Edinburgh

Edinburgh City Centre is dominated by the towering basalt remains of a long extinct volcano.  This imposing topographical feature explains right away what it was that first drew people here.  However, when exactly the first settlements were built, let alone when the first prehistoric man climbed to the summit, remains anyone's guess.  Recent archeological evidence tells us that the site, commonly called Castle Rock, was inhabited by the 8th century BC, but it is difficult to believe that such an obvious defensive feature was not utilised earlier, even if nothing substantial was built there as testament.  In any case, little is known about the earliest settlers.

Edinburgh Skyline

It is not until the 1st century AD, when the armies of Agricola, the Roman Governor of Britain, advanced north that we get our first historical clues.  At the mouth of the River Esk the Romans encountered the celtic tribe the "Votadinii".  The Votadinii controlled the valley of the River Fourth and were based at Dunedin , "the stronghold of Edyin", almost certainly what today is Castle Rock.  While archeological evidence tells us that the Romans and the Votadinii mixed, the exact nature of their relationship is unclear.  Although the Romans defeated the "Picts" (at this time a generic name for the varying Celtic peoples of Scotland, of which the Votadinii were associated) at Mons Graupius in AD 84 they were afterwards forced to retreat due to military pressure in the Danube.  By 122 AD they had started work on Hadrian's Wall (which runs from the Tyne to the Solway, mirroring the later border between Scotland and England) to mark their northern frontier.  Although they were to advance north again in an action that culminated in the building of the Antonine Wall (begun 141 AD and runs from Bo'ness in the east to Old Kilpatrick in the west) they were forced to abandon it around 160 AD, perhaps due to more military pressure in other parts of the empire.  An alliance of Picts, Scots and Saxons finally forced the Romans to abandon all involvement in Scotland altogether by 367 AD and concentrate on the maintainance of their empire in Britannia.  In any case, it seems unlikely that Edinburgh and the Votadinii were ever truly incorporated in any real sense into the Roman empire .

The departure of the Romans from Britain in the 5th century deprived the different peoples of Scotland the unity forged through sharing a common enemy and it is widely regarded that the centuries that followed were filled with power struggles and bloodshed.  In some ways, however, the Votadinii had the upper hand at the beginning of the Dark Ages.  Having not been fully incorporated into the Roman fold they would have had the advantage of possessing weaponry and military training, outlawed to those who had been Roman subjects.  Some historians have even argued that the zone north of Hadrian's wall would have been the centre of power after Roman withdrawal and that such myths associated with early British Kingdoms, such as those of King Arthur, must owe their origins to peoples such as the Votadinii.

Saint Giles Cathedral

Such claims are not without some historical support.  The earliest poem to have come out of the British isles relates the military misadventure of the the "Gododdin", the descendants of the Votadinii who occupied Castle Rock in the 6th century.  The poem, written in a form of old Welsh, tells of heroic horse soldiers who rode out from Castle Rock to face invading Saxons at Catraeth (Catterick, North Yorkshire ), but met with their slaughter.  Interestingly the poem includes the first mention of King Arthur by name, as well as "Peredur" (widely accepted to mean Perceval).  The poem is perhaps also testament to a change in the balance of power.  In the 7th century Castle Rock was colonised by Northumbrian Angles who called the site "Edwinesburh".  It is from this that we get the modern name: Edinburgh.

It was not until much later that Edinburgh began to grow significantly.  At the battle of Carham in 1018, King Malcolm II of Scotland soundly repelled English insurgence and firmly established Scottish dominance in the area between the Firth of Fourth and the River Tweed.  Edinburgh was to be considered the King's southern fortress and a royal castle was begun there by Malcolm III by the end of the 11th century.  The markets that sprang up at the foot of the fortress drew in people from the surrounds and the population began to grow.  The king's wife, Queen Margaret, was a devout christian and encouraged the crown to contribute large sums to the church: she was canonised in 1250.  The oldest building in the city takes her name; a little chapel dedicated to her by her son, David I, which now stands unassumingly in the middle of today's fortress.  It is here that the ill fated Mary Queen of Scots was baptised in the 16th century.  David I also ordered the building of the Abbey at Holyrood, which together with the castle became the focal points for the growing town.  The port at Lieth became important too, as a means to supply the town.

The security provided by the Castle Rock fortress did not prevent it from being captured.  In total it was sacked 7 times by English invaders.  The castle was taken during the 13th century Wars of Independence and was only liberated when a force of just 30 men led by Thomas Randolf, Earl of Moray and nephew of King Robert I (Robert the Bruce), scaled the rock face at night to take the English garrison by surprise.  After the Wars, in 1329, Robert I granted the town a Royal Charter.

Although Edinburgh could claim to be a town of some importance in the earlier middle ages it could not have been described as the capital until much later.  In the middle ages the capital, as the seat of political power, was wherever the king happened to be, and although various kings had used Edinburgh to hold parliaments it had been just one of many locations in Scotland where this had been so.  It was not until the reign of James IV (1488-1513) that the king made Edinburgh his regular seat.  Possibly the most successful of the Stewart monarchs, James IV's reign brought a "golden age" to Edinburgh: the printing press was introduced, the Royal College of Surgeons was founded, and artists and musicians flocked to the court.  He also ordered the renovation and expansion of the castle to suit the needs of the expanding court.  Meanwhile, the construction of the first effective city wall, begun in the the 1450's, encouraged the construction of tall tenement style buildings, huddled for security within the walls beside the castle, that often grew up to 12 stories.  This "Medieval Manhattan", as it has been described, can be seen in Edinburgh's Old Town to this day.

Significant portions of the castle were destroyed in 1573 after what has been called the "Lang Siege".  Sir William Kirkcaldy, keeper of the castle, had been holding on in support of the deposed Mary Queen of Scots against the Regent Morton ruling on behalf of Mary's son, James VI.  The Regent requested military support from England and in May, 10 days of bombardment by English cannon reduced the two prominent features of the old castle, David's Tower and Constable's Tower, to ruins.  Reconstruction would focus on strengthening the military and defensive capabilities of the castle and the imposing Half-Moon Battery was built on the site of David's Tower while what had been Constable's Tower became the impressive Portcullis Gate.  However, little thought was given to the castle's living quarters, with the result that the royal residence in Edinburgh has been Holyrood Palace ever since
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Related topics:
A Brief History of Scotland