Summer is festival time in Edinburgh, and last Sunday, with this year’s poor summer weather weather dry but overcast, we went off to sample the atmosphere. A stroke of luck saw us cruising a city centre street for an unlikely parking space, when a car edged out in front of us, leaving us a space to nip into smartly before someone else swung their way in. Parking space sorted, we made for the Royal Mile. Last year we walked down it towards Holyrood House, so on Sunday we headed upwards, towards the castle.
Edinburgh Castle has its roots way back in history with evidence of Bronze Age people building homes on the castle rock around 900BC. Three centuries later it is referred to as Din Eidyn, where the name Edinburgh comes from. By the late first century AD it was a thriving Iron Age hill fort, and by the 11th century Queen Margaret is said to have died at Edinburgh Castle. Through the centuries buildings were added, growing out of the volcanic plug like sturdy mushrooms.
Over the years it suffered attack and sieges by the armies of English kings, Covenanters and the forces of Oliver Cromwell; saw the deaths of kings and the birth of monarchs. Mary Queen of Scots gave birth in one of its apartments to a son who would become James VI of Scotland and, after the Union of the Crowns, James I of England.
In 1757 French prisoners of war were first imprisoned in the castle with a mass breakout by French prisoners in 1811, seven years before Sir Walter Scott discovered the Honours of Scotland sealed in a room where they had been deposited in 1707 after the union of the Scottish and English parliaments. During the First World War, in 1916, a German Zeppelin airship bombed the castle, and five years after the end of the Second World War, in 1950, the first Edinburgh Military Tattoo was held on its Esplanade. The Tattoo remains an event visitors flock to. Like the official festival and the fringe, it has participants from around the world. And visitors from around the world were certainly in evidence last Sunday.
And an event I remember watching on television in 1996 – the Stone of Destiny, the stone on which Scottish kings were crowned and which had been removed from Scone Abbey (near Perth) 700 years previously, in 1296, by Edward 1st of England, was returned to Scotland, crossing the border in the back of a military landrover. The red sandstone block now resides in the castle beside the crown jewels of Scotland, though doubts about its authenticity remain. Stories abound about the original stone being of basalt, and intricately carved, hidden by the monks of Scone when they heard of the approaching army, substituted by a red sandstone drain cover that was carried off by Edward to England and Westminster Abbey where it sat beneath the Coronation Chair of English kings. The present queen sat above it, the monarchy said to be superstitious about its presence, fearing the end of their reign should it ever leave.
Legend has it the real stone was brought from Ireland to Argyll by Fergus, the first King of the Scots. Another legend claims a biblical history for the stone – that it was the one used by Jacob, brought to Scotland by unseen hands and dropped where Scone Abbey would be sited. In 1950 four students at Glasgow University travelled to London by car. It was Christmas Day and most folk were engaged in celebrating as the four heaved the stone from beneath the Coronation Chair in Westminster Abbey, determined to return it to Scotland. The stone was broken and eventually ended up with a Glasgow stonemason for repair. Here more stories that have become legends appear. Three copies were supposedly made, with a note inserted inside the real, repaired stone. But the stones became mixed up, so some say there is doubt whether the stone in the castle is indeed the stone Edward took, and of course that supposedly wasn’t the real Stone of Destiny anyway. That is said to be securely hidden in a Scottish hillside. But if someone knows where, they are keeping very quiet.
A huge hunt was set in train for the stone. The coronation was in the offing and the royal family had these superstitions about the piece of red sandstone. No stone was found despite the search. In April 1951 authorities were told the stone had been left on the altar of Arbroath Abbey. It was returned to Westminster where two years later the coronation took place. No charges were ever brought against any of those involved in the return of the stone to Scotland in 1950. The irony in the tail is that one of the students became a well-known QC and retains a high, and quirky, profile in Scotland.
As I was brought up in Glasgow I was well aware of most of these stories and legends, and later when staying in Argyll even met some of those who removed the stone from Westminster Abbey that Christmas day.