Edinburgh Castle, sitting high on its rock dominates the city; an icon of the nation and the top tourist attraction in Britain outside London. But, Edinburgh has another castle, less well known, less frequented but also steeped in the rich and often bloody history of Scotland: Craigmillar Castle.
Craigmillar sits on a rocky outcrop about three miles to the south of the city centre, and overlooking the peaceful village of Duddingston to the north, and the bustling Royal Infirmary underneath its grassy slopes to the south. Today the city surrounds the castle as it expands exponentially into the Lothain countryside; but it once sat in the heart of rich and arable farmland, and with its proximity to the capital it was a coveted acreage. Since time immemorial Scotland has been parcelled out among its many tribes, chiefs and lords; but it was during the reign of David I in the early 12th century and his introduction of the Feudal System that ownership and titled rights became institutionalised.
As well as an autocratic reformer he was also something of a religious zealot: establishing monasteries and raising bishops and archbishops. It wasn’t all altruism of course, the Church was another bulwark against the machinations of ambitious nobles and it was a controllable and valuable asset. Around 1120 David gifted the rich lands of Craigmillar, known at the time as Preston, to the Abbey of Dunfermline – where his parents were buried, so this may have been a genuinely humble bequest. The wealthy abbots would control the parish and barony of Preston through the Wars of Independence in the early 14th century; but in 1342 David II gave, for reasons of loyalty to the Bruce family, the larger portion of the estate to the Preston family (lower league nobility that had thrived under the feudal system and took their name from the parish they now found themselves living in).
In 1374, Robert II conferred the remaining third of the estate on Sir Simon de Preston; who was the Baron of Preston (which in time became the barony of Craigmillar). Barons in England are accorded a rank of minor nobility; but in Scotland they’re really landowners with a title, and that title remains with the land and not the family. Sir William Preston, who apparently brought back the arm of St Giles from France and presented it to the, no-doubt, astonished priests at Edinburgh’s High Kirk, was the first to build a castle on the site. Begun at the end of the 14th century, Craigmillar Castle was designed as a typical Scottish L-Shaped, solid, stone tower house; and even today despite the ruination it remains one of the best examples of its kind.
Over the next couple of centuries his descendants would add an inner and an outer courtyard, with strong walls and ditch-work; and while it may look a bit tumbledown now it would have been one of the most impressive baronial castles in Scotland; and as such it and the family were soon orbiting around the crown, and courting royalty. Not that it was always a scene of joviality and revelry: in 1479 James III had his own brother John Stewart imprisoned in Craigmillar on the charge of witchcraft of all things. He died soon after in “mysterious” circumstances. Although, in comparison to all the skulduggery going on elsewhere with factions and scions competing with each other and with the king, Craigmillar was more of a refuge than a threat. In 1517 the infant James was taken there for safe-keeping while plague ravaged medieval Edinburgh. The location was handy, the family friendly and the area beautiful – it was no wonder kings and queens were frequent guests considering the squalor, and all the conniving back on the Royal Mile.
Unlike many of the castles in the Border country, or in the Highlands, Craigmillar came through the rough centuries of the Stewart dynasty fairly unscathed; with the birth of Mary Queen of Scots all that changed. Henry VIII, the wife slaughtering king of England, wanted to marry his own son (the future Edward VI) to baby Mary, but her mother, the astute and powerful Marie de Guise was having none of it, so Henry invaded. And although his incursion was in vain (Mary was smuggled toFrance), the support given by the Prestons to the Stewarts saw Craigmillar burnt and badly damaged. It would be repaired however, and when Mary returned to Scotland it was to this well known retreat that she convalesced twice, in 1563 and 1566 during her short but traumatic reign. It was said that the bond to kill her loathsome husband, Lord Darnley by the Earl of Bothwell and other leading magnates was signed at Craigmillar; and there remains doubt over how much the queen was involved.
The 17th century began with the accession of James VI of Scotland to the throne of England; and it would be pock-marked by deep divisions, civil and religious war and deep-rooted and long-lasting changes to the social order in Scotland. During the 1650s the country was under military occupation by Oliver Cromwell, and his lieutenant, General Monck; but many families remained loyal to the exiled Stewarts, some openly. When Charles II was restored in 1660 he rewarded those who had stayed true, and rewarded as only a flamboyant and extravagant king could. One family, the Gilmours had stuck with the king through thick and thin; and with Restoration Sir John Gilmour was created the ‘Lord President of the Court of Session’, Scotland’s chief judge. He was also gifted substantial landholdings in the area to the south of Edinburgh.
Within the year, the Prestons sold Craigmillar to Sir John and moved to Drem. The Gilmours themselves would depart the castle in the 18th century, when the fashion for draughty old stone castles was giving way to country houses. From then on it was allowed to fall into disrepair and ultimately ruin; although at one point there was a proposal to do the place up as a residence for QueenVictoria. In 1946 it was sold to the State and has been in the protection of Historic Scotland ever since. It is open to the public, and unlike many ruins there is still a substantial amount to still be explored and rooms to see. Indeed, there are often functions and parties held here, both in the courtyard and inside.
Edinburgh’s other castle has a lot to offer not only in terms of the dramatic nature of the setting and ruins; but as a glimpse into the world of those families who ran Scotland, farmed it, employed its labour force and fought its battles. And there might even be a ghost or two lurking as well. It’s easy enough to visit, and I would highly recommend adding it to your Edinburgh ‘to do’ list.