Dominating the skyline of the Scottish capital, Edinburgh Castle sits atop Castle Rock, one of the UK’s most visited paid attractions with commanding views of the city and landscape below. Throughout history its role and function has changed, used for a variety of purposes from a Royal Residence to a Military Garrison, today, under the governance of Historic Environment Scotland it continues to serve a variety of causes. Within the castle grounds, regimental museums and the National War Museum of Scotland are open to visitors, in addition the 12th Century St Margaret’s Chapel and the 16th Century Great Hall. As with the Tower of London in the English Capital, Edinburgh Castle has evolved over the course of its history, serving a variety of masters and purposes and reflects this change with distinct architectural changes and appearances. It serves as the backdrop to the Edinburgh Military Tattoo and with its central position on the Royal Mile, a familiar attraction during the annual Edinburgh Festival, a recognisable and associated location to this old city. As a location, the natural formations of the hills surrounding the city are formidable to comprehend, the natural formation of Arthur’s Seat looking over the capital, the presence of Edinburgh Castle serving as somewhat of a counterpoint to the challenge of the natural environment.
In March of this year, the castle was closed to visitors due to the restrictions across the country as a result of the Covid pandemic, reopening on the 1st of August to a transformed market and environment. In contrast to the expected audiences of around 300,000 in July, the castle restricted attendance to a daily admittance of a 1,000 paying visitors when it opened its gates although this has been increased in recent months with a strong demand to visit this historic setting that is ingrained with the character of the city. Certain rooms and areas remain closed, reflected in a reduction in the entry ticket price for visitors, as much that can be opened safely has been with the castle leading this innovation to the pandemic with the introduction of the traffic light system that has yet to be introduced in the English Capital. An entry light system is situated at the historic rooms and areas, visitors waiting patiently in reduced numbers at the red before entering on the green. It’s an instantly recognisable and easy to understand system that reflects this historic ensemble of ideas, appearances and settings across the ages. QR codes are common place, the castle adapting to the 21st century and smartphone technology, cultural and historical attractions had to innovate and make these changes quickly to ensure the safety and wellbeing of its visitors, where possible it has used this period of closure to adapt for a new operating environment.
The question of sustainability is ever present, in recent days in London a number of museums and charities have had to make the unenviable decision to reduce staff and operating costs to ensure survival in the long term. The latest casualty of the pandemic the Museum of London announced on the 8th October its intention to consult on redundancies, the visitor levels after opening not sustainable in their current operating model. In the absence of international visitors to Edinburgh in any great numbers, as with nearly every attraction it is relying on domestic tourists and residents to continue to visit, with weekends sold out in advance clearly there is still an appeal to see and visit the Castle however it will have suffered a loss in income from cancelled concerts and its traditional firework display marking the end of the Edinburgh festival. It is open for business, with reduced visitor levels that conversely make for a more pleasant experience for guests to this historical attraction, whether it faces the decisions being made by other museums and charities is hard to say, with a variety of restaurants and shops complying by social distancing measures overseen by Historic Environment Scotland it will be challenging end to the year. And a hope to a return to normalcy to ensure its sustainability and stature as one of the countries leading attractions.
History and Modernity Collide
Arriving in the courtyard of Edinburgh Castle you are aware instantly of the modern world we live in, courtesy social distancing signs prevalent reminding you of your social and legal duties. Thankfully everything is managed in good cheer with ticketing largely automated now removing the necessity of human interaction as you print your pre-purchased tickets and enter through the main gate. Given the limited infrastructure you imagine this is a temporary measure, even with reduced numbers there was still a slight wait to print the tickets but it was over in short order. Entering the castle, it has a single directional system in place though there is no rush or necessity to move around at haste. A new ticketing office is being constructed inside the entrance gate, it seems almost archaic in how museums and attractions are being and have transformed in short order. You can imagine before these measures were put in place there would be a genial atmosphere, today, masks are mandatory and distance measures in place, it does consequently temper your enjoyment somewhat although I was glad it was open to visit. Walking up the passage way you arrive at the Argyle Battery and Gun placement overlooking the city, circles for visitors to stand are clearly marked on the ground, once a thriving attraction today an almost decorative feature of this area of the castle. The ramparts overlooking the city was a popular location, some stunning views of the old and new regions of Edinburgh however it also formed a slight pinch point with a queue forming in short order, an opportune photo before moving forward.
The Hospital Square and National War Museum was the next destination on your itinerary although the route does open up here somewhat and you do have the option to bypass and head into the upper ward and Crown Square. There was a queue to enter the museum but it was a fairly extensive and concise history of the role of the armed forces in Scottish history, predominantly its role within the union of the United Kingdom. It was an informative experience, operating in a similar fashion to the Royal Armouries exhibit in the White Tower at the Tower of London, a museum within an attraction that is accessible through paid entry to the castle. In recent months I’ve been fortunate to visit a number of military museums around the Capital including amongst others, the National Army Museum in Chelsea which presents the Union perspective on the British Army. It was interesting to learn about the Scottish clans and regiments, the character of this country and how it has been integral in the nations conflicts over history. Perhaps its a romanticized view of the Union that no longer exists today but I’ll readily admit to being a Unionist and see the division between Scotland and England as one of the great existential challenges to the nation of our generation. Museums such as this serves to show the character and contribution of Scotland to the prosperity of the Union whilst highlighting the courage and fortitude of those that enlisted or were conscripted for active service from this country. It certainly strengthens the adage there is more that unites than divides us.
On prior occasion you would have been free to explore and enter the upper rampant, today the direction system guides you towards the Crown Square away from the Chapel, this section of the Castle reminded me of Hampton Court, the architectural design and feel of the courtyard very similar to the palace in London. Here, the Castle has installed its traffic light system, a really ingenious form of crowd control, purportedly in use in Europe that controls numbers into interior rooms and space. I’ve yet to see this in London, it certainly would alleviate the issue of visitors in confined spaces though it has yet to feature in other attractions in the city such as the Palace of Holyroodhouse at the opposite end of the Royal Mile. The interiors were interesting to see, certainly they bore a striking resemblance in style and fixtures to Hampton Court and other historical palaces but enjoyable in their own way. I appreciated the Covid Secure Knights, a delightful little touch that alleviated some of the tension and fear of being in a confined space with others outside your immediate circle. Some parts here weren’t open or immediately available to visit, the Crown Jewels exhibit didn’t appear to be accepting visitors yet. It was interesting to walk around the National War Memorial, one of the few areas where photography was prohibited, understandable given the nature of the building, but still a haunting and poignant structure to walk around.
Descending down into the Upper Ward, this area of the castle has been divided to allow the implementation of the one way system around the grounds, at this point in your visit you have the opportunity to visit St Margaret’s Chapel although expect a wait for this popular destination, the interior is quite small and with distancing guidelines in place it won’t admit many visitors in one go. For the most part there is enough space to visit comfortably and maintaining a level of social distancing, there are a number of pinch points however and the queue to the chapel did feel a little unsafe to wait passively in line. I enjoyed walking around the Half-Moon Battery with the canon emplacements overlooking Edinburgh, it brought to mind the Castle in Lisbon overlooking the historical city, it does incite your imagination to conjure images of these weapons of destruction firing down upon invading hordes approaching the ramparts. From there, after paying our respects to the Dog Cemetery you descend to the Argyle Battery and down the divided walkway towards the main gate. There is an opportunity to visit the Castle Shop although with distancing measures in place this was a little convoluted to understand with visitors walking towards the exit along the already narrow divided path before queuing against the wall to enter the shop facing the opposite direction. It’s the best of a bad circumstance but did deter us from visiting on that day.
Edinburgh Castle is a fascinating location to visit, it radiates its character and personality around its immediate vicinity and beyond, a look and style that has evolved throughout history. Unlike similar historical attractions both in the UK and abroad, the lack of a consistent architectural style and design gives it a unique, distinct appearance that is instantly recognisable in whatever form and way the image of the castle is used from banknotes to promotional material. Certainly when we were planning to visit Edinburgh, it was centered around visiting this destination, understandably one of the UK’s highest rated attractions evident from the visitor numbers that would ordinarily have arrived at a similar point in previous years though this year in particular has been anything but ordinary. Tickets were sold out in advance, released in blocks a month or two beforehand announced on the attractions website and social media channels. There is clearly a demand to visit this historical attraction, with the multitude of roles and purposes Edinburgh Castle serves, you don’t envision as big a threat to its continuing existence and operations in contrast to other purpose built museums and galleries. Income from visitor numbers will certainly be down from previous years but as with other historical attractions of this type, given its protected status it will continue to hold its prominence on the Edinburgh skyline.
From a personal perspective, holistically it did feel like an amalgamation of other attractions visited in recent years, it’s historical chambers and rooms especially the Great Hall reminiscent of Hampton Court Palace for instance. It brought back a lot of fond memories from visiting the various Historic Royal Palace estates in and around London and almost had a nostalgic feel to the day despite this being the first occasion I’ve visited both Edinburgh and this majestic castle. The only real missing element was a showcase garden although the city itself is surrounded by a number of towering and aggrandized natural settings on its immediate borders it can be forgiven for missing this addition to its estate. There were elements that remained closed off, the Honours of Scotland and Stone of Destiny confined to their vaults though again, being fortunate to live in London I’d imagine there is an overt similarity to the Crown Jewels held securely at the Tower of London. In time, and as this pervasive threat diminishes the castle will continue to open up to a state of normalcy, welcoming visitors from home and abroad hopefully to showcase the entirety of its collection but for now, as much that can be safely opened up, has been and despite what restrictions are in place it’s a worthwhile and incredible location to visit.
It would be disingenuous to describe this as a greatest hits of Scottish history but subjectively, that was the overwhelming and last impression I took from my visit to this castle. Reflected both in its content and indeed, outward appearance with a variety of styles and designs given its evolution over the course of time. All the individual elements within were interesting to see, I really enjoyed walking around the National War Museum within, it felt modern, clean and on point, curated to tell the proud history of the contribution of Scotland to the fortification and defence of the Union. The batteries were fun to see, and unlike other attractions such as Castelo de São Jorge in Lisbon whose ornamental cannons overlook the city in silence, there is a daily tradition of firing over Edinburgh that makes it a spectacle to see. It may lack a distinct identifiable character of its own, that defining aspect unique to this attraction but equally, if ever there was an appropriate use of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts, I’d propose it fits perfectly to surmising the castle as somewhere to visit. A number of fun, enjoyable experiences in a picturesque setting, in an incredible city.
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