Edinburgh Castle

Scotland is positively littered with castles. Towering monuments to the local lords built for their personal defence and safety and to exert control over the surrounding area. There are even basic defensive hill forts that date back to prehistoric times. The most interesting and imposing structures however are the castles of the medieval period, appearing in Scotland in the 12th century they remained an important feature of Scottish society until the 17th century by which time central government was in firm control and improvements in artillery had begun to seriously impair the usefulness of these once impenetrable strongholds.

Medieval castles were great for defence but they also served as ostentatious signs of power and wealth for the ruling class. These striking buildings had to serve a variety of functions, they were administrative centres for local government, they were barracks, they were prisons, they provided lodgings for travellers and they allowed the local noble or the visiting King to hold court. The medieval castle generally employed a large number of staff to cater for the various needs of the lord.

Castle Layout

At the heart of every castle is the great hall, this is where the lord would hold court and typically it would be the place of any large gathering, meals would be consumed here along with copious amounts of alcohol (a long Scottish tradition) and entertainment would often be provided. Most halls featured huge fireplaces and often the seat of the lord would be afforded a special place, sometimes a raised platform to emphasise his status.

Generally found immediately adjacent to the great hall was the chamber, some times known as the withdrawing chamber which eventually became shortened to drawing room in private homes. The idea was to provide a quieter room where the lord and his closest companions could withdraw from the bustle of the great hall to continue their conversation. Beyond the withdrawing chamber there would be bed chambers, a grand one for the lord and smaller chambers for his guests.

The kitchen was often situated beneath the great hall with a series of pantry and storerooms adjacent. It would be a busy place and typically would include a huge fireplace for cooking. Castles would also have their own fresh water supply, usually a well within the castle walls.

If the castle contained a dungeon it would generally be found in the dank and dark bowels of the structure. There would often be a prison with basic amenities and then a pit beneath which would lack all sanitation reserved for the worst class of criminals. Dungeons at larger castles such as Edinburgh Castle would include torture implements of various types to punish and interrogate prisoners.

Castles would also typically have their own chapel and austere quarters would be provided for the priest. In the enclosed courtyard outside you might find stables, a fuel store and perhaps a laundry and a porter´s lodge.

Castle Defence

Perhaps the most important feature of any successful castle was its location. Castles were usually built upon areas offering natural defensive capabilities, such as the volcanic plug at Edinburgh, or upon islands or peninsulas which made approach almost impossible, as at Loch Doon. The natural defences would often be bolstered by the construction of a ditch or moat.

Tantallon Castle

Castles were initially built from earth and timber but as siege tactics improved more castles were constructed from stone. From the 13th century onwards castles tended to have thick walls of at least 3 metres, sometimes as much as 5 metres thick.

Early siege tactics focussed on incendiary bombardment and once the castle was in flames the attackers would charge in. As castles were increasingly built of stone other tactics had to be developed and they ranged from the simple battering ram aimed at the main door to sappers and miners who would dig their way under the walls. Various trebuchets and catapults were also used to bombard the castle with missiles. Mobile siege towers were also fairly common, constructed of wood they would be pushed up to the castle walls and allow the men to climb up and over the walls. Miners and ram operators were usually protected by a cover known as a sow.

The defenders of the castle would hurl all sorts of missiles at the attackers. Sometimes they would use boiling pitch and often the structure would have little defensive platforms built onto it with holes in the floor which would allow the defenders to drop things onto the attackers below. Crenellations (or castellations) were the rectangular spaces cut into the tops of the walls which allowed archers to fire unimpeded and then retire behind cover to reload their bows. Often castle additions were built out the way to allow defenders to hit the flanks of the attacking force.

With the obvious weak spot being the door castle builders had to come up with a way to protect it from rams and they did in the form of an iron gate, called a portcullis, which would be lowered when needed. The ultimate addition to make the door completely inaccessible was a drawbridge, a bridge which crossed the moat surrounding the castle and which could be drawn up to prevent access when the castle was under attack.

Tantallon Castle

Despite all these defences the attackers would often get in eventually but the defence did not stop at the breach of the gate. Inside the castle the defensive walls would often have murder-holes carved into their floors which allowed the defenders to drop missiles on the invading troops below. Individual defensive positions within the castle could be defended independently so even once the attackers were successfully inside the battle could rage on for a long time.

Due to the tremendous difficulty of gaining access to castles the preferred method was to surround the structure and starve the inhabitants out, a process which could take months and sometimes over a year. It is no surprise that many attacking armies had to give up the siege and leave a castle untaken.

For a long time castles were a symbol of power and dominance over the surrounding lands and the nobles of Scotland spent huge sums of money constructing them.

Scottish Castles

Edinburgh Castle
Tantallon Castle
Stirling Castle