You access the upper parts of Edinburgh Castle in one of two ways. The original route was via the Lang Stairs, the stone stairs leading up from the lower castle near the Portcullis Gate. The second and more common approach is via the oddly named Foog's Gate.
The upper parts of the castle can be thought of as two distinct areas. The main Upper Ward curves around the inside of the wall on its northern side and concludes at the Half Moon Battery, added to beef up the eastern defences after the Lang Siege of 1571-3. En route you pass the building now converted into an excellent bookshop. You also pass the rear of the small, rather rough stone building that sits on top of the very highest crag of castle rock. You should take time to look more closely, for this is St Margaret's Chapel, dating back to David I's rule in the 1120s and dedicated to his mother. It is by far the oldest structure still standing at Edinburgh Castle and may once have formed part of an early royal residence.
In front of St Margaret's Chapel is a more instantly impressive monument to the past: Mons Meg, a six ton siege gun given to James II in 1457. After a long life being used by Scottish Kings to intimidate their subjects, and sometimes the English, it was retired to ceremonial use in 1540. Sadly it blew up when last fired on 14 October 1681 and was consigned to the military scrapheap (surviving only because it was too big to melt down) before being resurrected for display in 1829.
It is worth remembering that this is no toy. The stones it fired weighed 330lb or 150kg. When Mons Meg was fired to celebrate the ill-fated first marriage of Mary Queen of Scots to the French Dauphin Francois in 1558, the castle authorities had to pay a group of men to find and retrieve the stone from land now forming part of the Botanical Gardens, a full two miles to the north.
The second main area of the upper castle is the Crown Square. This is the imposing space originally surrounded by the main elements of the royal residence established at Edinburgh Castle by the early members of the Stewart dynasty.
The most important of these elements was the Royal Palace itself. Today this provides a home for the Honours of Scotland: the Crown, Sceptre and Sword of State, the last of these broken in two, probably to allow it to be smuggled to safety out of Dunnottar Castle in 1652. And since 30 November 1996 the Palace has also been home to the Stone of Destiny, the deceptively ordinary-looking slab of stone that has held such a central and dissonant place in Anglo-Scottish relations over the past 700 years.
Other parts of the Royal Palace have been wonderfully restored to their condition in the days when used by the Kings and Queens of Scotland. The restoration gives a real feel for how these rooms might have felt to the people living here. Perhaps most striking is the wood panelled chamber in which Mary Queen of Scots gave birth to James VI. Rather poignantly this room is also home to a piece of "Queen Mary's thorn tree" taken in 1849 from Lochleven Castle, where Mary was imprisoned and forced to abdicate the crown in favour of her infant son James.
Just around the Crown Square from the Royal Palace is the Great Hall, built in 1511 and restored to its current condition from 1886. Stunningly impressive, the Great Hall still manages to maintain a human scale, making this a place in which you could imagine people being comfortable. The panels and the displays of arms and armour might owe more to a Victorian view of earlier days than to those days themselves: but this really is a great place in which to simply lose yourself.
The third side of the square is occupied by the Queen Anne Building, built in about 1710 on the site of the castle's original medieval gunhouse. Crown Square is completed by the most modern large building in the castle, the Scottish National War Memorial to the dead of both World Wars, designed by Sir Robert Lorimer and opened on 14 July 1927. This side of the square was originally occupied by the Castle Church of St Mary. This medieval church was converted into stores in 1540 and then demolished to make room for barracks in 1750. In the aftermath of World War One the barracks were pulled down to allow the construction of the Memorial.
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