Craigmillar Castle lies just three miles south-east of the centre of Edinburgh. Yet while the city features in the distant views from the castle's walls, step inside them and you could be in a different time and place. Craigmillar Castle is simply one of the most completely preserved medieval castles in Scotland.
Craigmillar began life as the tower house that still forms the core of the castle. This was constructed around 1400, probably by Sir George Preston, one of a line of Prestons who played a large part in civic life in Edinburgh over several hundred years.
It was his grandson Sir William Preston who, in the 1440s, was responsible for Craigmillar's most notable feature. He added the curtain wall that surrounds the tower house on three sides and creates the inner courtyard. In about 1510 Sir Simon Preston added a further layer of enclosure, erecting outer walls to form the outer yard and east and west gardens.
Craigmillar Castle was captured by the English in May 1544 with its laird (another) Sir Simon Preston, who was also Provost of Edinburgh at the time. A programme of rebuilding in the 1550s included the construction of a new range of buildings along the east side of the inner courtyard. This was designed to provide more modern and spacious accommodation than was available in the tower house.
It was probably in this new east range that Mary Queen of Scots stayed in September 1563 and again in December 1566. It was during her second stay that conspirators agreed the "Craigmillar Bond": the plot to kill Mary's dissolute husband Lord Darnley.
In 1660 the Prestons sold Craigmillar Castle to Sir John Gilmour. Craigmillar saw another round of building, this time leading to the creation of the west range. In the early 1700s the Gilmours did what other landed families across Scotland were doing at the same time. Rather than trying to convert their castle into a residence suitable for Edinburgh high society of the day they abandoned it. They moved instead to Inch House, newly built in what later became Gilmerton, named after the family.
Craigmillar Castle became overgrown and ruinous over the following two centuries, and was passed into state care in 1949. Today it is cared for by Historic Environment Scotland.
What makes Craigmillar special is the extent to which its underlying structure survives. The inner courtyard may now be home to two very impressive trees that were certainly not there in the Prestons' time in the castle. But the walls of almost all the structures of the castle survive, together with all the vaulted floors. This means access is possible up to roof level in the tower house and first floor level in large parts of the rest of the building. There is also a complete wall walk around two sides of the curtain wall.
And even more remarkably, many of the outlying structures survive in the gardens and outer yard. These include the walls of the chapel in the east garden, and the dovecot at the north-east corner of the castle. This has been colonised by local pigeons, giving a vivid impression (and smell) of what a dovecot would have been like in use.
But for everyone whose first instinct on entering a castle is to see how high they can climb, Craigmillar's high point, literally, is the roof of the tower house. From here you get stunning views in all directions. Edinburgh Castle lies on the skyline to the north-west, while to the north it is Salisbury Crags and Arthur's Seat which command attention. Closer at hand is the new housing development helping transform Craigmillar from what was once one of Edinburgh's less sought after areas.
Also visible to the north-east is a wide sweep of the Forth Estuary. Moving around clockwise the new Edinburgh Royal Infirmary comes into view, then the Pentland Hills, and finally the rather lower Braid Hills to the west. Edinburgh is a city of many wonderful viewpoints: and the top of Craigmillar Castle ranks strongly amongst them.