Stories of Scotland: Fortress

Posted by on Mar 19, 2013 in Places, Scotland | 7 Comments

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A tale of three fortresses.

1.   BEGINNING

2.   BRIDGE

3.   FORTRESS

4.   STREETS

5.   CLICHE

6.   HERO

7.   VILLAIN

8.   LAND

9.   SEA

10.  END

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I

[dropcap]I[/dropcap]t’s easy to look up at the battlements of Edinburgh Castle and imagine they’ve always been there – a Scottish version of Storm’s End, impregnable, unbreakable. That’s probably what the residents of Edinburgh Castle thought as they huddled behind its walls in early 1573, championing their Scottish queen, defying the English, blasting their increasingly limited supply of cannonballs at the town below, fortifying the castle walls, and desperately trying to stretch their water rations towards an uncertain future.

Castle Siege

They hung on until April. Then English reinforcements turned up — a thousand of Elizabeth’s men, lugging cannon. The English troops built a battery on Castle Hill facing the east walls of the fortress, and five further batteries encircling the remainder . . . and on the 17th May, the cannon began firing. For 12 days, thousands of cannonballs smacked into the castle, tearing down towers, punching holes in bulwarks, blasting masonry to rubble — and when enough ruin had been wrought in the outer defences, in rushed the English troops, taking control of the defensive spur (the modern-day Esplanade) that formed the limits of the castle’s fortifications. By the 28th of May, the defenders had surrendered.

1,000 troops, 27 cannon, 3,000 cannonballs and an increasingly debilitated defensive force threatening to mutiny against its commander — that’s what it takes to storm Edinburgh Castle.

Over the following 400 years of political strife, attempted Jacobite rebellion, Highland Clearances, Scottish Enlightenment (“We look to Scotland for all our ideas of civilisation” — Voltaire) and the resurgence of the country’s nationalism & move towards partial self-government, Edinburgh Castle has become the ultimate Scottish metaphor for standing your ground until the storm has passed. Another literal pièce de résistance was returned to Scotland on St Andrew’s Day, 1996 — the Stone of Destiny, also called the Stone of Scone after the monastery in which it resided in the 13th Century before being torn out by Edward I, lugged south and installed in the chair he sat upon in Westminster Abbey.

(Calculated insults? The English wrote the book.)

Edinburgh Castle is an impressively solid presence on the city’s skyline, but if you’re looking for a structure that has really stood the test of time . . . look underneath it.

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II

[dropcap]O[/dropcap]nce upon a time, there was a volcano.

It wasn’t a very unusual volcano. In the Carboniferous period, an unimaginable gulf of time ago, volcanoes were all over the place. The landscape was tropical, and with good reason — Scotland lay on the equator. Warm seas lapped at forested coastlines, nibbling them away and scattering their sediment upon the ocean floor.

One dramatic day, KABLAM. A pillar of magma punched its way to the surface at the present-day site of Edinburgh Castle, forming a volcanic cone, spewing lava.

This was the volcanic equivalent of a prawn cocktail starter. The main course arrived when Arthur’s Seat bulged skywards and exploded. This would not have been a good time to be a tourist in Edinburgh (or indeed Scotland), so it’s probably a good job that tourism wouldn’t be invented for another 340 million years.

After another unimaginable amount of time, these volcanoes had stopped belching fire. They cooled and were covered by rising seas, thanks to sinking continental crust.  Muddy sediments drifted down, grain by grain, and completely covered them. (Volcanoes, buried in silt. Think about how much time that would have taken. Think about it again.)

Then the earth tilted dramatically, as the earth is prone to do if you give it enough millions of years, and the buried volcanoes and their mud coverings were tipped towards the east.

Cue yet another brain-floppingly huge period of time — in fact, the whole of prehistory. The earth’s climate changed dramatically, great cycles of cold and warmth. Scotland moved off the equator, hauled away by its underlying tectonic plate, and then along came the glaciers, scraping great grooves in our planet’s surface, peeling away anything soft and grinding against anything tougher.  Glaciation and less dramatic erosive forces stripped away all that silt (now turned to shale), leaving the remnants of the two volcanoes exposed to the air once more, and exposing the edge of a sill to form what is now called Salisbury Crags.

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Want to get an idea of how violently the land was tilted? Sills are laid down horizontally. With that in mind, look at this picture of Salisbury Crags.

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III

[dropcap]A[/dropcap]rthur’s Seat, the central peak in a line of hills in the heart of modern Edinburgh, is the city’s oldest, sturdiest fortress. The remains of an ancient hillfort encrust the summit. It’s an obvious place to retreat to if you don’t trust your neighbours, and in the wartorn Iron Age (700 BC to around 500 AD) that probably counted for a lot.

It’s also ideally positioned to keep an eye on local traffic.

map edinburgh arthur's seat - Google Maps - Google Chrome 19032013 113758

If you’re a warband heading northwards, you’d want to be traversing the land covered by modern-day Edinburgh. To the north, the sea encroaches deep inland, forcing you westwards – and to the south, the Pentland Hills form an unhelpfully rugged alternative route. The wide, flat expanse of land between the hills and Arthur’s Seat is a no-brainer for attacker and defender alike – except for the latter, there’s a problem. Arthur’s Seat is big – and if you man a defensive position 820 feet up a mountain, your military reaction time is severely curtailed. If you want to strike quickly, Castle Rock is a much safer bet.

This is a hillside woven with stories half-remembered, half-told and poorly understood. Legend has it that Holyrood Park (encompassing Arthur’s Seat and its surroundings) gets its name from a vision suffered by the 12th Century Scottish King David I while being attacked by a white stag at the slope of the mountain. As the beast prepared to skewer him, David saw a cross magically appear between the animal’s horns — after which it turned away, allowing the King to make a sharp exit. Rood means “cross” — hence the “Holyrood Abbey” that David erected in 1128 AD on that very spot. Other stories tell of a glowing rood that descended from the heavens, or that David encountered nothing but a stag and a bout of pious (or feverish) inspiration.

ArthursSeatSummit

So many stories. The mountain’s modern name, dating from the 15th Century, speaks of one of Britain’s most famous legends (the mountain has been put forward, somewhat implausibly, as a potential site for Camelot). Washington Irving, the creator of Rip Van Winkle, described Arthur’s Seat as “perfect witchcraft.”

And in 1836, a group of young boys encountered these.

A landscape of mystery and otherworldly myth – deep in the heart of a capital city. It’s all so very Scottish.

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Getting to Edinburgh Castle & Arthur’s Seat

Edinburgh Castle: follow the signs to the Royal Mile and head uphill! Tickets and prices are here (if you’re travelling around Scotland you may find it cost-effective to grab an Explorer Pass) – and the castle is open 9.30am to 5pm all year round, with an extra hour’s opening time at the end of the day during winter.

Arthur’s Seat: it’s impossible to miss, wherever you are in the city. Head towards it, making your own route and exploring Edinburgh in an excitingly random way. Alternately, check out Jaunted’s comprehensive guide here.

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[box type="note"]The campaign and trip this series is based on was provided by Edinburgh’s Hogmanay and supported by VisitScotlandETAGEdinburgh FestivalsHaggis Adventures and Skyscanner. The campaign bloggers were sourced and managed by iambassador. As with everything else in this blog, all opinions are my own.[/box]

Images: Wikimedia Commons, Google Maps and Mike Sowden

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7 Comments

  1. Kate Convissor
    March 20, 2013

    For a taste of a landscape formed by ancient tectonic movement that is still pristine and lightly peopled, sample Gros Morne National Park in western Newfoundland. Straight across the pond from Scotland with the same sense of misty wizardry and magic. Same looming (but more softly rounded) mountains. More bog than rock, however. Still, some of the oldest exposed rock in the world.

    Reply
    • Button
      March 22, 2013

      Yes! Mike! Come to Newfoundland (ideally after Cale and I move back to Canada) and we will show you around Gros Morne and associated weird landscapes!

      Reply
  2. Jimbo
    March 21, 2013

    Go forth Mike and read the oldest surviving piece of British literature Y Gododdin and learn about the court of Mynyddog Mwynfawr.

    Shakes his head sadly and returns to his pile of marking

    Reply
  3. The Best Travel Bloggers in March | The HostelBookers Blog
    March 28, 2013

    [...] Scotland: Mike Sowden gets seriously Scottish in Stories of Scotland: Fortress [...]

    Reply
  4. Raj Sharma
    May 20, 2013

    Excellent Article… great research. Great fort and mystery. Lots of people totally unaware about so can know about it through this post. Thanks for sharing so good post.

    Reply
  5. Anna
    October 19, 2013

    Fascinating history – especially the prehistoric part!

    Reply
  6. Julie K.
    November 14, 2013

    So many interesting facts! You really dug deep. I love the haunting atmosphere of the Edinburgh Castle and all its legends and ghost stories. The one about the Lone Piper is my favorite..boy forever wandering the castle underground playing his pipes..goose bumps. It really does look like one of the fantastical fortresses from George Martin´s books, doesn´t it?

    Reply

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