Craigmillar Castle is a quiet and rather overlooked castle on the outskirts of Edinburgh.
It was built with the intention of being a grandiose residence for the Preston family, rather than as a defensive outpost, but became important in history from hosting Mary Queen of Scots.
Nowadays, it’s an atmospheric ruin, filled with small dark passageways perfect for children’s games of hide and seek.
Climbing the Tower House at the heart of Craigmillar Castle will give you a magnificent view over the city of Edinburgh, and, all in all, it’s a nice afternoon out if you’re spending time in this lovely Scottish city.
What’s the history behind Craigmillar Castle?
The story really starts in 1374. Back then, the Preston family, who were already making a name for themselves in the higher circles of Edinburgh, were granted lands and the privileges which went with them.
From this time, they became Lairds of this patch of the city, and became increasingly important in society – climbing the ranks to become judges or magistrates. To demonstrate their power to the world, they began building the Tower House of Craigmillar – which you see today at the centre of the castle.
After the construction of the Tower House, successive generations of the Preston family added their own additions to Craigmillar. In the c15th, they built a thick inner courtyard wall to surround the Tower House; and, in the 16th century, the East Range and the West Range were built outside the inner courtyard – each time adding an outer-layer, like wrapping a present for Christmas.
A canny, Scottish design – the hidden violence of the Tower House
Although Craigmillar Castle isn’t in a particularly vulnerable position, the Tower House was ingeniously designed to prevent marauders from entering the castle.
The Tower House sits on a little, rocky outcrop, and consisted of four storeys – the top three with high, vaulted ceilings; and the bottom floor being a rather poky basement, that was later used to store wine. An additional top storey added within the c15th.
The entrance to the Tower House is what’s particularly cunning. For starters, it’s concealed at the back of the building, meaning that intruders would have to pass around the sides of the tower, and teeter along the cliff, to get to it.
To make things even trickier, the original design had an opening drawbridge which came down between the cliff and the doorway, preventing anyone from leaping in.
When the thick curtain wall was added the the castle, the drawbridge would have been removed to make way for this new wall. However, the canny Prestons had another trick up their sleeves.
A guard-room sits directly above the entrance hall; and they hollowed out a huge 3ft drop between the level of the entrance-hall and the outside lip at the door (this is now filled in, for obvious safety reasons!).
If anyone broke through the castle door, they’d either trip and fall down the huge 3ft gap – or teeter precariously on its lip. Above them would have been the guardhouse, equipped with ‘murder holes’ – channels through the stone to pour down boiling oil, or shoot down arrows. An intruder would have had very little hope of making it in alive!
Mary, Queen of Scots, and her time at Craigmillar Castle, and ‘Little France’
The Scottish nobility frequently took a break from living in Edinburgh Castle or Holyrood to spend time in Craigmillar Castle. Craigmillar was a relaxing bolt-hole away from the centre of the city – and a good place to avoid the frequent outbreaks of the plague!
However, one Royal spent more time here more than most. Mary, Queen of Scots, was a frequent visitor to Craigmillar Castle during her tumultuous existence.
Mary spent reasonably lengthy periods at the castle – in 1563, she spent weeks recuperating from a tour of the South West of Scotland, which had been engineered to shore-up her support.
In 1566, she fled to safety in the castle after the murder of her close private secretary, David Rizzio. It’s clear that she had her own private quarters in the castle, although it’s not abundantly clear where they were – despite popular belief, it’s more probably that they were in the Western or Eastern wings, rather than somewhere in the Great Tower.
Truth be told, Mary and her entourage were at Craigmillar Castle so frequently that the locals began to nickname adjacent village ‘Little France’ – a name which persists to today. You might be wondering where the ‘French’ reference comes from. Well, remember that the vast majority of Mary’s courtiers were French. She was a Catholic monarch (whereas England was turning Protestant), and she was therefore closely allied to the Roman Catholic European powers of the period.
Life wasn’t easy for Mary. In 1567, she was abducted, allegedly raped and then forced by the Scottish nobility to abdicate as Queen of Scotland, handing the throne to her one year old son, James.
Mary was a fighter, and struggled against the nobles, by mustering enough troops to fight in the Battle of Langside. However, she lost and was forced to flee to England, begging her cousin, Queen Elizabeth I, to protect her. Elizabeth saw her as a trouble-maker though, and imprisoned her.
Mary was never to return to Scotland – she was executed in England in 1587, after being involved in one Catholic plot too many. Up until her death, though, her Scottish sympathisers held control over Craigmillar Castle, keeping her quarters ready and preparing for – what they supposed to be – her glorious return to Scottish power.
A gruesome tale of John of Mar: a brother murdered in cold blood
Although Craigmillar Castle isn’t particularly renowned for blood-stained events, one infamous little scandal does stand out: the murder of John, Earl of Mar, in 1479. James III was then King of Scotland – and a weak one at that – and was continually challenged his two brothers, Alexander of Albany and John of Mar.
An iron gate, barring one of the key entrances to Craigmillar Castle. Credit: Mark Watmough, Creative Commons (CC BY 2.0).
James III took the advice of one of his unscrupulous courtiers, Archbishop Shreves, and decided that his two brothers were plotting against him – engaging in treason. He flung Alexander in Edinburgh Castle and John into Craigmillar Castle, locking them both away as a ‘punishment’ for their crimes.
Both brothers were imprisoned for some time but, the tales go, this wasn’t enough for the tyrant James. He dragged John out of prison and brought him to a house in Canongate, where a physician was to ‘bleed’ him (as was Medieval practice) to cure some (imaginary) illness.
However, the ‘bleeding’ was to end in murder. As the physician cut John’s veins, burly men held down John until he bled to death – dying, quite literally, in cold blood.
This nasty little incident was designed to look like an accident – but word quickly got out. To try and quell the rumour, James III set up an inquisition and burned a number of women as ‘witches’, for conspiring with poor John.
Have you any hints and tips to make the most of a visit?
You’ll find the castle on the outskirts of Edinburgh, just adjacent to the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary. The suburb of Craigmillar is, shall we say, an up-and-coming area – exercise a little caution – but it’s reasonably easy to access by bus if you haven’t got a car (catch the 14 to the hospital). When you reach the site, it’s a little climb up a hill to the castle: when you get to the top, Craigmillar appears in front of you, as if by magic.
Historic Scotland are custodians of the site, and keep Craigmillar Castle in fairly decent nick. However, you should wear walking boots for your trip, as the floors and passageways are really uneven. Facilities at the castle are limited: even the toilets are frequently locked. You could, however, wander into the neighbouring hospital and use the public restrooms there, if you needed to.
Interpretation at the castle isn’t brilliant – there aren’t many signs or placards explaining exactly what’s going on. I’d advise you to find a guidebook if you want to make the most of your trip.
If you’re interested in learning more about other Scottish Castles, I’d recommend reading about the amazing triangular design of Caerlaverock Castle. Otherwise, you might enjoy reading about the isolated little Duart Castle.