Sunday, 10 April 2016

Craigmillar Castle: An overlooked treat.

Craigmillar Castle as it used to be
Imagine your home stripped down to bare brickwork with the floors and roof gone. If you are lucky there may be a room left with a ceiling. When you visit an old castle this is basically what you see. Craigmillar Castle, to the South of Edinburgh, is one of the best preserved late medieval castles in Scotland which makes it slightly easier to imagine it in its heyday when the walls would be covered in rugs or boards and the floor similarly hidden.

The land on which it stands was given to monks by a king then taken away by a later king and given to the Preston family who eventually sold it to the Gilmour family who, when castles stopped being fashionable, put it out to rent, let it become a romantic ruin and eventually entrusted it to the care of the state. Which is why you can now visit it and explore the labyrinth of remaining rooms and spiral staircases.

The Lairds Hall

In the 12th century, around the time of the Norman Conquest of England King David I gave the future site of Craigmillar Castle to the Monks of Dunfermline Abbey. In 1342 King David II gave two thirds of the lands to the Preston family, sheriffs or provosts of Edinburgh. In 1374 King Robert II gave the Prestons the rest of the Land. They then sat on it for a generation or two before building a tower house on the site. This takes the story to around 1425 when a charter notes the existence of the castle ( life was slower those days ). It was the first tower house castle to be built in Scotland and we can assume the Prestons were showing off as much as building a secure residence close to the seat of royal power.

Sir William Preston was a traveler as well as Laird of Gilmerton and Craigmillar. He returned from France around 1442 and, possibly inspired by what he had seen in France, enlarged the castle with a curtain wall. He also brought back the arm bone of St Giles which he presented to the High Kirk in Edinburgh. The family kept improving the castle, doubtless at the suggestion of the current Laird's wife with a chapel dedicated to St Thomas A Becket appearing around 1523. A fishpond shaped like the letter P ( the Prestons do not seem to have been noted for modesty and humility) appeared and is now considered a nationally significant archaeological garden feature. I suspect you did not know gardens could be archeological features.

The castle was burned down by the English in 1544 when Henry VIII tried to force a marriage between his son and Mary Queen of Scots, and was repaired with the domestic ranges in the courtyard remodelled.
The Lairds Hall in slightly better days

In 1660 the Prestons sold the castle to Sir John Gilmour who rebuilt the range in the west as modern accommodation when he became a Judge, this being considered more suitable to his status than an old castle. The Gilmours do not seem to have been noted for modesty either and doubtless had wives with an eye for the latest fashion. I had all the modern conveniences: Drawing room, kitchen, fireplace and a wine cellar. A mere hundred years later the Gilmours moved to a nearby house at the Inch and the castle became a romantic ruin by 1775 and a tourist attraction by the end of the century. Whether there were any souvenir shops or enterprising locals selling genuine stones from the castle, as happened with the Berlin Wall, is unclear. In 1880 they spent a lot of money restoring the castle which queen Victoria visited in 1886. By this time the castle was open to the public every legally possible day. In 1946 they entrusted it to state care and it is now maintained by Historic Scotland.
Staircase down from the roof

Mary Queen of Scots
The Prestons were loyal supporters of Queen Mary and stayed in the castle on at least two occasions, probably having here own accommodation in the East Range, not as tradition would have it, in a room on the second floor. This seems likely as there does not seem to have been a toilet in that room and a queen could be expected, like the Laird, to have an en-suite room.

Mary's visits to the castle led to the area around it being called Little France, because most of her court were French, a name that persists to this day.

Queen Mary never forgave her husband Lord Darnley for colluding in the murder of her secretary in March 1556.

She gave birth to a son, James, a few months later and was seriously ill in October.
She came to the castle late November to recover and plan for James' christening at which time her unhappy marriage was discussed and Darnley's future was discussed with plans including annulment or divorce.

Annulment or divorce would have risked her son being considered illegitimate and she wanted nothing that would damage her reputation

The lords allegedly made and signed the “Craigmillar Bond” a pact stating their intent to kill Darnley. No copy of this exists and nobody knows if Mary knew of the plot and pact. Perhaps it was deliberately kept from her.

In February of 1567, Darnley was ill, most likely with syphilis. The plan was to bring him to Craigmillar where Mary would nurse him. But he refused to go and chose to convalesce in a moderate sized house in a quadrangle attached to the church called Kirk o’Field within the walls of Edinburgh but on the outskirts of town.

On the morning of February 10 his strangled body and that of his servant was discovered outside the house which had been blown to bits with gunpowder.

This act ultimately led to the abdication of Mary’s Scottish throne and her imprisonment and execution in England nearly twenty years later. In 1567 she was abducted, allegedly raped and made to abdicate as Queen of Scotland in favour of her son. This led to a civil war which she lost. Eventually she fled to England hoping her cousin Elizabeth would protect her. In the end Elizabeth had her executed for treason.

Murder and Mysteries

In the early 19th century a secret compartment was found in the basement prison. Inside, walled up and forgotten, was an upright skeleton. Who it was remains unclear. Perhaps a nun who had become pregnant or an inconvenient relative of the Laird, maybe insane. We may never know.
Earlier, in the 15th Century James III was constantly challenged by his brothers John and Alexander. Having been persuaded by an unscrupulous courtier that they were plotting against him he had Alexander imprisoned in Edinburgh Castle and John in Craigmillar.

Both brothers were imprisoned for some time but, the tales go, this did not satisfy James. He dragged John out of prison and brought him to a house in Canon gate, and told a physician to 'bleed' him (as was Medieval practice) to cure some (imaginary) illness.
The 'bleeding' ended in murder. Burly men held down John as the physician cut John's veins, until he bled to death - dying, quite literally, in cold blood.
The murder was designed to look like an accident - but word got out. To try and quell the rumours, James III set up an inquisition and burned a number of women as 'witches', for conspiring with poor John.
By modern standards, families then, especially royal ones were dysfunctional even allowing for the requirements of power in a brutal age.

Keeping intruders out
Today laying mantraps in your house is illegal. When the castle was built it was essential, if the owner wanted to stay alive.
The entrance was at the back of the building which meant intruders had to walk on the edge of a cliff to get to it. If they made it that far they would see a raised drawbridge preventing them from leaping in. If they got past that the defenders had hollowed out a three foot trench above which was a guard room with “murder holes” that let defenders pour molten oil or boiling water on the attackers or shoot arrows at them.
Basically, before cannon became common this was about as safe as you could get. However eventually the English managed to burn it. 
The view from the roof of Craigmillar Castle

Getting there and what to expect

From Princes St take a bus down the Dalkeith Road: Look for a bus going to the Royal Infirmary Little France. At the Royal Infirmary walk back a bit to Craigmillar Castle Road and walk along that road till you see the castle on the left. There is a small car park and the Ticket Office is just inside the gate. You should allow at least 90 minutes to explore the castle.

Signposting inside the castle could be improved (major understatement alert) even with a guide book to help and the toilets are often locked. The tower house is a maze of rooms in which you can easily lose your children or companions. Or yourself. On a windy day the draught on the roof is likely to blow you around if you weigh less than 15 stone or have a high centre of gravity. The view is worth the effort.

If you have seen all the major attractions in Edinburgh and want to see more Craigmillar Castle will form an interesting afternoon excursion. Wear walking shoes.


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