Historian, presenter, writer. David C. Weinczok lives and works in Scotland and has visited over 160 castles. He works with major heritage organisations and has appeared as an expert in a BBC2 documentary. Follow him on Twitter at @TheCastleHunter
Published October 17th 2016
Go medieval at Edinburgh's epic Craigmillar Castle
Upon its mighty crag, Edinburgh Castle completely dominates the skyline of this Gothic city. So when I tell visitors that although it's hugely impressive it's not actually my favourite castle in Edinburgh, they often ask, "what do you mean?" Well, Edinburgh's best kept secret is that it actually has many castles and towerhouses, and in my opinion the one that's the most fun is Craigmillar.
Packed with nooks, crannies, halls, chambers and spiral stairs, Craigmillar Castle is a delight to explore. You can do so knowing that you're walking in the footsteps of the tragic and revered Mary, Queen of Scots, who stayed here on two occasions. She briefly visited in September 1563, and in 1566 she sought the peace and quiet Craigmillar offered away from the city after the murder of her friend and confidant, David Rizzio. It was in this same year that a pact was made at the castle to murder Mary's second husband, Lord Darnley, which became known as the 'Craigmillar Bond'.
You can see why Mary saw it as a refuge. Just far enough from Edinburgh to achieve tranquility but close enough to still be 'on call', Craigmillar would have offered considerable comforts in its day. Imagine it: rather than bare stone, lush hangings and cloths hung from the walls. Paintings brought light and culture into the chambers, while fine furnishings made it homely and fit for grand feasts. There was even a fish pond, shaped as a 'P' for the Preston family who owned it, the outline of which is still visible today.
As soon as you step through the gates of the first curtain wall there is tons to take in. Take some time examining the architectural flair, such as the gaps at the top of the wall that could be used to drop stones and boiling water on attackers and the armorial panel above the great wooden door. It displays a unicorn, the official national animal of Scotland. Yes, you got that right – unicorns are Scotland's official animal.
One of the perks of this hidden gem is that you often have it more or less to yourself, so don't be afraid to buy a foam sword and shield from the gift shop and play king (or queen) of the castle to your heart's content. With spectacular rooftop views over Edinburgh, the wild Pentland Hills to the west and far south towards the Borders, it's the perfect setting for a Scottish castle adventure.