I set out the other day with no other plan than to go to Edinburgh. The fatal flaw came when the train was passing through Princes Street Gardens and I didn’t have a clue what direction I would head in from Waverley. Notions of the Botanics or going across the Forth to Dunfermline vaguely appealed but not that much. Then I had the idea to go to Craigmillar Castle and within a matter of minutes I was striding up platform 13 and out of the station, bought lunch and on a bus. Within about twenty minutes I was getting off the bus at the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary, which sits on the outskirts of the capital, just furth of the City Bypass. There’s a path from the ERI up to Craigmillar Castle but the problem was that the hospital had grown considerably since my last visit and the bus stops were at the other side of the site from then too. A world tour of the hospital later and I ended up on the right road eventually. At the road end for the castle, a gate separated me and where I should have been. I vaulted the gate only to notice that there was a path and a pedestrian crossing about 50 yards away. I do that sort of stupid thing often enough not to be too fussed – I wasn’t to know that.
Despite a moratorium on buying books (which continues, incidentally, and gifts of books will be looked upon negatively), I came away with a guidebook, bought from a very cheerful Historic Scotland steward who said that if I encountered a door, just try it and see what happens. A good metaphor for life, I think. As I walked along the path to the castle, there was a cracking view to the back of Arthur’s Seat, with the road neatly dissecting the hill in two. The summit, the Lion’s Peak and the Hellbank were in view and so was Salisbury Crags. The day was cloudy but still clear, as I was soon to see from the castle battlements. I have always liked the courtyard at Craigmillar, which is blessed by a tree and a bit of sunlight to go with the shelter afforded by the high curtain wall and the tower house. I had forgotten, though, how very complete Craigmillar is, since like Linlithgow Palace there are doors and stairs going everywhere. When I next came to the courtyard, I had been all the way round the rest of the castle.
The views from the towers encompassed great swathes of the Lothians, to Blackford Hill, the Pentlands, Arthur’s Seat and Edinburgh. Particularly impressive was that I could see as far as North Berwick Law, some 23 miles away, and the Hopetoun Monument high in the Garletons nearer Haddington. Edinburgh city centre was particularly prominent, the Castle, St. Giles, Old College and the Balmoral Hotel clearly noticeable on the skyline. Despite being close to the city and road noise from the City Bypass clearly audible, the bird songs and calls were loud and long too, particularly from the West Garden where I sat later on making notes and looking across towards the P for Preston laid out in the grounds below.
Craigmillar is like most castles in Scotland in that it has links with Mary, Queen of Scots. She came twice, with her ladies who ride in 1563 and in 1566 when ‘ill with depression’ after the murder of her courtier David Rizzio not so far away at Holyrood. Apparently it was at Craigmillar that some of her supporters decided to do in Lord Darnley, the Queen’s consort, who had allegedly instructed that Rizzio be killed. As Kurt Vonnegut wrote, and so it goes. Craigmillar belonged to the Preston family and then the Gilmours, whose burial plot still remains to the eastern end of the castle. One of the more recent folk of that ilk put up an armourial panel in the courtyard marking the construction of the western part of the castle by his ancestor Sir John Gilmour, Lord President of the Court of Session, and his wife Margaret Cockburn in 1661. I doubt somehow that the present Lord President, Lord Carloway, has quite so stylish digs. The differently coloured stone visible from the western side of the castle, particularly around the foundations, show clear signs of the earlier buildings that once stood there. There are quite a few heraldic panels about the castle and they all speak of another time, of nobility and status symbols, as I suppose most castles and their architecture often were.
I wasn’t alone in exploring the castle that afternoon. Indeed I jumped rather dramatically and accidentally into a French tourist’s photo as I clambered down from a seat in the hall. There was also a ginger cat wandering about the place, probably not a permanent resident but an urban wanderer on their rounds. My first encounter was when I jumped on hearing a meow come from just up the stair from where I stood in the hall. Historic Scotland allow dogs into most of their properties but I’ve never seen a cat before. Perhaps the pigeons that still live in some of the towers might be too tempting for a cat reluctantly used to Whiskas.
For a while I got out of the habit of going to castles, not getting my Historic Scotland card dirty enough as I ventured instead into museums and galleries. Craigmillar was my second in a week, with Dunnottar last Saturday. I’ve been to Bothwell, Tantallon and Edinburgh in recent memory too. 2017 is the Year of History, Heritage and Archaeology here in Scotland and it seems to be becoming one for me personally too, visiting more of the historic places that dot our landscape, some new, others more familiar. Craigmillar was a bit of both – my last visit came about five years ago on a freezing January Saturday and it was brief for that reason. This time was brilliant for lots of reasons – the chance to properly explore and rediscover as if new the finer reaches of the castle and its surroundings plus also just to imagine what had once gone down there. I was struck walking through one of the cellars by learning how grain and other produce was once stored there in vast quantities, having been given as rent. Castles are often thought about in terms of the great and good who lived there, more than those who lived around them or who owed fealty to those who dwelled there. They are places to read the past and to imagine the future, in the words of the current Scottish Library and Information Council promotion available in a library near you. At Craigmillar, neither was particularly hard to do.