Site icon Random Scottish History

Chapter 2 – The Castle of Edinburgh., pp.14-20.

Of its Origin and remoter History – The Legends concerning it – Ebranke – St. Monena – Defeat of the Saxons by King Bridei – King Edwin – King Grime – The Story of Grime and Bertha of Badlieu – The Starting-point of authentic Edinburgh History – St. Margaret – Her Piety and amiable Disposition – Her Chapel – Her Death – Restoration of her Oratory – Her Burial – Donald Bane – King David I. – The Royal Gardens, afterwards the North Loch.


AFTER the departure of the Romans the inhabitants of Northern Britain bore the designation of Picti, or Picts; and historians are now agreed that these were not a new race, but only the ancient Caledonians under a new name.

The most remote date assigned for the origin of the Castle of Edinburgh is that astounding announcement made in Stow’s “Summarie of Englyshe Chronicles,” in which he tells us that “Embranke, the sonne of Mempricius, was made ruler of Britayne; he had, as testifieth Policronica, Ganfride, and others, twenty-one wyves, of whom he receyved twenty sonnes and thirty daughters, which he sent into Italye, there to be maryed to the blood of the Trojans. In Albanye (now called Scotland) he edified the Castell of Maydens, now called Edinburgh; he also made the Castell of Banburgh, in the twenty-third year of his reign.” All these events occurred, according to Stow, in the year 989 before Christ; and the information is quite as veracious as much else that has been written concerning the remote history of Scotland.

From sources that can scarcely be doubted, a fortress of some kind upon the rock would seem to have occupied by the Picts, from whom it was captured in 452 by the Saxons of Northumbria under Octa and Ebusa; and from that time down to the reign of Malcolm II. its history exhibits but a constant struggle for its possession between them and the Picts, each being victorious in turn; and Edwin, one of these Northumbrian invaders, is said to have rebuilt it in 626. Territories seemed so easily overrun in those times, that the latter, with the Scots, in the year 638, under the reign of Valentinian I., penetrated as far as London, but were repulsed by Theodosius, father of the Emperor of the same name. This is the Edwin whose pagan high-priest Coifi was converted to Christianity by Paulinus, in 627, and who, according to Bede, destroyed the heathen temples and altars. A curious and very old tradition still exists in Midlothian, that the stones used in the construction of the castle were taken from a quarry near Craigmillar, the Craig-moilard of antiquity.

Camden says, “The Britons called it Castel Mynedh Agneth – the maidens’ or virgins’ castle – because certain young maidens of the royal blood were kept there in old times.” The source of this oft-repeated story has probably been the assertion of Conchubhranus, that an Irish saint, or recluse, named Monena, late in the fifth century founded seven churches in Scotland, on the heights of Dun Edin, Dumbarton, and elsewhere. This may have been the St. Monena of Sliabh-Cuillin, who died in 518. The site of her edifice is supposed to be that now occupied by the present chapel of St. Margaret – the most ancient piece of masonry in the Scottish capital; and it is a curious circumstance, with special reference to the fable of the Pictish princesses, that close by it (as recorded in the Caledonian Mercury of 26th September, 1853), when some excavations were made, a number of human bones, apparently all of females, were found, together with the remains of several coffins.

“Castrum Puellarum,” says Chalmers, “was the learned and diplomatic name of the place, as appears from existing charters and documents; Edinburgh, its vulgar appellation;” while Buchanan asserts that its ancient names of the Dolorous Valley and Maiden Castle were borrowed from ancient French romances, “devised within the space of three hundred years” from his time.

The Castle was the nucleus, so to speak, around which the city grew, a fact that explains the triple towers in the arms of the latter – three great towers connected by a curtain wall – being the form it presented prior to the erection of the Half-Moon Battery, in Queen Mary’s time.

Edwin, the most powerful of the petty kings of Northumberland, largely extended the Saxon conquests in the Scottish border counties; and his possessions reached ultimately from the waters of Abios to those of Bodoria – I.e., from Humber to Forth; but Egfrid, one of his successors, lost these territories, together with his life, in battle with the Pictish King Bridei, or Brude, who totally defeated him at Dun-nechtan, with terrible slaughter. This was a fatal blow to the Northumbrian monarchy, which never regained its previous ascendency, and was henceforth confined to the country south of Tweed. Lodonia (a Teutonic name signifying marshes or borders) became finally a part of the Pictish dominion, Dunedin being its stronghold, and both the Dalriadic Scots and Strathclyde Britons were thus freed from the inroads of the Saxons.

This battle was fought in the year 685, the epoch of the bishopric of Lindisfarne, and as the Church of St. Giles was a chaplainry of that ancient see, we may infer that some kind of town – of huts, doubtless – had begun to cluster round the church, which was a wooden edifice of a primitive kind, for as the world was expected to end in the year 1000, sacred edifices of stone were generally deemed unnecessary. From the time of the Saxon expulsion to the days of Malcolm II. – a period of nearly four hundred years – everything connected with the castle and town of Edinburgh is steeped in obscurity or dim tradition.

According to a curious old tradition, preserved in the statistical account of the parish of Tweedmuir, the wife of Grime, the usurper, had her residence in the Castle while he was absent fighting against the invading Danes. He is said to have granted, by charter, his hunting seat of Polmood, in that parish, to one of his attendants named Hunter, whose race were to possess it while wood grew and water ran. But, as Hogg says in his “Winter Evening Tales,” “There is one remarkable circumstance connected with the place that has rendered it unfamous of late years, and seems to justify an ancient prediction that the hunters of Polmood were never to prosper.”

Leaving his queen in the then solitary Castle, Grime (who, according to Buchanan, began his reign in the year 996) often pursued the pleasures of the chase among the wilds of Polmood, in the neighbourhood of which he saw a woman of great beauty, named Bertha, of Badlieu, whose charms soon proved more attractive than the pursuit of the wild boar or Caledonian bull, and he became her captive – her lover. In process of time a son was the result of their intimacy, and the forgotten queen, though residing quietly in solitude at Edinburgh, resolved on deadly vengeance.

Selecting a time when Grime was again fighting the Danes, she dispatched to Badlieu certain assassins, who murdered Bertha, her aged father, and infant son, and burying them in one grave, heaped above it a rough tumulus, which still marks the spot.

Full of remorse and fear, the queen died before the return of Grime, who, after defeating the Danes, and destroying their galleys, hastened to Badlieu, where the huge grave alone awaited him. In a gust of morbid horror the half-barbarian prince commanded the tumulus to be opened, that he might behold the remains of those who had perished; and from that moment he lost all relish for life, and plunging into a war with Malcolm, his successor, was deserted in battle by his warriors, taken captive, and, after having his eyes put out, died in grief and misery in the eighth year of his reign.

He was succeeded, in 1004, by Malcolm II., who had Lothian formally ceded to him by Eadulf-Cudel, Earl of Northumberland, who had previously exercised some right of vassalage over it, probably a remnant of Edwin’s departed power; and from this period begins the authentic history of Edinburgh and its castle, as from that time it continued to be almost permanently the residence of the early and later monarchs and their officers of state.

The history of Edinburgh Castle is much associated with the memory of St. Margaret, the pious and beautiful queen of Malcolm III. (the successor of Macbeth) who often resided in it, and ultimately died in a tower on the west side of the rock, which bore her name till it was demolished in the siege of 1573. In recording her demise, ancient chroniclers have not failed to add much that is legendary to the truth, and this invests the solemn event with a peculiar charm.

The grand-niece of Edward the Confessor, she had fled from her own country on the usurpation of Harold, but was wrecked on the Forth, at the place still called Queensferry. She and her retinue were hospitably entertained by Malcolm III., who had formerly, in his exile, been treated with kindness at the Saxon court of England, and who married her at Dunfermline. Malcolm was the son of Duncan, whom Macbeth slew; and Shakspere, in his tragedy, must have been alluding to St. Margaret when he wrote of her as the mother, instead of the wife, of Malcolm, in the lines spoken by Macduff, Macbeth, Act iv., scene 3:-

“The queen that bore thee,
Oftener upon her knees than on her feet,
Died every day she lived.”

In 1087 William Rufus made war on Scotland, and, taking the castle of Alnwick by surprise, wantonly put its garrison to the sword. Malcolm, a brave prince, demanded instant restitution, and, at the head of an army, laid siege to the Normans in the border stronghold.

At this time the winter snow was covering all the vast expanse of leafless forest, and the hills – then growing only heath and gorse – around the Castle of Edinburgh; and there the queen, with her sons Edmond, Edgar, and David, and her daughters Mary and Matilda (surnamed the Good, afterwards queen of Henry I. of England), were anxiously waiting tidings from the king and his son Edward, who had pressed the siege of Alnwick with such severity that its garrison was hourly expected to surrender. A sore sickness was now preying on the wasted frame of the queen, who spent her days in prayer for the success of the Scots and the safety of the king and prince.

All old historians vie with each other in praise of the virtuous Margaret. “When health and beauty were hers,” says one writer, “she devoted her strength to serve the poor and uncultivated people whom God had committed to her care; she fed them with her own hand, smoothed their pillow in sickness, and softened the barbarous and iron rule of their feudal lords. No wonder that they regarded her as a guardian angel among them.”

“She daily fed three hundred,” says another authority, “waiting upon them on her bended knees, like a housemaid, washing their feet and kissing them. For these and other expenses she not only parted with her own royal dresses, but more than once she drained the treasury.”

Malcolm, a Celt, is said to have been unable to read the missals given him by his fair-haired Saxon, but he was wont to kiss them and press them to his heart in token of love and respect.

In the castle she built the little oratory on the very summit of the rock. It stands within the citadel, and is in perfect preservation, measuring about twenty-six feet long by ten, and is spanned by a finely ornamented apse arch that springs from massive capitals, and is covered with zig-zag mouldings. It was dedicated to her in after years, and liberally endowed.

“There she is said to have prophetically announced the surprise of the fortress in 1312, by causing to be painted on the wall a representation of a man scaling the Castle rock, with the inscription underneath, ‘Gardez-vous Français,’ a prediction which was conveniently found to be verified when the Castle was re-taken from the English by William Frank (or Francis) and Earl Randolph; though why the Saxon saint should prophesy in French we are left to conjecture.”

Connected with the residence of Edgar Atheling’s sister in Edinburgh Castle there is another legend, which states that while there she commissioned her friend St. Catherine – but which St. Catherine it fails to specify – to bring her some oil from Mount Sinai; and that after long and sore travel from the rocks of Mount Horeb, the saint with the treasured oil came in sight of the Castle of Edinburgh, on that ridge where stood the Church of St. Mary, built by Macbeth, baron of Liberton. There she let fall the vessel containing the sacred oil, which was spilt; but there sprang up in its place a fountain of wonderful medicinal efficacy, known now as the Balm Well of St. Catherine, where the oil – which practical folk say is bituminous and comes from the coal seams – may still be seen floating on the limpid water. It figured long in monkish legends. For ages a mound near it was alleged to be the tomb of St. Catherine; and close by it James IV. Erected a beautiful little chapel dedicated to St. Margaret, but long since demolished.

During the king’s absence at Alnwick, the queen, by the severity of her fastings and vigils, increased a heavy illness under which she laboured. Two days before her death, Prince Edgar, whom some writers call her brother, and others her son, arrived from the Scottish camp with tidings that Malcolm had been slain, with her son Edward.

“Then,” according to Lord Hailes, who quotes Turgot’s Life of St. Margaret, “lifting up her eyes and hands towards heaven, she said, ‘Praise and blessing be to Thee, Almighty God, that Thou hast been pleased to make me endure so bitter anguish in the hour of my departure, thereby, as I trust, to purify me in some measure from the corruption of my sins; and Thou, Lord Jesus Christ, who through the will of the Father, hast enlivened the world by Thy death, oh, deliver me!’ While pronouncing ‘deliver me’ she expired.”

This, according to the Bishop of St. Andrews, Turgot, previously Prior of Durham, was after she had heard mass in the present little oratory, and been borne to the tower on the west side of the rock; and she died holding in her hand a famous relic known as “the black rood of Scotland,” which according to St. Ælred, “was a cross an ell long, of pure gold and wonderful workmanship, having thereon an ivory figure of our Saviour marvellously adorned with gold.”

This was on 16th of November, 1093, when she was in the forty-seventh year of her age. Unless history be false, with the majesty of a queen and the meekness of a saint Margaret possessed a beauty that falls but seldom to the lot of women; and in her time she did much to soften the barbarism of the Scottish court. She was magnificent in her own attire; she increased the number of persons in attendance on the king, and caused him to be served at table in gold and silver plate.

She was canonised by Innocent IV. In 1251. For several ages the apartment in which she expired was known as “ye [“ƿe” or “the”] blessit Margaret’s chalmer” (i.e., chamber). A fountain on the west side of the fortress long bore her name; and a small guardhouse on the western ramparts is still called the Queen’s, or St. Margaret’s, Post.

The complete restoration of her oratory (says an Edinburgh Courant of 1853) “has been effected in a very satisfactory manner, under the superintendence of Mr. Grant. The modern western entrance has been built up, and an ancient one re-opened at the north-west corner of the nave. Here a new doorway has been built in the same style with the rest of the building. The three small round-headed windows have been filled with stained glass – the light in the south side of the apse representing St. Margaret, the two in the side of the nave showing her husband, King Malcolm Canmore and their son St. David, and the light in the west gable of the nave having a cross and the sacred monogram with this inscription:- “Hæc ædicula olim Beatæ Margaretæ Reginæ Scotiæ, quæ obiit M.XCIII., ingratæ partriæ negligentia lapsa, Victoriæ Reginæ prognatæ auspiciis restituta, A.D. M.DCCCLIII.”

St. Margaret had scarcely expired, when Bishop Turgot, her children, and the whole court, were filled with terror, on finding the fortress environed by an army composed of fierce western Highlanders, “clad in the dun deer’s hide, striped breacan, and hauberks (or lurichs) of jingling rings,” and led by Donald Bane, or the fair-haired, the younger brother of Malcolm III., who had fled to the Hebrides, as the latter did to England, on the usurpation by Macbeth.

Without opposition he had himself proclaimed king, and promised to give the Hebrides and other isles to Magnus Barefoot, King of Norway, for assistance if it were required.

He had resolved to put the orphan children of Malcolm to death, but believing that egress from the fortress on the steep could only be had by the gates facing the little town, he guarded them alone. The children thus escaped by a western postern, and fled to England, where they found protection with their uncle, Edgar Atheling. The two princesses were afterwards married: Mary to Eustace, Count of Boulogne, the great Crusader; and Matilda to Henry of England – a union extremely popular with the Saxon people.

By the same postern Turgot and others carefully and reverently conveyed the body of the queen, and carried it “to Dunfermline, in the woods; and that Heaven might have some share in protecting remains so sacred, the legendaries record that a miraculous mist arose from the earth, concealing the bishop, the royal corpse, and its awe-stricken bearers, from the half-savage Donald and his red-haired Islesmen, and did not pass away until they had crossed in safety the Passagium Reginæ, or Queen’s Ferry, nine miles distant, where Margaret had granted land for the maintenance of a passage boat” – a grant still in force.

She was buried at Dunfermline, under the great block of grey marble which still marks her grave; and in the sides thereof may yet be seen the sockets of the silver lamps which, after her canonisation, burned there until the Reformation, when the Abbot of Dunfermline fled to the Castle of Edinburgh with her head in a jewelled coffer, and gave it to some Jesuits, who took it to Antwerp. From thence it was borne to the Escurial in Spain, where it is still preserved by the monks of St. Jerome.

Her son Edgar, a prince of talent and valour, recovered the throne by his sword, and took up his residence in the Castle of Edinburgh, where he had seen his mother expire, and whence he, too, passed away, on the 8th of January, 1107. The register of the Priory of St. Andrews, in recording his demise, has these words:- “Mortuus in Dun-Edin, est sepultus in Dunfermling.”

On his death-bed he bequeathed that part of Cumberland which the kings of Scotland possessed to his younger brother David. Alexander I., surnamed “the Fierce,” eldest brother of the latter, was disposed to dispute the validity of this donation; but perceiving that David had won over the English barons to his interest, he acquiesced in this partial dismemberment of the kingdom.

It is in the reign of this monarch, in the first years of the twelfth century, that the first notices of Edinburgh as a royal city and residence are most distinctly found, while in that of his successor, David I., crowned in 1124, after being long resident at the court of his sister Matilda, where, according to Malmesbury, “his manners were polished from the rust of Scottish barbarity,” and where he married Matilda daughter of Waltheof, Earl of Northumberland, we discover the origin of many of the most important local features still surviving. He founded the abbey of Holyrood, called by Fordun “Monasterium Sanctæ Crucis de Crag.” This convent, the precursor of the great abbey, he is said to have placed at first within the Castle, and some of the earliest gifts of its saintly founder to his new monastery were the churches of St. Cuthbert and of the Castle, among which one plot of land belonging to the former is marked by “the fountain which rises near the king’s garden, on the road leading to St. Cuthbert’s church,” i.e., the fountain in the Well-house Tower.

This valley – the future North Loch – was then the garden, which Malcolm, the son of Pagan, cultivated for David II., and where tournaments were held, “while deep pools and wide morasses, tangled wood and wild animals, made the rude diverging pathways to the east and westward extremely dangerous for long after, though lights were burned at the Hermitage of St. Anthony on the Crag and the spire of St. John of Corstorphin, to guide the unfortunate wight who was foolhardy enough to travel after nightfall.”

In 1144 we find King David resident in the Castle, where, in the twenty-first year of his reign, he granted a charter to the Abbey of Kelso, the witnesses to which, apud Castrum Puellarum, were John, Bishop of Glasgow; Prince Henry, his son; William, his nephew; Edward, the Chancellor; “Bartholomeo filio Comitis, et Willielmo frater ejus; Jordano Hayrum;” Hugo de Morville, the constable; Odnell de Umphraville; Robert Bruce; William of Somerville; David de Oliphant; and William of Lindsay.*

The charter of foundation to the abbey of Holyrood – which will be referred to more fully in its place – besides conferring valuable revenues, derivable from the general resources of the city, gave the monks a right to dues to nearly the same amount from the royal revenues of the port of Perth, which was the more ancient capital of Scotland.


*  This is related to “The Inquest of David” which can be found in ‘Scots Lore’, pp.36-46 & 111.
Exit mobile version