Scotland's rock of ages

Days out: history, mystery and a dash of the macabre make Edinburgh Castle a family must. By Hamish Scott
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The Independent Travel
Magnificently sited on a steep volcanic crag in the heart of Scotland's capital, Edinburgh Castle both dominates the city skyline and represents millennia of history and myth. There was a Bronze Age settlement on Castle Rock 3,000 years ago, the Angles seized "Din Eiden" as they swept north from Northumbria in 638 AD and by the late 11th century Scottish kings had built a massively defended palace on the cliffs. Since then the castle has been so frequently bombarded, remodelled and extended that the little Romanesque chapel of St Margaret is the oldest structure to survive intact. Fragments of medieval towers now lie entombed within the batteries and barracks, palatial halls and prison vaults, hospitals and magazines that reflect the castle's ever-changing role.

Though still a working garrison, the castle is now Scotland's most popular tourist attraction, with more than a million visitors each year. In summer there are often lengthy queues, particularly to see the Stone of Destiny, which, since its return from Westminster this year, is now displayed alongside the sceptre, crown and sword of Scotland's sovereigns. Mons Meg, a huge medieval siege-gun, is another popular attraction - and further weaponry is on display in the Great Hall. The castle also houses a shrine to Scotland's war-dead and a military museum, but for many visitors the appeal lies less in such specifics as in the general atmosphere and setting. The views, across the city roof-scape and stretching from the Pentlands to the Highland Line, are breathtaking, while the towers, battlements and ancient buildings should satisfy the most romantic of imaginations.

During the Edinburgh Festival (which begins today) the castle forms a wonderfully dramatic backdrop to the Military Tattoo, which takes place on the Esplanade. Every day, however, there is a somewhat smaller-scale ceremony on the battlements when a field-gun is fired at one o'clock before an audience of tourists with hands clasped to their ears. Audible across the city and far away in Fife, the gunshot is more than merely a time- signal. It is the slow, symbolic heart-beat of the citadel.

The visitors

Helen Stewart took her children Mary (12) and Robin (10).

Helen: The views are quite fantastic. You get a perspective of the city that you just don't find from anywhere else. It's certainly a place that I'd bring any visitor to Edinburgh, just to get a feel for the city. The taped guide is a good idea, because the children can listen to it while they're waiting in the queues and you can pick your own route round without following the crowds. All the same, I wouldn't want to come here in the rain, and it's not a place to bring a toddler.

To be honest I'm not sure why quite so many people come here when there are more exciting Scottish castles; it's all so huge and spread-out that it's hard to relate one bit to another. I think the best plan would be to start the day at Holyrood, walk up the Royal Mile with all its monuments and historic buildings and end up with the castle as the high-point of your tour.

Mary: The best bit was when everybody jumped when the one o'clock gun was fired. The crown jewels were quite good and I'm glad the Stone of Destiny was back, but I did feel a bit processed in the queue. They did Mons Meg very well, with a film all about its history you could watch before you went in to see it, and the tape's much better than going "Quick March" round with a guide, because you can switch it off when it gets boring. All the same I did find the history quite confusing, because the castle's been built on and built on, so you only get the really early stuff by going down into the vaults.

The T-shirts are good. I could have spent an hour in the gift shop, but I didn't think much of the cafeteria. You'd be better off bringing your own lunch.

Robin: I liked the prison the best because it was all wet and dark and dingy. I'd like to take quite a lot of the swords in the big hall back home so I could whirl them round my head and no one could come in my room. Mons Meg was huge - I could have got down the barrel; in fact you could probably fit your whole family in there if you wanted to. Really, most of it was good, but there aren't all that many inside bits and if it was raining it would be absolutely awful. I'm not sure if the Stone of Destiny is the real one. There was a story in Macbeth about it being swapped. Or maybe that was in Hamish Macbeth. I am quite interested in Scottish history, but we don't do much of it at school.

The deal

Edinburgh Castle (0131 225 9846) is open 1 April-30 Sept daily, 9.30am- 6pm; 1 Oct-31 March, 9.30am-5pm.

Admission: adults pounds 5.50, children pounds l.50.

Facilities: the cafeteria sells hot dishes, salads and sandwiches. Main dishes, such as haggis and neeps or a vegetarian special, cost about pounds 5. Toilet facilities are quite limited, with none available on upper levels of the castle.

Access: cobbles and steep walkways can cause difficulties for disabled visitors, but a courtesy vehicle is available and carers are admitted free of charge.