Get Out of Town
Sometimes, you just have to get out of town for a bit. Smell the flowers, walk on the grass, fell the sunshine, and all that.
Luckily, Scotland is just the place for that. In Edinburgh, it’s really easy to do just that. Holyrood Park, smack in the middle of town, is a wee taste of the Highlands within walking distance of your apartment. The Pentland Hills Regional Park, with all the hiking and skiing it has to offer, is about a half hour on the bus outside of Edinburgh. Portobello has a long and beautiful beach, and is forty-five minutes on the bus in the other direction.
If none of those options tickle your fancy, you can do as Mary, Queen of Scots did and go naught but ‘a league distant’ from the city.
What is a League?
First things first: What the heck is a league?
If you’re like me, a league is that strange form of measurement that they used in Narnia. No one on this side of the wardrobe really seems to know what it is. Fortunately, I found a sign at Craigmillar Castle that was rather helpful A league is about three miles, or the distance a person could walk in an hour.
In the days before GPS and step counters, this was as good as distance measurement got for the average Joe.
Second things second: What exactly did Mary, Queen of Scots do when she went a league distant from the teeming mess that was 16th-century Edinburgh?
She went to Craigmillar.
A Favorite of Mary, Queen of Scots
Craigmillar is a suburb of Edinburgh. It’s about – you guessed it – three miles from the spot where the old city walls of Edinburgh stood.
In the 16th century, it was quite the pastoral retreat. Outside the city, there would have been farmland, some forests, and breathing space. You’d find none of those in the over-crowded, walled city. Conveniently enough for the young queen, there was even a castle there at her disposal in her idyllic rambles.
The family Preston were nobles who were granted land in Craigmillar. Accordingly, in the 14th century they built themselves a castle. As you do.
They played various roles in the history of Scotland from then on, even assisting the future James IV as he battled – literally – to relieve his father, King James III, of his throne. They circled back into the political sphere in 1544, when Henry VIII sieged their castle and took them prisoner during the Rough Wooing.
The Rough Wooing
The Rough Wooing was Henry VIII’s attempt at securing a betrothal between his infant son, Edward, and the toddler Queen of Scots. Always one to have his way, Henry became incensed when Mary’s mother, the regent Queen of Scots, said no. A series of battles, raids, and general unpleasantness followed. After all, what girl doesn’t love it when men lay waste to the countryside to get her attention?
But I digress.
As it turns out, sieging Craigmillar Castle was a bad move on the part of the English. That’s because, from then on out, the Prestons were staunch supporters of Mary, Queen of Scots.
Mary, Queen of Scots
To avoid the Rough Wooing – and threat of England annexing Scotland as a province through the dowry that would come with a betrothal – the young Mary, Queen of Scots went to France. There, she grew up and married the dauphin (crowned prince) of France.
They were married for all of two years, and were King and Queen of France for eighteen months, before Mary was widowed. When her husband died, she returned to Scotland to commence her personal rule.
Mary’s personal rule was not an easy one. After all, she was
- a woman in a very patriarchal society
- a Catholic in a newly – and very – Protestant country, roused as it was by John Knox, and
- advised to take a second husband. To add insult to injury, this husband, Lord Darnley, turned out to be the very model of a modern major jerk.
Whenever she needed some peace from all this tumult, Mary would take off to Craigmillar Castle for a bit of horseback riding, falconry, and peace and quiet. Historical rumor has it that it was Craigmillar where Mary hatched the plot against her jerk of a husband.
Decline of the Prestons
After Mary’s demise, the Preston family fell out of the political scene. Even so, they remained hearty supporters of the Stewart monarchs. However, with political decline also comes economic decline. As a result, they sold the castle in 1660. The family that bought the castle soon moved out of it, leaving it to fall into disrepair. By the 1770s, Craigmillar Castle was a ‘romantic ruin.’
Craigmillar Castle is now maintained by Historic Environment Scotland, and is open to visitors. It’s a great castle to visit of an afternoon. While it might not be a intact or as well-preserved as either Edinburgh Castle or Stirling Castle, it’s in remarkably good shape, especially considering that nobody did any maintenance on it between 1775 and Historic Environment Scotland acquiring it. There’s also plenty of green space around the castle to explore, and the view from the roof alone is enough to make the trip worthwhile.
Visiting Craigmillar Castle
Getting there: Several bus lines run towards Craigmillar: Buses 8, 30, 33, and 42 all take you in the right direction. Head towards the Royal Infirmary or Musselburgh. There will be a short walk – about 10 minutes – uphill (it doesn’t matter which direction you come from) to get to the actual castle grounds. Plan your trip here.
Admission: Adults £6, concessions £4.80. Historic Environment Scotland members go free.
Opening hours: The castle is open daily from 10 AM to 4 PM.
Good to know:
- Historic Environment Scotland maintains Craigmillar Castle. They also maintain most of the other monuments around Scotland. If you’re planning on visiting more than one castle, look into a membership! Members get free admission to all sites, as well as a discount in the book shops and cafes. It’s very easy to get your money’s worth.
- The whole site is outdoors, meaning that if it rains, you will get wet. Dress accordingly.
- The castle is uphill from the nearest bus stop, and completely surrounded by open fields and wild areas. Wear appropriate footwear.