A discursive look at Napoleonic & ECW wargaming, plus a load of old Hooptedoodle on this & that

Sunday, 3 February 2013

Edinburgh Castle

Yesterday I took my son to visit Edinburgh Castle. We tried to get there last year, but found ourselves at the back of a 3-hour queue for tickets, so thought better of it. Yesterday we took advantage of a truly beautiful day and the slack tourist season, caught the local train from North Berwick, and we were at the Castle gates by 10:30 – excellent.

We had a really good trip. I can’t remember being at the castle for 20 years at least, though I used to go there a lot – for a little while I was doing some research at the Scottish United Services Library, courtesy of Bill Thorburn and Bill Boag, and I was a frequent visitor. Had a temporary pass and everything. That is as near as I ever got to being a military type.

It’s changed a lot. The War Museum is all newly laid out, and I think may be in a different building now – it’s very well done, anyway. I found Sir John Moore’s hat, and duly noted that the caption has been changed. They used to claim that it was the hat Moore was wearing at Corunna, but now it states that it is a hat previously owned by Moore, which was kept as a memento by his friend Lord Lynedoch (that’s Sir Thomas Graham to you and me). Let’s just assume it was on his head at Corunna, shall we?

We visited the Scots Dragoon Guards museum, and also the excellent little Royal Scots museum, which is just next to it, and which gets rather light traffic because the tourists have just done the Dragoon Guards, and it looks like it might be more of the same. Very good, anyway.

We watched the One-O’clock Gun being fired (BANG!), and enjoyed what was obviously an otherwise quiet day up there. Great views over the city and over the Forth Valley. We didn’t bother with the Scottish Crown Jewels – history or no, that’s girly stuff.

It’s good to take the trouble to visit your local tourist sites – it’s so easy to take them for granted.

The Grand Old Duke of York - at the top of the hill

Gunner's eye view - good position to put an 18pdr shot into the
Balmoral Hotel, or the Bank of Scotland, or the fantastically expensive
apartments in Patrick Geddes' lovely Ramsay Gardens

The Royal Scots storm San Sebastian - flat wooden figures

Issued to all storming parties

WW2 poster - I wonder how many servicemen spent their
leave helping with the harvest?

WW1 recruitment poster - the happy boys go off
to fight for the Empire 

To close, an old - and probably apocryphal - tale of Edinburgh's One-O'Clock Gun. I don't know much about the history of the gun, but it has been fired every day except Sunday for as long as anyone can remember, officially as a time-check signal for shipping in Leith Docks, but also as a tourist tradition and a sort of family planning aid for the city's pigeons.

At some unspecified time in the distant past, the story goes, it came to be the turn of some local reservist unit to carry out the ritual firing. The officer in temporary charge of the task found that the procedures, which involved telegraph messages from Greenwich and a dropped signal cone (on the Nelson Monument, at the far end of Princes Street), were far too complicated for the Reserves. Using his service issue binoculars, he could easily see the big clock in the concourse at Waverley Station, and so his boys duly fired the damn thing when that clock said one o'clock, and then, presumably, they retired for refreshment.

Sadly, the railway company also had procedures and traditions, and one of these was that they used to keep their station clocks five minutes fast to encourage their passengers to be there in time. On the first day of this new, improvised system, when the gun went off, a little man appeared at the station, checked his official pocket watch, shook his head and arranged for the clock to be advanced the regulation five minutes. The following day, the same - station clock shows one o'clock, boom, the man checks his watch and fixes the clock. After a few days things were getting very confused - the citizens of Edinburgh were disgruntled with the gun going off earlier and earlier, and the customers of the railway were not happy either. Goodness knows what the ships made of it all.

I think there are lessons there for all of us. If there are established ways of doing things, have a good think before you change anything.

And if you are out at night, wear something white.

Unless it's snowing.


  1. I like the story about the gun.

  2. An apocryphal story is usually the best sort of story!

    I'll go to my grave regretting my younger self was not more interested in the periods between ancient Rome and WWII, because I visited Britain with my family when I was a wee lad and couldn't care less about anything that was older than 500AD and younger than 1939AD. So the IWM, Battle of Britain museum at Hendon and various Roman ruins were the highlights of my trip, but found myself bored to tears at HMS Victory, and all I recall of Edinburgh Castle (besides the Tattoo!) was a WWII display featuring a joystick from a Spitfire and a 20mm cannon shell!

    Maybe I'll just have to make it a long term goal to retrace my steps to visit all the places I was too ignorant to be interested in!

  3. I fondly remember that I was pleased and excited to visit Edinburgh Castle on my Not-Exactly-Grand Tour (more a Europe on $5 a day thing)when I was barely of age. Still have the souvenir booklet somewhere. Sadly I remember very little clearly. There was a steep rocky path out the back that someone climbed up, or was it down?

    1. I guess it was both, but most significantly it was up.

      Legend has it that there was a way out the back whereby the garrison could meet up with girlfriends. One of the girlfriends told an enemy how to sneak in, and the fort was taken by stealth. This is always retold with the message that "the fort was taken by the path of love, where it was never taken by force", which is - as you will observe - bollocks. Evil intent will usually prevail.

      Come on the bad guys.