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, 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.
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 but that no one really knows what it is. Here, I found a sign that was rather helpful: A league is about three miles, or the distance a person could walk in an hour.
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.
Craigmillar is a suburb of Edinburgh, about – you guessed it – three miles from the spot where the old city walls of Edinburgh stood. At that time, it was quite the pastoral retreat. Outside the city, there would have been farmland, some forests, and breathing space, none of which you’d find in the over-crowded, walled city. Conveniently enough for the young queen, there was even a castle there at her disposal.
The family Preston were nobles who had been granted land in Craigmillar, and 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 English king’s attempt at securing a betrothal between his infant son Edward and the toddler Queen of Scots. This, as it turns out, would be a bad move on the part of the English, as the Prestons were, from then on out, staunch supporters of 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 was sent to France, where she was raised and married to 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, as she was 1) a woman in a very patriarchal society, 2) a Catholic in a newly – and very – Protestant country, roused as it was by John Knox, and 3) advised to take a second husband, who 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 at Craigmillar that the plot against Mary’s jerk of a husband, Lord Darnley, was hatched.
After Mary’s demise, the Preston family fell out of the political scene, although they remained hearty supporters of the Stewart monarchs. However, with political decline also comes economic decline, and the castle was sold 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. Plan your visit here. 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.
Several bus lines run towards Craigmillar: Buses 8, 30, 33, and 42 all take you in the right direction, heading 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.
Admission is in the cottage closest to the road, in front of the castle.