The Army and
Edinburgh Castle

A long and enduring relationship

The Castle and its Garrison

By Allan Carswell

Edinburgh Castle has been put to many different uses during its long history – fortress, royal palace, arsenal, treasury, war memorial and tourist attraction. It has also been home to thousands of soldiers of the British Army.

Since the late seventeenth century, the Castle has been occupied and guarded by a garrison of full-time troops. The strength of this garrison and its make-up has shifted over the years. Sometimes it was made up of less than a hundred men; often older veterans or ‘invalids’; men too old for other duties. At other times, the garrison was a complete battalion of an infantry regiment, numbering anything between 600 and 1,000 men, complete with wives and families. 

A 92nd (Gordon Highlanders) Sergeant reading to soldiers in Edinburgh Castle on 9 April 1846. Photograph by David Octavius Hill (Courtesy of the Met Museum).

The Castle was therefore often a very busy and bustling place, especially as the regiments which made up the garrison often had to change over, or send detachments to other parts of Scotland. Living right in the heart of the city, the soldiers of the garrison were a part of Edinburgh life – a common sight as they paraded on the Castle Esplanade, marched up and down the High Street or spent their off-duty hours in the town. 

The 79th Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders on the Castle Esplanade in 1876. Photo courtesy of National Museums Scotland.

Nearly all the buildings you see in the Castle today have been used at some point in their history by this garrison. Some were specially built for its use like the New Barrack Block (1799), the Military Prison (1842) and the Hospital (1897). Other such buildings have been demolished over time, once they had outlived their purpose. Much of this change occurred after the First World War when the garrison moved out of the Castle to spacious new barracks at Redford just to the south of Edinburgh. 

A Gordon Highlanders officer standing on the roof of the New Barrack Block c.1890. The current site of The Royal Scots/Royal Regiment of Scotland Museum is situated directly behind him. Photo courtesy of the Gordon Highlanders Museum.

Though these new barracks were far superior to the old and cramped accommodation in the Castle, public opinion demanded that the  Army maintain a presence in the Castle. A ceremonial guard was to be mounted and a new national war memorial and military museum were opened.  This was in line with the Castle’s growing popularity as a visitor attraction. Though the garrison may have largely gone, the Castle increased its importance as a national symbol of Scotland’s military tradition.

After the Second World, a new Army Headquarters was established in the Castle, ensuring that its military role would not be entirely symbolic. In time, new Regimental or Home Headquarters were also established for several Scottish regiments. These included the regimental collections and archives from which grew the three Regimental Museums behind this Learning Hub.

As the oldest line infantry regiment in the British Army, the Royal Scots, has long been familiar with the Castle. The Regiment often provided troops for the garrison and a have long and close relationship with Edinburgh and the Lothians, the region from where it drew most of its recruits. Their Regimental Museum opened in the Castle in 1961.

Soldiers of the 15th Battalion, The Royal Scots at Butts Battery, Edinburgh Castle, in 1915.

As horsed cavalry regiments, the antecedents of Royal Scots Dragoon Guards would not have been part of the Castle garrison. Nevertheless, the Regiment’s strong Scottish roots mean it has numerous links to the Castle. In 1938, perhaps their most celebrated veteran, Ensign Charles Ewart, the man who captured a French ‘Eagle’ standard at Waterloo in 1815, was reburied on the Castle Esplanade – his tomb inscribed with the same eagle which the Regiment still wears as its cap badge. The Regiment established its Home Headquarters in the Castle in 1971, and opened its own Museum in 1995. Previously, part of its collection relating to the Royal Scots Greys had been displayed in the Castle as part of the Scottish United Services Museum (now the National War Museum of Scotland).

Ensign Charles Ewart’s reburial on the Castle Esplanade in 1938. Photo courtesy of the Scotsman.

In 2006, when all the Scottish infantry regiments (including the Royal Scots) were combined to form the Royal Regiment of Scotland, Edinburgh Castle was the natural choice for the new regiment’s headquarters and museum. Together, the Regimental Museums represent an important strand in the story of Scotland’s most famous historic monument.

Royal Regiment of Scotland soldiers with the new regimental tartan in Edinburgh Castle in 2006.

For up to date information on visiting Edinburgh Castle, entry costs, opening times and more please visit the official Edinburgh Castle website here.

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