Craigmillar Castle is located a mile from Edinburgh’s original city walls where it provided a secure retreat for Scotland’s royalty from the 1400s.
Today, it is a popular tourist attraction that offers an interesting glimpse into Scottish history along with a few countryside walking trails in the city outskirts.
Review of Craigmillar Castle
If anyone mentions the words ‘Edinburgh’ and ‘castle’ in the same sentence most people instantly imagine the medieval fortress that glowers over the city from the top of Castle Rock.
But there’s another castle in Edinburgh that has almost as much history, yet it goes entirely unnoticed by the majority of visiting tourists.
Sitting just three miles outside of the city centre is Craigmillar Castle, the ancestral home of the once-powerful Preston family, and it’s an attraction that’s well worth visiting if you want a break from the bustling crowds of Edinburgh.
Although the castle is now in ruins it’s managed by the Historic Environment Scotland (HES) trust who’ve done a tremendous job of restoring it as a visitor attraction.
While it’s true that much of the castle is roofless it still remains one of the best-preserved medieval castles in Scotland and its location means it can easily be combined with a visit to Edinburgh Castle or Holyrood Palace if you have an interest in Scotland’s history.
Getting to Craigmillar Castle from Edinburgh is easy. There’s a car park on-site but to be honest the Lothian Bus network is so good I suggest you take public transport instead so look for the number 14 bus from North Bridge which will drop you a few minutes walk away from the castle entrance.
The centre of Craigmillar Castle consists of a large L-plan tower house that was built in 1425 along with an enclosed courtyard wall, and a sizeable outer courtyard that was added in 1511.
The strength of these fortifications is evident everywhere you look but especially so in the central tower where the walls are over 11 feet thick. No wonder royalty used to hide there when political events got a bit hairy in the city.
When you visit have a look at the ‘murder holes’ in the outer walls of the central tower which used to be a standard feature of fortified castles in Scotland. They were used by soldiers to drop heavy stones on invading troops and you can see similar defences as you walk around the much larger Edinburgh Castle.
It’s quite fascinating to explore the buildings but the surrounding grounds are worth walking around too.
To the south there are the remains of the Preston formal gardens that include the family chapel built in 1520, and it’s easy to let yourself imagine you’re walking the same paths that Mary Queen of Scots walked through when she was a guest.
In fact, those gardens have so much history associated with them they’ve been included in the UK’s National Register of Historic Gardens. Impressive stuff.
If you’d like to join a tour of Scotland’s best castles take a look at my recommended Get Your Guide castle tours.
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Things to do at Craigmillar Castle
I have to say I really like Craigmillar Castle. It makes a nice change from the busy city centre and it’s far enough from the hubbub that it almost feels like you’re in the countryside – even though the bus ride only takes 20 minutes.
It’s a top place to take the kids too as there are loads of hidden nooks and crannies to hide in but it’s got a few surprises waiting for you as well.
The first of these is the huge tree growing inside the central courtyard (how did that get there?!) and the second is the viewing platform on the upper level of the tower house. You’ll get great views across the city from the platform and it’s the perfect location to take a few shots of Holyrood Park that you couldn’t get anywhere else.
The rest of the castle is basically just a series of bare walls – some without roofs – but at least HES has installed plenty of information panels so you can learn about the history of the castle while you’re walking through it.
After you’ve walked around the buildings you can head out into the grounds which aren’t particularly big but they’re quite pretty, and HES have installed a few picnic benches so they make a top place to whip out a cheese sarnie or two.
These grounds are typical of most Scottish castles and they’re littered with little details that give us a glimpse into life hundreds of years ago, with one example being the round tower doocot that sits at the north-east corner of the grounds.
A doocot, or ‘dovecote’ as it’s also known, is a small building that was used to keep pigeons, much like we use a chicken coop today.
Pigeon meat used to be a vital source of protein in Scotland and not only were the birds easy to keep but they reproduced in large numbers which meant there was always readily available meat for the Preston family.
Take a look at the roof of the doocot and you’ll see the hole where the birds used to fly in and out, surrounded by hundreds of nesting perches. It’s a surprisingly big structure and just goes to show how much our ancestors relied on pigeons as a food source.
The history of Craigmillar Castle
Building works began on the castle in the late 14th-century and it was the main home of the wealthy Preston family until they sold it in 1660.
One of the most famous residents of Craigmillar Castle was Mary Queen of Scots who famously took refuge there after the birth of her son James VI. It was during this time that a plan was made to kill her husband Lord Darnley, an act of revenge which became instrumental in her downfall.
Following Mary’s exile the Preston family remained the owners of the castle till Sir John Gilmour purchased it, at which time the Gilmour family carried out extensive renovation work on the accommodation areas.
Sir Gilmour had risen to the position of senior judge and held a considerable amount of power and he was also a favourite of King Charles II. Much like today the wealthy of the time displayed their fortunes through the size of their houses and Craigmillar was one of the more formidable status symbols in the area.
By the late 18th-century the walls were beginning to crumble but the castle was already turning into a tourist attraction for Edinburgh’s residents who were drawn to the peaceful rural landscape surrounding it.
It finally passed into state care in 1946 and today Historic Environment Scotland is responsible for the care and maintenance of this Category A listed building – the highest level of protection that can be given to a historic building in Scotland.
If you’d like to explore more Scottish castles read my Guide to the Best Castles to Visit in Scotland.
- Craigmillar Castle makes a nice change from Edinburgh’s city-centre attractions.
- The castle has loads of nooks and crannies that are great fun for children to explore and adults will enjoy wandering around the rooms and the curtain walls.
- The views from the tower are superb.
- Get yourself a HES Explorer Pass to see this and other Scottish castles for free – details are in the prices section below.
- Take the bus to get to the castle. Just hop on the number 14 from the city centre (approx 20-minute journey).
- There’s no on-site café so grab a sandwich before you leave. There are picnic benches in the castle grounds.
Craigmillar Castle Road,
Photo gallery and video
Things to do near Craigmillar Castle
- Blackford Hill Local Wildlife Reserve. Hermitage of Braid, Edinburgh EH9 3HJ. 9-minute drive. A large green space in the centre of Edinburgh that is rarely visited by tourists. It features a collection of footpaths that wind their way to the hill summit for panoramic views across the city.
- Gilmerton Cove. 16 Drum St, Gilmerton, Edinburgh EH17 8QH. 7-minute drive. A subterranean labyrinth of caves and passageways that are believed to be hundreds of years old but have an unknown purpose. Visitors are taken underground on a guided tour that explores the history of Edinburgh and the secrets of the caves.
- Edinburgh Butterfly and Insect World. Melville Nurseries, Lasswade EH18 1AZ. 11-minute drive. An indoor tropical attraction that is home to a collection of animals from across the globe including giant spiders, snakes and jungle insects. A visit includes presentations and displays by expert handlers.
- Holyrood Park. Queen’s Dr, Edinburgh EH8 8HG. 5-minute drive. One of the largest city parks in the world, Holyrood Park is famed for Arthur’s Seat – the 251-metre pinnacle that offers 360-degree views of Edinburgh. Other highlights are St. Anthony’s Chapel and Duddingston Loch.
- Dr Neil’s Garden. 15 Old Church Ln, Duddingston, Edinburgh EH15 3PX. 5-minute drive. A secluded city garden situated nest to Duddingston Loch in Holyrood Park. Planted with a collection of flowering heathers and alpines alongside conifers, rhododendrons and herbaceous borders. Entry is free.
More places to visit in Edinburgh
- Cramond Island – Edinburgh: Complete Visitor GuideSituated just over 3/4 of a mile into the Firth of Forth, Cramond Island is a tidal landmass located close the village of Cramond near Edinburgh.
- Edinburgh Butterfly and Insect World: Complete Visitor GuideEdinburgh Butterfly World is a fascinating tourist attraction on the southern outskirts of Edinburgh that showcases some rather incredible, beautiful, and very creepy-crawly insects and reptiles from across the globe.
- The Scotch Whisky Experience – Edinburgh: Complete Visitor GuideIf you’re embarking on a visit to Edinburgh then your trip won’t be complete without a visit to The Scotch Whisky Experience, located just a short walk from Edinburgh Castle Esplanade on the Royal Mile.
- The Royal Yacht Britannia – Edinburgh: Complete Visitor GuideThe Royal Yacht Britannia is the former royal yacht of HM Queen Elizabeth II which now takes pride of place at the Ocean Terminal shopping centre at Leith in Edinburgh. Over the course of her working life Britannia was the official residence of the Royal Family and sailed over one million miles around the world.