Welcome to one of Edinburgh’s best-kept secrets, the majestic Craigmillar Castle. Steeped in grandeur, cloaked in mystery, and brimming with stories of royal intrigue, Craigmillar Castle is an unmissable destination for history enthusiasts and adventure seekers alike.
In this article, we’ll walk its ancient halls, explore its fascinating history, and discover why this captivating fortress holds a special place in Scotland’s past.
|Address:||Craigmillar Castle Road,
|Opening Hours:||1 Apr to 30 Sept: Daily, 10am to 5pm (last entry 4.15pm)
1 Oct to 31 Mar: Daily, 10am to 4pm (last entry 3.15pm)
|Admission Price:||Adult (16-64yrs) £7.00
Concession (65yrs+ and unemployed) £5.50
Child (5-15yrs) £4.00
Family (1 adult, 2 children) £14.00
Family (2 adults, 2 children) £20.00
Family (2 adults, 3 children) £24.00
|Parking:||Limited free car park on-site|
|Contact:||0131 661 4445|
|Facilities:||Shop, toilets, bike rack, picnic area, drinks machine, water refill|
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 Historic Environment Scotland (HES) which has 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.
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. Those gardens have so much history associated with them they’ve been included in the UK’s National Register of Historic Gardens.
1: Craigmillar Castle makes a nice change from Edinburgh’s city-centre attractions and its location near the Royal Infirmary means buses constantly head in that direction throughout the day.
2: 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.
1: Get yourself a Historic Environment Scotland Explorer Pass to see this and other Scottish castles for free.
2: Take the bus to get to the castle as parking spaces are very limited. Just hop on the number 14 from the city centre (approx 20-minute journey).
3: There’s no on-site café so grab a sandwich before you leave. There are picnic benches in the castle grounds.
Craigmillar Castle 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 from Princes Street 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 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 has 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 northeast 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.
Discover more castles to visit in Scotland with: The Best Castles in Scotland – Ultimate Visitor Guide.
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.
Discover more places to visit in Edinburgh with: The Best Places to Visit in Edinburgh – Ultimate Visitor Guide.
Things to Do
Explore Craigmillar Castle: Take a journey through history as you explore the nooks and crannies of Craigmillar Castle. This well-preserved medieval castle offers an insight into life during the 14th to 16th centuries. Discover the great hall, the private chambers, and the fascinating tower house.
Discover the Castle Gardens: The castle is surrounded by beautiful green spaces and gardens that you can explore. These were once the hunting grounds for the castle’s residents but they are now open for visitors to enjoy a leisurely walk, have a picnic, or just relax and appreciate the scenery.
Photography: This historic castle, with its breathtaking views of Edinburgh, provides a fantastic opportunity for photography. Whether you’re an amateur or a professional, you’ll find plenty of inspiration within the castle’s walls.
Family Treasure Hunt: Turn your visit into an adventure for the whole family using the castle’s quiz. Set the kids off to look for hidden features like the remains of a fishpond in the shape of a letter P. Don’t forget to download the fact-finding quiz before you go.
Attend a Local Event: Throughout the year, Craigmillar Castle hosts a range of events from historical reenactments to children’s activities. Check the website before your visit to see what’s coming up next.
Things to Do Nearby
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.
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.
Dr Neil’s Garden. 15 Old Church Ln, Duddingston, Edinburgh EH15 3PX. 5-minute drive.
A secluded city garden situated next to Duddingston Loch in Holyrood Park. Planted with a collection of flowering heathers and alpines alongside conifers, rhododendrons and herbaceous borders. Entry is free.
Frequently Asked Questions
Is Craigmillar Castle worth visiting?
Craigmillar Castle is worth a visit as it’s one of the best-preserved medieval castles in Scotland. It offers a wonderful insight into the living conditions of the time, and the castle’s tower house, one of the oldest in Scotland, is a particular highlight. The views from the top are spectacular, you can see right across the city of Edinburgh. The castle’s gardens are also a delight to explore. If you’re a fan of history or architecture, you’ll find plenty to enjoy there.
Did Mary Queen of Scots stay at Craigmillar Castle?
Mary Queen of Scots stayed in Craigmillar Castle in September 1563 and from November to December 1566.
The castle was a popular escape for royalty whenever the politics of Edinburgh became too dangerous.
Was Craigmillar Castle used in Outlander?
Craigmillar Castle was used in the TV series Outlander when it portrayed Ardsmuir Prison in episode 3 of season 3.
What is the significance of Craigmillar Castle?
Craigmillar Castle is known for its close ties to Scottish royalty, most notably Mary Queen of Scots who often resided here. It was in the castle that the plot to murder Mary’s husband, Lord Darnley, was hatched.