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The Governor’s Story

In the lead up to the Installation of the Governor of Edinburgh Castle on Thursday we look at the history of the role and some notable Governors.

Edinburgh Castle is a truly imposing sight overlooking the City from its lofty position. Throughout history, control of this fortification has allowed domination of the Forth Estuary and, importantly, access points to northern Scotland & the Highlands. As such, whoever was appointed to control the Castle needed to be trustworthy and competent otherwise such a key fortification could be lost and used against them.

The appointment of the Governor of Edinburgh Castle can be traced back to 1251 with Walter Comyn, Earl of Menteith, being the first properly recorded Governor. There are fragments of evidence, though, which shows the role back almost 1000 years. In earlier years the job was a practical one – maintaining the integrity and defences of the Castle and Garrison at a time when Castles really were fortresses protecting the people. 

The Governor is the Queen’s representative and responsible for holding the Castle against her enemies. This role was performed for the Kings and Queens of Scotland and, since the accession of James VI of Scotland to become James I of England, has been on behalf of the Sovereign of the United Kingdom.

Earlier Governors read like a roll-call of the nobles of Scotland with names like Erskine, Hamilton, Stewart, Douglas, Cockburn, Leslie. Not surprisingly, the Governors were inextricably linked with the political and monarchical events of the time, some putting their lives in danger, in war and in politics. Whoever was appointed Governor clearly had Royal favour but also were a power themselves, influencing events in the city below and wider Scottish society.

The current Governor, Major General Alastair Bruce of Crionaich, is himself a descendant of King Robert the Bruce and to honour this link his installation will take place on the 707th anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn.

Although the role is now mainly ceremonial and, thankfully, peaceful, previous Governors through the years have had to contend with crises including war, siege and betrayal.

During the Scottish Wars of Independence from 1291 to 1341, the Castle changed hands numerous times and for a while the Governor was appointed by the English forces under Edward I, who controlled Edinburgh. At one point the Castle itself was slighted (fortifications knocked down or removed to prevent its use as a fortress) by Scottish troops and no Governor was appointed.

Governors appointed by Edward I during this time were active in conflict. One, Thomas Kynton, was assassinated, and another, Sir Piers de Lombard, changed sides before being executed by Scottish forces. After its final recapture in 1341, the Governors again were solely appointed by the Scottish Monarch.

William Crichton, 1st Lord Crichton, was Governor from 1437-1445. During his tenure he was involved in the infamous ‘Black Dinner’, events of which inspired the famous Red Wedding scene in the recent Game of Thrones TV series. Lord Crichton, apparently working with another element of the Douglas family, invited the teenage 6th Earl of Douglas and his brother to dinner with the 10-year-old King James II in Edinburgh Castle. Midway through the meal a black bulls head, sign of death at the time, was brought out and Crichton and his accomplices then proceeded to drag out, hold a mock trial for and then behead the brothers in front of the horrified boy King.

William Kirkcaldy of Grange (Governor from 1568-73) defended the Castle on behalf of Mary, Queen of Scots, from other Scottish nobles who supported the young King James VI.  He reinforced the defences and held out during the ‘lang siege’ from October 1571 to May 1573.  Ultimately, he was executed by his enemies.

With the Union of the Crowns in 1603, the hope was that the Castle would never again have to play an active defensive role.  Sadly this was not the case and a succession of Governors had to defend the Castle in the subsequent Wars of the Three Kingdoms and Jacobite risings.

After Oliver Cromwell’s successful campaign in Scotland where he defeated the Royalist-supporting Covenanter Government in 1650-1651, he appointed a number of Governors until the Restoration in 1660. Since then the appointment has been made by the Sovereign.

With the attempt by Bonnie Prince Charlie to claim the throne and the defeat of Hanoverian forces in Scotland, in 1745 the Castle remained under siege from September to November while the Jacobite forces travelled down to Derby, although this was not a close siege and the garrison regularly sallied forth into Edinburgh when Jacobite forces left the area.

The position of Governor was surprisingly vacant at that time and the local Hanoverian military Commander had to take charge when the previous incumbent, Lt General James Campbell of Lawers, died of his wounds after losing a leg at the Battle of Fontenoy in Belgium in May 1745. General Lord Mark Kerr replaced him when the siege was officially lifted in November 1745.

Since the ’45 the Castle has not been directly threatened but Governors have played their part in the Napoleonic and later World Wars, with the Castle being used to house a local garrison, protect the City and docks of Edinburgh and to hold Prisoners of War.

In the modern era, the Governors have been active in society and played their Ceremonial role over the last fifty years with many of these occasions marking significant milestones such as Royal occasions and the regular visits of Her Majesty the Queen in her role as the Head of State in Scotland.

In recent years the Castle has maintained its place as one of the key tourist locations not only in Edinburgh but throughout the country and is a highly visible symbol of the history of Scotland and the wider United Kingdom. The British Army’s continued residence in the Castle and the regular involvement of the Governor in ceremonial, state and cultural events has continued to place the role of Governor in the centre of Castle and Edinburgh life.

One unique experience for the current Governor has been the recent COVID crisis. Representing the Queen and the Castle has been difficult during the pandemic but now, with the gradual easing of restrictions, General Alastair can look forward to using the rest of his tenure to engage with and provide a link to the Army in Scotland for the Scottish people. His upcoming Installation will hopefully mark the start of this re-engagement.