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No True Castle...

10 January 201801:13PMviking-raidtravel

If I told 12-year-old me about this, he'd wet himself with excitement. We'd been in Scotland for just a few hours, and we were already inside a castle. This is something I've been wanting to do for well over a decade.

If he actually saw it, he'd probably raise an eyebrow. He'd take a look around and probably declare that Edinburgh castle isn't a "real" castle. To which I'd reply, well, that depends on how you define real.

a jumble of buildings and towers

Edinburgh castle is kind of a hot mess. It's all over the place architecturally, chronologically, functionally. Sure, it's got its origins as a hill fort and served as a defensive structure early on in its history. But over the centuries it's changed, chameleon-like, to suit the needs of the time.

It's been a fort. It's been a royal residence. It's been a barracks. It's been a fort again. It's been an armoury, and a prison. And today, it's a war memorial, and a museum, and home to the most prized relics of Scotland.

And yes, while a beautifully maintaned museum-slash-war-memorial isn't technically a defensive structure any more, and thus technically not quite as interesting to a sword-and-siege obsessed pre-teen, it is real in a much more important way. It's still in use.

Castles were always the centre of civic life. They weren't just a fortification for holding land, they were a seat of power and governance, a hub for industry and employment. Entire towns would spring up to service the needs of a nearby castle.

And it was in the nature of castles to adapt. They adapted from a world of archers and catapults to one of gunners and cannons. They'd go from fortifications to residences and back again, be abandoned and reclaimed, beseiged, demolished and rebuilt.

Edinburgh castle has just stuck around longer for most of the others. It's survived and adapted into the modern day. It's a fully functioning castle in the 21st century - it's just that those functions are a little different now. But that doesn't make it any less of a castle. In fact, I'd argue it makes it more of one. It's still a centre of civic life. It's still at the heart of its city. And it's still in use, to this day.

edinburgh castle from below, at night

Now if you'd asked Preteen-Rockwell what he thought a castle should look like, he'd probably picture something a little more like this:

castle urquhart, craggy and ruined, at sunset

This is Urquhart Castle, on the shores of Loch Ness. Still a defensive structure built centuries ago, but rather than continuing to adapt and change to this day, Urquhart fell into disuse. Not changed, not rebuilt, not adapted to the modern age. It's exactly as it was - albeit missing a roof or two.

No longer strategically important, no longer prestigous accomodation, it was abandoned. Because of that, it's been preserved. And rather beautifully preserved too.

It's not the centre of anything any more. That frees it up to be a bit of a blank canvas, for your hyperactive imagination to fill in what life must have been like with a little help from some friendly signage. Without the clutter of having to also work as a modern building, it's free to just be pure, distilled history.

But that doesn't mean it's out of context. There's artefacts and documents from the site, carefully recovered, interpreted and displayed. Kitchen implements and sword hilts, ledgers and court documents. It's because of castles like this one that we learn what life in and around a castle was like.

castle urquhart, craggy and ruined, at sunset

So which one is the real castle? The one that's preserved? Or the one that's survived?

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