Edinburgh’s Lost Architecture: A tour to David’s Tower

Recently I got very lucky to go on an architecture tour of David’s Tower in Edinburgh Castle. For nearly half a millennium it lay built over and only rediscovered a century ago. It is usually closed to visitors, but on a special tour organised by Historic Scotland events team the entry was permitted to a group of enthusiasts.

Inspiration for Scottish Baronial Architectural Style

I speak about Scotland’s native architectural style in my Old Town and Dean Village tours, and it was interesting to find out that it is the lost David’s Tower that influenced it!

Built in 1380s and named after its builder King David the II, the tower was a defensive structure, as well as part of Royal residence (as the Holyrood palace did not exist yet). 30m in height, it was the most prominent feature of medieval Edinburgh architectural skyline. This royal towerhouse influenced how the nobility built their own castles, which developed into Scotland’s own baronial style architecture widely used in Edinburgh 16-17th centuries, and revived again as Victorian Scottish baronial. Architecture of this style featuring crowsteps and bartisans is wide spread in Old Town Edinburgh

Architecture Followed Function

The towers being tall structures were helpful to shoot arrows, or poor hot oil on the enemy. They were a popular element of medieval castle at the time when the main method of attack was to try and get over the gates somehow. But towers became vulnerable with advancement of canons, which would attack from distance. This is how David’s Tower met its demise.

The tower was destroyed during the Laing Siege of 1573. Canon balls stuck within the walls. Were discovered during excavations. However, the bottom part of the tower remained intact and is now within the Half-Moon battery wall.

The Tour – Inside David’s Tower

This was the area we got to descend into. Edinburgh Castle’s conservation architect lead the group of history buffs to the vaults and dungeons that are what remains of David’s’ tower.

After a detailed architectural introduction, we all put on safety helmets and vests, lit the torches and followed our guide into the vaults. Felt like a real adventure!

One of the chambers used to hold hidden crown jewels under the latrine. What could be a better disguise, especially because so few people new of the towers existence altogether.

The tour culminated by descending into deep void within the tower lined with a dovecot! Ingredient of a any proper castle. The new access structures made it possible for small groups like ours to see the tower.

I used the opportunity to ask what I always wanted to know – if there really were tunnels leading from the castle and under the royal mile. The architect said he did not know of any, but maybe he is just not allowed to say…

A tour group with a guide down inside the basement of David's tower

Architectural Competition

The missing tower became the centre of interest of architectural community of 19th century, who even held a competition for its reconstruction design. The nostalgia was largely sparkled (among many other things) by the writing of Walter Scott.

Architectural drawings of various notable entries were preserved and are now exhibited at the castle. See a few examples here: If built it would have been colossal. It is likely the plans were abandoned because of the lack of funds.

Future of David’s Tower

Castle conservationists are working on new excavations as it is likely that there are more towers buried underneath new structures.

When asked if rebuilding of the tower was in the vision for the castle, architect said “no, we do not know what it really looked like, so would not be genuine.” Indeed, not much is known about the actual architecture of the tower. We only get hints about what it may have looked like from the paintings like this, or inventory records.

To find out more

If you are intrigued with how Edinburgh castle changed throughout the centuries, come along to one of architectural tours of Edinburgh’s Old Town.

You will also hear about lost buildings that shaped Edinburgh’s history and skyline, such as Tollbooth and Netherbow Port.

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