Edinburgh: Capital of Ice and Fire

13 April 2019

Game Of Thrones Header

[Cover image by David C Weinczok]

We all know that Edinburgh is a magical city, but did you know that it has more in common with the mythical world of Game of Thrones than you think? Local history expert David C Weinczok tells us more about Edinburgh's stories that echo those of Westeros...

The final season of Game of Thrones is nearly here, yet if you live in Edinburgh or are coming to visit then you don’t need to wait for its premiere to explore Westeros. The history of Scotland and Edinburgh is rife with many of the same themes, forces, and sometimes even exact events that give the series its epic appeal. I’ve covered these in a public talk for Previously…Scotland’s History Festival and History Sessions called ‘Beyond the Wall’, but here are a few examples specific to Scotland’s capital.

In the grandest sense, Edinburgh is an embodiment of the two fundamental forces behind the fate of Westeros – ice and fire. Around 325 million years ago volcanoes were erupting where the Old Town now stands, the basalt cores of which became Castle Rock and Arthur’s Seat. Until it’s peak some 20,000 years ago a one kilometer-thick glacier groaned atop much of Scotland, it’s retreat giving the High Street its distinctive slope. Theoretical foundations were shaken as James Hutton put forward his calculations of the unimaginable extent of geological time, largely based on his observations of Edinburgh’s geology. Edinburgh as we know it – the ‘city of seven hills’ – is itself ice and fire.

Edinburgh Castle Game Of Thrones

[Image by David C Weinczok]

On a more sanguine note, the ‘real’ Red Wedding happened inside Edinburgh Castle. The shocking events of 1440, known to history as the ‘Black Dinner’, were a direct inspiration for George R. R. Martin when he devised what became one of television and fantasy literature’s most shocking scenes.

James II was king, though only in name. At ten years old he wasn’t making many decisions. That fell largely to William Crichton, Chancellor of Scotland, and Alexander Livingstone. Ambitious, envious men, they plotted and schemed against the Douglases, a family who at the time held over 100 lordships in Scotland and who were rival to the power of the crown itself. An invitation was extended to William, 6th Earl of Douglas, to attend the king at Edinburgh Castle under a promise of safe passage.

By all accounts, it started off well. One can imagine the things a ten year-old king and a sixteen year-old earl would discuss, and more than enough food and drink had been shared to cement the Douglases’ sacred guest right under the king’s roof. Then a piper played. Crichton and Livingstone’s men revealed arms and armour beneath their cloaks, and a black bull’s head – ancient symbol of death – was placed on a platter in front of William Douglas. The boy king’s tears and protests came to nothing. Either then and there or following a mock trial at the castle gates, William and his younger brother David were killed.

This sparked outrage throughout the land, not just amongst those loyal to house Douglas but to all who valued the ancient code of guest right which Crichton and Livingstone had so flagrantly cast aside. This is the same reason why, in 1692, shock and outrage swept Scotland following the Massacre of Glencoe even amongst those who were no friends of the MacDonalds. And it all happened, alongside so many other extraordinary episodes, at Edinburgh Castle.

Finally, most High Street trips involve a stop outside (or in) The World’s End pub. It marked the boundary of the old city walls, with everything outside of them only half-jokingly thought of as the lawless wilds. We known that the great 700-foot-high wall of ice in Game of Thrones was inspired largely by Hadrian’s Wall but also by the lesser-known and more precarious Antonine Wall, a Roman earth and timber work extending from Forth to Clyde. This, more so than Hadrian’s Wall, represented the final extent of Roman ambition in Scotland.

While the Antonine Wall didn’t extend as far east as Edinburgh, when I walk past The World’s End I like to pause and consider that, four hundred years ago, this was the edge of the world as far as many Edinburghers were concerned. Going back a little further in time were the Caledonians of the old north, the ‘last of the free’ described by Tacitus as having “reddish hair and large limbs” – and I’d recognise Tormund Giantsbane anywhere.

Edinburgh View Game Of Thrones

[Image by David C Weinczok]

So if you want to immerse yourself in the world of Game of Thrones, all you have to do is stroll atop the Crags in Holyrood Park, stand in the Great Hall of Edinburgh Castle, or discuss it all over a pint at The World’s End. It turns out Westeros has been all around us the whole time.

You can find David on Twitter, Periscope, Instagram and on his new site castlehunter.scot.