It’s a lovely blue sky day and the Royal Palace clock at Edinburgh Castle is striking eleven. Crown Square is bustling with visitors. As I stand among them there is only one thought in my head: first performance is in fifteen minutes.
Although slightly nervous, I count myself lucky to be here presenting ‘Bolts & Bodkins’ as part of the Castle’s event programme. The theme is military archery in medieval Scotland. It’s a colourful story, focussing on the use of bows and crossbows at the Castle.
The weapons were commonplace in the middle ages. We can see many references to their use in records about Edinburgh Castle’s turbulent medieval past. One document from 1299 refers to the supplying of the Castle stores and mentions:
‘two great crossbows with winches, 18 smaller crossbows, 50 bows, 18 dozens of bowstrings, 200 goosewings for feathering and a great parcel of pack-thread for crossbow strings’.
The Castle was in English hands at this time. Two years later in 1301 we see the constable, contracted by Edward I, with 20 crossbowmen and 34 archers in his service. As well as these direct links to the Castle itself, we’re lucky to have good archaeological evidence supporting the use of archery in Scotland generally. This includes with arrow head finds across the country.
Contemporary records, especially from the 15th century, bear witness to the efforts made to encourage archery practice. Meanwhile three attempts were made to ban football and golf! The powers that be felt that for the ‘commoun gude and defence of the realme’ men should be shooting bows instead of wasting their time at ‘unprofitable sports’.
Making your way across Crown Square dressed as a medieval archer can be a tricky job. If you get from one side to the other without being stopped for photographs, you’re doing well. It’s always best to leave a bit of extra time for chatting to the visitors. Folk are keen to ask questions and take a closer look.
Wide eyed children are fascinated by the different arrowheads. They’re always asking “Ooh, are they sharp?”, whilst offering a little finger to test the points. This makes me smile, as I was exactly the same when I was a boy.
I reach the Half Moon Battery with the remains of David’s Tower lying quietly beneath. Inside what’s left of the tower there are arrowslits, further testament to the use of bows and crossbows at the Castle.
Before I begin first show of the day, l like to get the ball rolling by finding out where everyone is from, and who has come the furthest. Presenting is great fun and I try to involve the audience as much as possible. Expect the unexpected!
At the end of the performance I love to take time to answer questions. I had a professor of physics who was keen to know if trebuchets had ever been used against the castle – he had once set his students the task of building one of these medieval throwing engines as part of their coursework!
Then there was the retired trauma surgeon from the US who spent his career treating gunshot victims and had enjoyed hearing the part about arrow wounds. Every day is a school day, so I took the opportunity to ask him a few questions. Some of the facts he shared have since been added to the presentation, but I’ll spare you the gory details.
If you want to hear them come and see the show!