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Learning about Edinburgh Castle at home

‘So where’s the kitchen?’ our 12-year-old daughter asks. She rolls her eyes when I reply: ‘good question’. Experience has taught her that this either means I don’t know the answer or that this is going to take a while, or even worse – both. Learning at home is fun, right? Especially when your dad is an Edinburgh Castle aficionado.

We’re exploring a remarkable online model of Edinburgh Castle and our children are refusing to make things easy for their tour guide. I mutter something about the dynamic history of the great fortress and how buildings like the kitchens have come, gone or been repurposed. There’s a weary pause. ‘OK, dad, so where’s the café?’

In the Upside Down

This is a summer visit to the castle like no other we’ve made. The family is sat around our own dining table and instead of joining the queue through the Portcullis Gate, our day trip comes through the HES Learning Team’s suite of online resources. We begin with the 3D digital model that was launched just last month.

The children take turns at the controls. Which means that after a couple of minutes following the suggested route through the castle, complete with its interpretive labels, we start to swirl wildly around. We hurtle upwards until the fortress is just a tiny dot and then plummet back down through the digital skin of the model. The children are enjoying themselves – their parents are increasingly disoriented. ‘Are we in the Upside Down,’ my wife wonders quietly. Yes, of course we are. We’ve been in the Upside Down since March.

‘Now that’s really funny’

Our virtual visit zips around the site. I try to field questions not answered by the model’s labels. The dog cemetery: ‘Does that mean we can bring our own dog to castle?’ No. The Devil’s Elbow: ‘Do you know why it’s called that?’ No. Butts Battery: ‘Now that’s really funny.’ No, it’s not.

A woman and two children look at a laptop with a 3D model of Edinburgh Castle on its screen. Learning at home.

Falling and breaking things

As we go, the children reminisce about real visits – looking down the barrel of Mons Meg, a friend falling over in Crown Square, another friend dropping and smashing her water bottle. It was bitterly cold on our last visit. But not today: the dining room is nice and warm for our day out inside.

Laser scanning

Our 11-year-old son declares that we’re going down the Fore Well. We look back up the shaft to the sky. He’s impressed. ‘So how did they make this?’ We talk about my colleagues who laser scanned the entire monument over several years. ‘They laser scanned the whole castle?’ he exclaims. ‘That’s pretty cool.’ ‘Why didn’t they do the kitchen,’ someone asks.

Bill Paterson’s umbrella

We leave the model castle to play a few stops of the audio guide, made temporarily available just now. The children listen to a recording of a colleague descending to the bottom of the Fore Well for real. Then actors read authentic accounts of prisoners’ grisly stories.

Doug Russell’s doomed pirate has a profound impact on the children while Bill Paterson’s desperate trade unionist describes propping up his umbrella in the corner of a dungeon and we listen in silence. ‘For a second, I thought they were actual recordings of the prisoners,’ my daughter says. Well, the words are real. ‘This is where actual people were kept prisoner,’ my son says a little awed. ‘It’s quite something to know how horrible it was.’

Proud and patient

We watch a video about the castle’s young apprentices. Their pride in their work and interest in meeting people from around the world is infectious.

Our youngest declares he’d like to be a castle guide; our oldest would prefer to work in the shop. ‘You’d have to be really patient – and know how to say hello in lots of different languages,’ she observes before wondering with a note of concern: ‘Would you have to have some knowledge of the castle?’

An active castle

The children look at the great range of activities provided for the virtual visitor by the HES Learning Team. Our son does the Mons Meg maths worksheet, possibly just to annoy his sister. They discuss writing a voice for a short movie about the One o’Clock Gun and they decide against poster-making after three months of home schooling: ‘Maybe after the summer’.

Many of the castle’s online activities are aimed at younger children. The days when a lolly stick portcullis could hold the attention of our two are sadly long gone. Then again, there’s always baking and video games.

Dropping lava onto attackers

Our 11-year-old is working his way through a list of castle features in Minecraft set by the HES Learning Team (Lego would work just as well). ‘What’s an aumbry,’ he wonders. It’s a cupboard built into a stone wall. He makes a few aumbries and then, for some reason, fills them with steak. I don’t ask. He teams up with two friends via the Internet to raise the curtain walls and dig the moat before filling it with water. They cut a murder hole in the chamber above the entrance passage so they can drop boiling oil (well, lava) onto the heads of attackers. There are crow-stepped gables, turrets, a privy and a saltire flag. The boys have thoroughly enjoyed rising to HES’s castle-building challenge.

Flavoured with carraway and orange

Meanwhile, our 12-year-old decides not to help her brother in Minecraft. She’s making shortbread, following a recipe that gives the biscuit an historic twist. Mary Queen of Scots reputedly loved shortbread cut into petticoats and flavoured with carraway seeds. So our daughter does likewise, making another batch with fennel seeds and adding an orange icing glaze (the queen also apparently enjoyed an orange). She presses Mary’s monogram MR into the top. We devour it enthusiastically. It’s delicious.

Girl wearing oven gloves removes a round tin of shortbread from the oven.

Plan your own big day in

Are you planning own virtual family trip to Edinburgh Castle? Here’s a full list of tools you can use to plan your Big Day In:

Did you plan your own virtual family trip to Edinburgh Castle? We’d love to hear about your adventures on social media. Use #LearningWithHES and tweet us @edinburghcastle and @welovehistory. Do let us know what you get up to.

And if you’re looking for more activities from Historic Environment Scotland to keep you going over the summer holidays, you can find them here:

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