What the symbols in the ceiling reveal

The smell of oranges, wine, spices and venison, the sound of trumpets and court chatter are all gone. As are the furs, embroidered doublets and jewels. All that remains from the two great feasts of 1598 is the beautifully painted ceiling.

At that time Riddle’s Court, the McMorran family’s home, was the grandest house in Edinburgh. It even had its own garden in the Old Town’s tightly packed vennels. McMorran who built the house was a magistrate. He’d been killed in a riot three years earlier.

King James VI, and his wife Queen Anne of Denmark, along with the Town Council, chose Riddle’s Court to hold the two feasts. They were both in honour of the visit of Anne’s brother, Ulric Duke of Holstein. He was the ambassador for the Holy Roman Empire.

The King's Chamber Ceiling

These incredible ceilings date from the banquet held by King James I in 1598 for his visiting Danish brother-in-law, Ulric, Duke of Holstein.

  1. Timbers

    Completing the symbolic message of the Crown and the Eagle, the two thistles are emblematic of Scotland, being the country’s national flower.

  2. Double Headed Eagle

    This fearsome beast was both a symbol of the Hapsburg Empire and included in the Danish Coat of Arms. Chosen to honour Ulric, Duke of Holstein, his presence was both social and diplomatic.

  3. Painted Frieze

    The painted wall frieze is reconstructed from original plaster fragments found during survey work in the 1960s. They show leaf type motifs on blue or red painted backgrounds. This reconstruction was carried out by Scottish Wall Painting.

  4. Thistles

    Completing the symbolic message of the Crown and the Eagle, the two thistles are emblematic of Scotland, being the country’s national flower.

  5. A bold statement – The Crown

    An unusual design marrying the crown and Eagle, it is likely a coded message beyond a simple indication of the royal presence. Ulrich was believed to be en-route to Rome on a diplomatic mission to Pope Clement VIII to seek support for James to succeed the English throne on the death of Elizabeth I.

  6. Putti Heads

    Putti are winged cherub figures. The King James ceiling putti seem to have breath or wind emanating from their mouths. This could denote music or performance as putti are often associated with cupid.


The finest artists were commissioned to paint the ceiling. Its potent political symbols – The Scottish Thistle and the Imperial Eagle in particular – can still be seen today. To great excitement, we discovered new sections of the artwork in our current restoration.

The purpose of the royal feast was entirely diplomatic: James took every opportunity to promote his claim to succeed Elizabeth to the English throne. The support of the Holy Roman Empire was of huge importance. James achieved his goal in 1603, bringing about the famous Union of the Crowns.

The Town Council’s feast was more of an office party and is well documented in the city archives. It was an extravagant affair. Food and drink for many courses, cooks, porters, trumpeters and carriages all added up to 1103 Scots pounds – about £20,000 today. The bill included medical expenses for a few bumped heads – possibly too much of a good thing!

Interested in event hire?

Riddle's Court’s beautiful and atmospheric interiors make it a unique venue for exceptional events and spectacular entertaining.