Calton Hill

Submitted by George Farquhar on Thu, 2011-04-21

Calton Hill is an extinct volcano, which rises to the east of Edinburgh’s New Town. It has long been valued as a place of recreation, and a distinctive part of the city’s skyline.

It was in 1724 that the town council bought Calton Hill, making it one of the first public parks in the country. The famous philosopher David Hume lobbied the council to build a walk ‘for the health and amusement of the inhabitants’, and you can still stroll along ‘Hume Walk’ to this day.

With panoramic views of Edinburgh, and across the Firth of Forth, Calton Hill is famed for its stunning outlook. Today the hill is also protected for its wildlife, as Site of Special Scientific Interest.

The collection of classical styled buildings and monuments on Calton Hill, led to the famous nickname for the city, ‘Athens of the North’.

The National Monument

The National Monument was modeled on the Parthenon in Athens, and was intended as a grand church to commemorate Scots who died in the Napoleonic Wars.

It was designed by the architect C.R.Cockrell with William Playfair as his assistant. Work began in 1826, with 12 horses and 70 men needed to haul each of the massive stone columns up the hill.

Only the twelve columns were completed, leading some to describe the project as ‘Edinburgh’s disgrace’.

A View to Inspire

For Robert Louis Stevenson Calton Hill was the place in Edinburgh for a view of the city.

In his book Picturesque Notes he describes the scene, “Return thither on some clear, dark, moonless night, with a ring of frost in the air, and only a star or two set sparsedly in the vault of heaven; and you will find a sight as stimulating as the hoariest summit of the Alps. The solitude seems perfect; the patient astronomer, flat on his back under the Observatory dome and spying heaven’s secrets, is your only neighbour; and yet from all round you there come up the dull hum of the city”

The author Alexander Smith thought that the best views were to be had at night from the Burns Monument, next to the hill on Regent Road.

“A city rises up before you painted by fire on night. High in air a bridge of lights leap the chasm…That ridged and chimneyed bulk of blackness, with splendour bursting out of every pore, is the wonderful Old Town, where Scottish history mainly transacted itself; while, opposite the modern Princes Street is blazing throughout its length.”

The Athens of the North

Calton Hill is home to several eye-catching examples of architecture which gave Edinburgh’s its nickname, the ‘Athens of the North’.

In 1825 Thomas Hamilton designed the Royal High School, with an impressive central Doric temple. Then in 1832 William Playfair designed a circular Greek styled monument to Dugald Stewart, who was Professor of Moral Philosophy at Edinburgh University. However not everyone was impressed.

Charles Dickens described Calton Hill as “littered over with waste fancies — a rubbish heap of imaginative architecture—a hill to be looked from with an elevation of the spirit but to be looked at with an elevation of the nose.”

The People of Calton Hill

The steep road that leads from Leith Street to Waterloo Place is also known as Calton Hill.
Houses were first built here in the 1760’s, and for many years the street was the main access to the hill.

No.14 Calton Hill was the home of Mrs Agnes Maclehose, better known as ‘Clarinda’ and mistress to Robert Burns. She moved in in 1800, following an unsuccessful attempt at reconciliation with her husband.

Perhaps the best known residence on Calton Hill is Rock House, which was home to the photography pioneers Robert Adamson and David Octavius Hill.

The City Observatory

There are actually two observatories on Calton Hill. The earliest is known as Observatory House, and dates from 1776. It is an early example of gothicrevival architecture, and one of few surviving buildings by James Craig, planner of the New Town.

The Edinburgh Astronomical Institute started building the New Observatory in 1818. It was designed by the great Edinburgh architect, William Playfair, to a Greek cross plan with four classical porticoes.

The last addition was the City Dome, in 1895. William McEwan, the brew-ing , presented a fine six inch telescope for the opening of the City Observatory.

Old Observatory House became the home of the assistant observer, with the official residence of the astronomer royal nearby at No.15 Royal Terrace.

At one time though there was also a third observatory. In 1827 Maria Theresa Short built a wooden observatory next to the National Monument. It had a telescope and a camera obscura, and although very popular it was criticised as being ’un-scientific’.

Eventually she was evicted, the observatory demolished, and Maria took her camera obscura to Castlehill, where you can still see it today.

The Burns Monument

The idea to build a monument to Robert Burns was first proposed by Mr. John Forbes Mitchell in Bombay in 1812

However the idea was not taken up at home until 1819, when a meeting at the Free Mason’s Tavern in London, admirers of the poet formed a committee.

Thomas Hamilton was appointed as architect as he had already designed a monument to Burn’s in Alloway and the nearby Royal High School. Hamilton designed a circular Greek temple built of Ravelston sandstone, but did not charge for the work.

Originally the Burns Monument contained a white marble statue of the poet, which is now in the National Portrait Gallery on Queen Street. It was moved because of fears the soot from the gasworks below was affecting the marble.

The Nelson Monument

Shaped like a telescope, the Nelson Monument is another memorial of the Napoleonic Wars.

It was designed by the architect Robert Burn and built between 1807 and 1815. It is over 30 metres high, and was originally in-tended to house a small number of disabled seamen.

From 1852 a ‘Time Ball’ atop the monument acted as a signal to seamen in Leith by which to set their timepieces. Later a span of wire to the castle sent electrical signals to synchronise it with the firing of the famous ‘One o’clock Gun’ each day (except Sunday) at exactly 1 pm.

For additional info about the historic Edinburgh:

Phone: +44 (0)131 220 7720
Fax: +44 (0)131 220 7730
E-mail: i…


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