It could be my favourite structure in Edinburgh. Standing just over 200ft (61m) high, and known as the Gothic Rocket, the Scott Monument is often mistaken for a church - understandably, perhaps - and dominates the view of the eastern section of New Town along Princes Street.
The monument was commissioned following the death of Sir Walter Scott in 1832. At the time he was probably the most widely read British author of the era, with books like Rob Roy and Ivanhoe having become instant classics for readers across the UK, Europe and North America.
Scott is credited with inventing the historical novel, using a combination of fact and fiction - reality filtered through imagination - to tell stories about Scotland's people, history and landscape. Having published the works anonymously at first with his first novel Waverley in 1814, and then using the pseudonymous 'by the author of Waverley' for subsequent books, he only publicly acknowledged that he was the author in question sometime later (and, it is said, at the encouragement of his friend Catherine Sinclair).
A public consultation was held to receive applications for a monument in Scott's honour - the three best designs would win a cash prize of 50 guineas, and the winning entry would be built. Fifty four entries were received in the competition, and the winning design was one submitted under the name John Morvo. Morvo was a French architect who had built Melrose Abbey in the Scottish Borders.... except by 1832 he'd been dead the best part of a thousand years!
It was revealed that the competition entry had been drawn up by a man named George Meikle Kemp - he wasn't an architect, and didn't have any formal training in the field. He had previously been employed by the architect William Burn as a draughtsman, and had sought to be employed as an architect on a number of building projects in Glasgow and in the Scottish Borders, but no design job ever came to fruition because of his lack of training.
Kemp revised his winning entry, and in 1838 it was confirmed that his design for a monument celebrating Walter Scott would be built in Princes Street Gardens, in Edinburgh's New Town. Construction started in 1840, with the foundation stone for the monument laid on 15 August - what would have been Scott's 69th birthday.
The Scott Monument is built of Binnie sandstone which was quarried in West Lothian. The stone was chosen because the quarry which produced it had a plentiful supply (and a lot would be needed!) but also because it was an especially oily form of sandstone, which would attract dirt and dust to the surface of the monument.
To a modern eye the building seems dirty and discoloured - even though it had an extensive clean just over a decade ago - but it is likely that the colouring of the structure today is at least partly what Kemp wanted; instead of looking new and clean, the monument would look dirty and old, which fitted with its Gothic styling and with Scott's tendency to create historical works which were in some ways exaggerated or heightened versions of Scottish history.
By early 1844 the monument was nearing completion. And then on 6 March of that year Kemp vanished after walking home from a meeting with the head builder. His body would be found five days later in the Union Canal - the circumstances which led up to his death were never fully established, and it's possible he simply stumbled and fell into the water and drowned before anyone realised he'd had an accident.
George Meikle Kemp would never see his monument to Walter Scott completed. At the time he had only just over £200 to his name, and although there was a great outpouring of grief and his funeral was well attended, his family struggled financially in the years after his death. He was buried in St Cuthbert's churchyard.
Construction of the monument was completed in the autumn of 1844, when Kemp's son - Thomas, aged just 10 years old - oversaw the placing of the final stone. It was estimated that 23 masons died during the construction project, of illnesses related to the inhalation of stone dust and its effects on their lungs. Thomas Kemp himself would die in 1853.
As well as featuring a marble likeness of Walter Scott himself - produced by John Steell, and featuring the author along with his favourite dog, named Maida - the Scott Monument features 68 figurines based on characters from Scott's books. These include fictional characters as well as those based on historical figures, such as Mary, Queen of Scots, George Heriot, Robert the Bruce, and John Knox. Different artists were responsible for the individual carvings, including John Hutchison, Amelia Hill, William Brodie and John Rhind.
Visitors to the monument can still climb the 287 steps up to the four viewing platforms, including the highest 'crows' nest' outlook point at the top of the monument - the view across the Old Town and New Town (on a good, clear day) is rather incredible, and well worth the effort! A small museum to Scott can be found on the first level. Look out also for the graffiti carved into the sandstone from Victorian-era visitors on the staircases.
(Not everybody was a fan of the monument - Charles Dickens, after visiting Edinburgh in 1847, wrote: "I am sorry to report the Scott Monument a failure. It is like the spire of a Gothic church taken off and stuck in the ground..." However, Queen Victoria did like it, and was said to have asked George Gilbert Scott to use the monument as an inspiration when he produced the Albert Memorial in London.)
The Scott Monument also features in a number of films set in Edinburgh, as well as some that aren't - notably it's one of the locations in the 2012 film adaptation of David Mitchell's time-travelling, universe-hopping sci-fi novel Cloud Atlas, and was also used by the American magician and stuntman Harry Houdini for chase sequence in a 1920s film he made called Haldane of the Secret Service, although the sequence filmed on the monument didn't make it to the final movie. (Houdini would later develop a turbulent friendship with Edinburgh-born author Arthur Conan Doyle, over the differing opinions about spiritualism).
Today the Scott Monument is operated by Edinburgh city council, and even if you don't manage to climb to its summit, it forms a fitting feature for any exploration of the city.
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