Between the designer label stores and boutique fashion shops on Edinburgh's George Street, you may notice a small building which still retains a low-key residential-looking frontage. The only obvious indication that the property is more than an original New Town townhouse is the functioning model of a lighthouse above the front door. A brass plate confirms that this is the headquarters of the Commissioners of Northern Lights, or less romantically/more formally the Northern Lighthouse Board.
From this building all the lighthouses around the coast of Scotland are managed and maintained remotely, ensuring the safety of naval vessels in the waters around the country.
Recently I had the pleasure of spending a week in a former lighthouse keeper's cottage, at the Covesea Skerries Lighthouse, near Lossiemouth on the Moray firth. The cottages are now managed by the National Trust for Scotland as holiday cottages, and the lighthouse makes for an attractive and unusual location for a short Highlands holiday.
The Covesea lighthouse, like many of the lighthouses around Scotland, was designed and built by one of the most significant engineering families of the nineteenth century, the Stevensons, whose family home was in Edinburgh.
The Covesea lighthouse was constructed slightly against the better judgement of the Northern Board of Lighthouses, who felt an installation on the Moray coast wasn't necessary, despite 16 vessels being lost to storms in the month of November 1826 alone. Public opinion weighed on the side of the sailors, and the site at Covesea was chosen for the lighthouse, which opened in 1846.
Alan Stevenson, the designer and engineer who was responsible for the construction of Covesea, as well 12 other lighthouses, was the uncle of novelist Robert Louis Stevenson. Robert chose not to follow the family line into engineering, instead pursuing a career in law before becoming famous for his literary works.
The Covesea lighthouse was finally decommissioned in 2012 after over 160 years service. Alan Stevenson is buried alongside other members of the Stevenson lighthouse family in Edinburgh's New Calton burial ground.
Robert Louis Stevenson (notably) rests in peace 10,000 miles away on a Samoan island in the Pacific Ocean, having continued his family's connection with the high seas on a more landward basis...
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This weekend - May 17th - marks 398 years to the day since James VI made his historic homecoming visit to Edinburgh. It was the last time he would see his the city of his birth, and the first time he had returned to Scotland since the union of the crowns in 1603.
Having sworn to remain faithful to Scotland, and to make regular visits back here during his reign as king of England, James had reneged on his promises and returned here a virtual stranger to his home. Nevertheless great efforts were made for his visit, with a grand celebratory banquet which cost over £6,333 - equivalent to over £1m in today's money.
The banquet was likely only for invited guests and council members, but the list of produce purchased (and served) included:
Drinking and public dancing were the order of the day, though it's astonishing anyone had the energy for dancing after that big buffet...
A new panel portrait of James was created for the Netherbow Port, the grandest gateway into Edinburgh, complete with ornate gold decoration, and at Edinburgh Castle a special renovation had been undertaken for the occasion.
A suite of new apartments had been constructed to commemorate the king's visit, and the small room in which James had been born to Mary, Queen of Scots, had been redecorated with new panelling detailing the king's heraldic coat of arms, and the historic dates from his reign as king of England and Scotland. This decorative panelling is still visible to visitors to the Castle today.
So take a walk in royal footsteps this weekend, and see the city as James VI would have done, before he returned to London to live out the rest of his reign.
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Calton Hill in the centre of Edinburgh is worthy of note for at least two reasons. Not only is it one of the most accessible and significant historical sites in the city, it's also one of the best places from which to view Edinburgh itself.
The easiest way to access Calton Hill is to follow Princes Street to the junction with North Bridge (at the Balmoral Hotel) and then continue walking onto what becomes Waterloo Place. At the end of the row of Georgian buildings on the left hand side is a set of steps which will take you straight up off the road to the top of Calton Hill. It's well worth the short climb, especially on a bright, clear day, as the views from the top of the hill are unparalleled, giving you a 360-degree panorama across the city and beyond, with especially fine views northwards, over the Firth of Forth to Fife (try saying that after a few sherries!).
The top of Calton Hill is dominated by the columned structure, known popularly as Edinburgh's Disgrace, but formally called the National Monument. In a deliberate attempt to reflect the iconic Parthenon atop the acropolis in Athens, Greece (and helping to give Edinburgh its nickname the Athens of the North), this was intended to be a large chambered hall commemorating the lives (and deaths) of Scottish soldiers in the Napoleonic wars of the eighteenth century.
The monument was designed jointly by William Henry Playfair (who also designed the National Gallery buildings on Princes Street) and Charles Cockerell, and construction on the monument started in 1822, with the laying of a foundation stone by King George IV. A public subscription was set up to raise the estimated £42,000 required to pay for the monument. After sixteen months, a total of £16,000 had been raised, and in 1826 construction began in earnest. Unfortunately, public support for the monument fell, along with the much-needed funds, and the monument was abandoned, unfinished and incomplete. Thus its nickname, Edinburgh's Disgrace.
The other large building on Calton Hill is the City Observatory, set up in 1776 for the study and observation of astronomy. It was used primarily by students at the university, but also held public seminars and evenings designed to educate and enlighten the masses. Elizabeth Short, the daughter of the observatory's founder, would eventually establish an observatory and outlook tower on Castlehill, which survives today as the Camera Obscura.
Other monuments on Calton Hill include the Nelson Monument, designed to resemble an upturned telescope as a tribute to Admiral Nelson, who had commanded the victorious British naval forces in the battle of Trafalgar. At the top of the tower is a tall mast, on which sits a dark coloured sphere. This functions as a time signal, intended to convey to the ships in the port at Leith the correct time, for them to set their chronometers.
From 1861 this time ball ran in tandem with the one o'clock gun from Edinburgh Castle, providing both a visual and an auditory signal (especially helpful on the days when low cloud obscured the mast from view). The ball continues to function today, and can be observed at one o'clock every day except Sundays.
You'll also see the Dugald Stewart monument, a memorial to the Scottish philosopher Dugald Stewart, and, lower down the hill, in the Old Calton Burial Ground, an obelisk to the political martyrs who were punished with transportation for life (being shipped to Australia) for their outspoken thoughts on a controversial democratic political system which would allow the common man to vote.
A lesser-known (and less visible) feature of Calton Hill is the mausoleum of Herman Lyon, a Jewish dentist who came to the city in 1795. At the time, being one of the first Jewish migrants to settle in the city, Lyon found there was no dedicated Jewish burial ground, and petitioned the city council to sell him a plot of land for him to use as a family mausoleum. The council granted him space on Calton Hill for the princely sum of £17, and today Lyon and his wife are buried in an underground mausoleum that is hidden from view beneath the observatory, its entrance concealed by undergrowth.
Calton Hill serves as one of the best place from which to view Edinburgh, with its uninterrupted views along the full length of the Royal Mile, from palace to castle, and from Arthur's Seat right around past the Pentland Hills, and over to Fife. A worthy daytime destination for any visitor, though you would be advised to avoid the area at night as it has a less savoury reputation after dark.
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