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.
Explore more of Edinburgh with my private city walking tours!
Edinburgh Expert Walking Tours is run by Gareth, an adopted native of Edinburgh, with over 20 years experience of living and working in the city...
Search the blog archive...
© COPYRIGHT GARETH DAVIES 2014-20