The Camera Obscura and Outlook Tower - Edinburgh's Oldest Purpose-Built Visitor Attraction
With so much focus on tourism in the city of Edinburgh, it's perhaps easy to forget that the city wasn't built as a visitor attraction - it was a living, functioning city (and still is) which began to attract visitors in the late eighteenth- and early nineteenth centuries. The Royal Mile, for example, only became known by that name around 1901 - before that it was (as it still is, officially) five separately named streets which connected the castle and the palace.
But with the rise of tourism in the Victorian period the city began to work to accommodate visitors and provide experiences catered to them. The holy wells of Holyrood Park weren't visitor attractions as such, although they were the main draw for pilgrims for centuries, and St Bernard's Well - a mineral spring in the New Town - became a destination for high status visitors who had the means to travel in the late eighteenth century.
The coach service to and from London which started in the 1630s brought travellers to the city for business and (later) pleasure, but it wasn't until the rise of the railways in the 1840s that there was any kind of easy, affordable means for ordinary, working people to be able to access travel.
The visit of King George IV in 1822 was a huge state occasion which can be seen as one early inspiration for people to travel to Scotland for pleasure, and Queen Victoria followed in her uncle's footsteps and fell in love with Scotland in the 1840s, purchasing the Balmoral estate and spawning the appeal of the Highlands among visitors.
But in terms of Edinburgh, the oldest purpose-built visitor attraction is actually the Camera Obscura on Castlehill, which continues to operate as an attraction purely for the purpose and pleasure of drawing visitors to Edinburgh.
The building of the Camera Obscura itself has origins as a residential property back in the seventeenth century, which has been substantially extended and developed. But for the attraction itself we can look back as far as 1776, when an Edinburgh optician and astronomer leased land on the top of Calton Hill in order to open a building displaying his instruments to the general public.
Thomas Short had inherited a number of telescopes crafted by his brother James, and gave early public demonstrations of them, allowing students to get up close and personal with the stars. He had commissioned James Craig to construct an observatory building to house his collection, the remnants of which still stand at the top of Calton Hill today.
Short died in 1788, leaving a stipulation in his will that no female heir of his could inherit either the property on Calton Hill, or its contents. Short's original observatory eventually closed in 1807, and the Royal Observatory later took over the building.
In 1827 a woman named Maria Short arrived in Edinburgh, claiming to be Thomas's daughter and making an application to become the rightful inheritor of the 'Great Telescope'. Despite opposition she was successful in her efforts to establish an observatory attraction which catered more to the general public than the scientific community.
In 1835 she opened Short's Popular Observatory, and operated it from a smaller structure adjacent to the National Monument at the top of Calton Hill. In 1851, against Maria Short's wishes, the building which housed her observatory was forcibly demolished by the city council, and she used the revenue the business had generated to buy a property on Castlehill. She added two storeys to the structure and in 1853 Short's Observatory, Museum of Science and Art opened to the public.
The main attraction of this observatory was a specially-built wooden structure at the very top of the structure which housed a camera obscura - a small aperture allowed light through a sequence of mirrors and lenses to cast an image onto a white table inside the room. Being able to rotate the camera allowed for a 360-degree view of Edinburgh and its surroundings to be shown to visitors, who gathered around the table in the darkened room and could see the city laid out before them in detail.
Maria Short died in 1869, and her husband continued running the observatory until 1892 when Patrick Geddes took over management of it and refashioned the attraction as a museum showcasing features of the natural world.
Geddes organised the exhibition over the five floors of the building, beginning on the ground floor with maps of the world and artefacts from around the globe, leading to the first floor which focused on European history and geography. Visitors then climbed further up the building to discover aspects of the United Kingdom, and up again to a display about Scotland in particular, before finally arriving at the camera obscura to look out over Edinburgh itself.
He rebranded the attraction as the Camera Obscura and Outlook Tower, and it ran successfully until his death in 1932.
After several years of ownership by the University of Edinburgh, the building was sold on again in the 1980s to the current owners.
Today it is styled as the Camera Obscura and World of Illusions, and it provides five floors of optical illusions, examples of early photography, mind-bending exhibits like a mirror maze and a vortex tunnel, and a wealth of fascinating displays to engage young and old - plus, of course, the original camera obscura which continues to provide a thrilling way of engaging with Edinburgh.
There's something special about the way the building continues to operate the kind of business its original owner established, and in particular - in this modern age of technology - that something as analogue and 'old school' as a Victorian pinhole camera can continue to draw visitors in Edinburgh, just as it did nearly two centuries ago.
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