Standing on top of Edinburgh’s Calton Hill is an exhilarating experience. It’s by far the best place to get a sweeping panoramic view of Scotland’s capital city.
There are fabulous bird’s-eye views of Edinburgh’s Old and New Towns, the Firth of Forth and the city’s docks in the far distance.
Even on a windy day when it’s bracing and blowy, the view of Arthur’s Seat more than makes up for the windswept look which you’ll find yourself sporting!
Edinburgh from above
I’ve visited Edinburgh countless times but for some reason I’ve never ventured to the top of its famous hill. In the past, I’ve been put off by the steep climb and zigzagging steps to the top.
But as I discovered this week, the walk to the top of Calton Hill is no big deal, with gentle slopes that an unfit couch potato would manage with ease. If I can make it there, anyone can.
Calton Hill is a really special place. “Of all places for a view, this Calton Hill is perhaps the best” proclaimed writer Robert Louis Stevenson in his book ‘Picturesque Notes’ in 1889, a sort of early Trip Advisor.
Once you’ve climbed to the top, the views from this World Heritage Site are a revelation. One of my friends just kept on saying ‘wow’ and was shocked that she’d never been up to the top before.
“Wow – is that Holyrood Palace… wow, isn’t that the Scottish Parliament…” – the list was endless. Not only can you see the whole city laid out before you, there are many intriguing historic monuments and follies strewn across the hill-top.
This is Edinburgh as you’ve never seen it before – its architectural glories and landscape are set our before you like a smorgasbord of riches.
Delve deeper and you’ll discover that the hill’s history is as meandering as the walkway to the top, reflecting centuries of heritage.
In the 1450s, King James II granted the land to the people of Edinburgh for tournaments, sports and warlike pursuits. He ordered the locals to practice archery every Sunday, in case of an imminent foreign invasion. Golf and football were banned to make way for ‘military’ sports.
In the 16th Century, Calton Hill was known as ‘Caldtoun’ or ‘Cold Town’, perhaps because of its exposed location? But it was during the 18th Century that the biggest developments took place with the building of Edinburgh’s stylish New Town.
The grand vision for the New Town was that of Scottish architect William Playfair who saw Edinburgh as ‘the Athens of the North’… a classical city of knowledge and enlightenment.
Playfair was responsible for designing the elegant Georgian streets that surround Calton Hill including Royal Terrace and Calton Terrace.
He was also the driving force behind the monuments on the hill-top, notably the classical style Scottish National Monument which looks like the Parthenon in Athens. It took 12 horses and 70 men to haul the massive stone columns up the hill.
It was designed to commemorate Scottish soldiers who died in the Napeoleonic wars. But the building was never finished because the money ran out, and it has been in ruins ever since.
Down the centuries it was nicknamed ‘Scotland’s National Disgrace’ but today it looks more like an archaeological ruin from ancient times.. But it offers a great photo opportunity for anyone who likes taking selfies.
From the nearby pinnacle marker there are fine views across Edinburgh’s lower Calton Hill towards the New Town and beyond to the docks and the Firth of Forth.
Take a pair of binoculars and you’ll be able to pick out specific buildings including the new Scottish Parliament at the foot of Calton Hill.
Star gazing is a very important part of the history of Calton Hill. It’s no surprise to discover an Observatory sitting on top of the hill… but it is weird to find that there have been three different ones over the centuries.
The earliest was Observatory House which dates from 1776. This early example of Gothic Revival architecture was designed by James Craig, the planning mastermind behind Edinburgh’s New Town.
It sits on a craggy outcrop like a miniature fantasy castle. It was here that Professor Thomas Henderson, the Astronomer Royal for Scotland, discovered how to measure parallax and the distance of the stars in the 1830s… a kind of early Professor Brian Cox.
Astronomy was hugely popular in the 18th and 19th centuries and it wasn’t long before the new and improved Observatory was built in 1818, designed by William Playfair, also in a classical Greek style.
Such was the appetite for astronomy that a third observatory was built in 1827 by Maria Theresa Short with a telescope and camera obscura to appeal to the general public. Sadly, this has not survived.
The City Dome with its domed roof was added in 1895 to complete a visually striking complex of buildings. It was designed by William Playfair in 1818 as a temple to the Enlightenment and scientific innovation. It was the birthplace of timekeeping in Edinburgh.
The City Dome is currently partly hidden behind a giant screen as work is underway to reinstate the original 19th Century designs, restore the grounds and create public access to the whole site.
The Collective, a visual arts group, is working with Edinburgh Council to redevelop the Observatory complex as its new home. The first phase was recently completed with the restoration of the City Dome where Collective shows the work of established and international artists.
Work is still ongoing but the entire City Observatory walled complex looks incredibly exciting. I’ll be back to visit again once it has been finished.
‘Athens of the North’
Another impressive building on Calton Hill is the Dugald Stewart Monument which offers the iconic view of old Edinburgh. This is the image which features on numerous postcards and Edinburgh tourist brochures.
For the monument, William Playfair drew inspiration from the Lysicrates on the Acropolis in Athens… and it was built in a classical style.
But who was Dugald Stewart?
It turns out that he was one of those Age of Enlightenment figures and a well-respected professor of moral philosophy at Edinburgh University in the early 1800s.
It’s an impressive monument to a man of intellect, showing how important Edinburgh thought it was to be a centre of philosophy, learning and science.
Nelson’s ‘Scottish’ Column
One of the oddest buildings on the top of Calton Hill is the Nelson Monument, a sort of alternative ‘Nelson’s Column’ shaped like an upturned telescope.
It was built to commemorate Lord Nelson who died at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805. The Monument took a decade to complete due to tricky finances… and it wasn’t completed until 1816.
The building was designed by the architect Robert Burn, and the upturned telescope may have been an allusion to Nelson’s naval career. It’s a commanding monument to one of Britain’s most famous naval commanders.
The 30 metre high column was originally designed to house a small number of disabled seamen but today it’s a tourist attraction in its own right with regular trips to the top.
From 1852 a ‘Time Ball’ on the top the monument provided a signal to seamen in Leith by which to set their clocks.
Look out for another naval symbol – the stern of a ship – projecting above the entrance. This is supposed to represent the Spanish ship, the San Joseph, one of the two vessels which Nelson captured during the Battle of Cape Vincent.
The Dark Side – Old Calton Burial Ground
If you descend down the hill to Regent Road, you’ll come across another interesting site close to the lower slopes of Calton Hill, but this isn’t a place for the faint-hearted.
The Old Calton Burial Ground dates back to 1718 and has a creepy feel with its mausoleums, elaborate graves and burial chambers. It’s the resting place of philosopher David Humes and the site of Scotland’s American Civil War Memorial.
The memorial honours the Scots who fought and died in the American Civil War – it’s easy to spot because it has a statue of Abraham Lincoln and a freed slave.
But the cemetery’s most visible feature is the obelisk which dominates the landscape – the Political Martyrs’ Monument – which was erected to honour the memory of political reformers. It is also highly visible from the top of Calton Hill. It’s a Scottish version of ‘Cleopatra’s Needle’.
It’s a fascinating grave yard with the ghosts of Edinburgh’s past writ large on every grave stone – but it’s not somewhere I’d want to hang around after dark.
On top of the volcano
It’s hard to believe that Calton Hill was once a volcano which is now extinct. Today the hill still packs an explosive punch but for different reasons.
This was one of Scotland’s first public parks created in 1724 and its architectural heritage is truly unique.
It’s hard to think of anywhere outside Athens with so many different monuments overlooking a major city.
Don’t miss a trip to this jewel in the crown of Edinburgh’s World Heritage Site – you’ll be blown away by the views, especially on a windy day!
Tammy’s Travel Guide – Edinburgh’s Calton Hill
The Calton Hill World Heritage Site lies to the east of Edinburgh’s New Town and can be accessed from either Leith Street, Regent Road/Calton Road or from the back of the Royal Mile (via the steps).
The heritage guide provides a useful guide to the walking tour of the Hill. There are also downloadable guides to the Nelson Monument and other features in the area.
Allow an hour or more for your visit to Calton Hill. After completing the walking tour, why not return down the Calton Hill stairs and explore the Royal Mile. Alternatively, head to the New Town where you’ll see the grand architectural vision of Georgian Edinburgh from street level.
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