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Things to do in Edinburgh : Visit the Monuments on Calton Hill

Updated on August 23, 2013

Things to do in Edinburgh : Visit the Monuments on Calton Hill

The most obvious places to visit in Edinburgh are of course Edinburgh Castle and the Palace of Holyroodhouse.

You may also wish to visit the many museums in the city such as the National Museum of Scotland and the National Gallery as well.

But scores of tourists will enjoy a stroll up the Calton Hill to enjoy the historic monuments up there and also to savour the superb views.

The hill lies only a few minutes walk from the city centre and the city tour bus will even drop you right off at the entrance gates. Here are short descriptions of the attractions on Calton Hill.

For brevity we will concentrate on monuments at the summit of the hill. Other attractions, such as those in the Old Calton Cemetery, will be reviewed elsewhere.


The Nelson Monument
The Nelson Monument | Source

The Nelson Monument

A circular signal tower completed in 1815 to celebrate the famous naval victory at Trafalgar by Vice-Admiral Horatio Nelson 10 years previously.

Designed by architect Robert Burn from Craigleith sandstone it resembles a telescope and is 106 feet high.

Inside there are 170 steps to the top of the tower which you can climb for panoramic views over the city.

It has a masthead sitting on top with a a huge black time-ball weighing 19 stone which was added in 1852.

Just before one o'clock the ball is mechanically raised to the topgallant and then dropped in sequence with the firing of the one o'clock gun across the valley at Edinburgh Castle.

These are visible and audible signals that allowed ships anchored on the Forth Estuary to synchronise their chronometers with accuracy.

Every year on the 21st October the anniversary of the Battle of Trafalgar is commemorated with Naval flags hung from the monument. They signal the message "England expects every man to do his duty" which was Nelson's command to his sailors at the battle in 1805.

The City Observatory

This building dates from 1818, it was designed by William Henry Playfair and inspired by Greek architecture. However the pedimented pavilion of the Observatory grounds is Tuscan Doric in design.

It was originally built for the Astronomical Institution and was officially named the 'Royal Observatory of King George IV'. One of it's principal objectives was to provide accurate time by measuring the transit of stars through the meridian.

After 1895 however the Astronomer Royal had departed the building as the pollution of Victorian Edinburgh interfered with the stargazing. The city then took over responsibility for the Observatory.

Some of the original instruments are still retained by Edinburgh Musuems. These include the famous Frauenhofer transit telescope from the 1830s and also the McEwan photo-visual telescope made by Thomas Cooke and presented to the Observatory in 1896.

City Observatory from the Nelson Monument
City Observatory from the Nelson Monument | Source

Old Observatory House

Completed in 1792 after 16 years work and designed by James Craig it was built for Thomas Short.

The latter was the optician who founded an original Edinburgh Observatory in 1776 after returning from London with a telescope and other instruments.

However, the ambitious project ran out of money in 1788 and the building was taken over by the city. Unfortunately over the many decades it ran into disrepair with dry-rot setting in leading it to be placed on the danger list.

Consequently a restoration programme was commenced in 2007 to save the building. A combined team of skilled tradesmen and enthusiastic volunteers revived Observatory House to its former glory.

Therefore today it has been returned to its iconic status as a Gothic-style building of importance with a vantage point that looks down onto Leith Walk. It serves as a commercial premises as it is now a holiday home with space to sleep eight people. A very popular attraction as it offers guests a privileged view over the city.

The National Monument

Construction of the National Monument began in 1826 to a design by William Henry Playfair and C. Cockerel. The original intention was to recreate a copy of the Greek Parthenon in Athens and was to serve as a tribute to the fallen of the Napoleonic Wars. On completion it would have been a large church built over catacombs where tombs would accommodate the war dead.

However it was never completed because the money ran out after only three years and construction never recommenced. The fiasco caused a scandal in Georgian Edinburgh perhaps worsened by the need to borrow money from Glasgow to help with funding.

Therefore there are two unofficial titles for this monument. One is 'Edinburgh's Folly' pinpointing where the blame lay but then the other more scathing nickname of 'Scotland's Disgrace' reflecting the national shame of the travesty.

However it still to this day enjoys some popularity and is one of the landmarks of the city centre. On a warm dry day people enjoy sitting around underneath the bare portico. Children on the other hand take delight in running and jumping around its steps and hiding behind the huge Doric pillars. The National Monument can take on a new life each day

The National Monument in the Edinburgh Sunset
The National Monument in the Edinburgh Sunset | Source

The Playfair Monument

From 1829 and built by the prolific architect William Henry Playfair for his uncle Professor John Playfair.

It is said to resemble a more modest version of the Lion Tomb at Knidos which is in Turkey.

But it really recalls the halycon days of the 18th century era of the great Scottish Enlightenment

Specifically the intellect and dedication of the academics at Edinburgh University.

Also the city itself was well-renowned for its leadership in mathematics and the sciences. Professor Playfair was one such man with an esteemed position in the mathematical community of learned men. He taught his students with a verve and enthusiasm that was said to be magnetic among the audience.

How appropriate then that the monument has a rectilinear style in keeping with its mathematical inspirations.

Plaque of Saint Wolodymyr the Great

A small plaque with a relief portrait to Saint Wolodymyr the Great of the Ukraine. (Also described as 'Vladimir')

This is located on the rock face next to the steps that climb up Calton Hill.

Because it may be a little obscured by vegetation it can go unseen from the eyes of visitors who are passing on their way up.

Saint Wolodymyr was credited with establishing Christianity in Russia.

He lived from 956-1015 A.D. and ruled from the Baltic to the Black Sea.

The memorial was erected by the 'Ukrainians in Scotland' Society in 1998.

It serves to commemorate 1,000 years of Christianity in the Ukraine. There is also actually a Ukrainian Catholic Church in the north of the city in the Leith area.

Monument to Dugald Stewart

Dating from 1831 and designed by Playfair it was a tribute to Dugald Stewart who was the tutor of morals to many of the wealthy and famous. This included Lord Palmerston.

It is based on Lysicrates Choragic Monument in Athens and yet another example of Edinburgh's love of classical architecture. It was commissioned by the Royal Society of Edinburgh.

Born in 1753 Stewart was another leading figure in the Scottish Enlightenment and the eloquence and style of his writing made him a popular figure with a wide readership. He continued the tradition of 'common-sense' philosophy that originated from Thomas Reid.

His monument enjoys a prime location on the western edge of Calton Hill and is therefore much photographed because of its backdrop of the city centre.

The monument to Dugald Stewart overlooking Princes Street
The monument to Dugald Stewart overlooking Princes Street | Source

The Calton Hill area is certainly worth a visit if you are in Edinburgh. On a clear day you will enjoy fantastic views all over the city and beyond.

Immediately to the south is the impressive dolerite sill of the Salisbury Crags moulded from volcanic rock over 340 million years ago. Just behind that you will see many tiny figures atop the peak of Arthur's Seat as the hill-range is called.

From the foot of Arthur's Seat stretching west you can follow the line of the Royal Mile as it ascends up towards Edinburgh Castle. And you will also have magnificent views of Princes Street and the gardens that decorate the valley between the Old Town and the New Town of the city

Further to the east you will see the Forth Estuary as it flows out past the fields of East Lothian and towards the North Sea. On the other side to the south-west are the Pentland Hills which lie just outside the city.

Of course all this will depend on that capricious phenomenon known as the Scottish weather. If you are ever in Edinburgh for a day-trip then I hope the skies are kind to you.


Calton Hill with the Forth River in the background



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    • Shinkicker profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago from Scotland

      That's right Stella

      Bad organisation. They tried to build it during a post-war recession. Not a good idea.

      Thanks for stopping by :-)

    • StellaSee profile image


      7 years ago from California

      I love the view from Calton Hill it's so gorgeous! So that was the National Monument...I was wondering what that greek temple thing was doing there..too bad they ran out of funds!

    • Shinkicker profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago from Scotland

      Thanks John

      Great men David Hume and Adam Smith, much honoured in the city.

      All the best

    • John Sarkis profile image

      John Sarkis 

      7 years ago from Los Angeles, CA

      Great hub.

      Thanks for showing me where David Hume and Adam Smith use to hang out... Lovely photos - voted up



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