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Calton Hill and its monuments

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Calton Hill and its monuments
Calton Hill and its monuments
Calton Hill was formed by volcanic activity 300 million years ago and its shape defined by glaciation 25,000 to 10,000 years ago.

Over the years, the hill has had many uses, including being the site of a quarry, a jousting place, an area for farming, a monastery, and a leper colony. In 1725, the City of Edinburgh bought 22 acres of land on the Hill to be a public open space, making it one of the first public parks in Scotland. Locals enjoyed the space for walking but they would also take their washing up to the summit to dry.

Calton Hill stands 100 metres above sea level and provides superb panoramic views across the city. Today, it is perhaps particularly renowned for the various monuments at its top.

The Old Observatory was the first building to be constructed at the summit. Its foundation stone was laid in 1716, but due to financial problems, the structure wasn't finished until 1792.

The building was soon judged not fit for purpose and a New, or now, City Observatory designed by William Playfair was completed in 1818. By the 1800s, the self-styled 'Athens of the North' was taking its architectural influences from ancient Greece and Playfair modelled his new observatory on the Temple of the Winds in Athens.

The Playfair Monument is dedicated to Professor John Playfair, a geologist and mathematician, who was instrumental in the project to build the New Observatory. His monument is situated in the south-east corner of the Observatory wall. It is designed by his nephew, William Playfair, in the Greek Doric style.

The Nelson Monument resembles an upturned telescope and was built to commemorate Admiral Lord Nelson. The foundation stone was laid in 1807 and building works were completed in 1816. In 1852, a time ball signal was installed for the benefit of sailors in the Forth and Leith docks who would know the exact time and enable them to calculate longitude.

The monument to Dugald Stewart was designed by William Playfair constructed between 1828 and 1832 and is based on the monument to Lysicarates on the Acropolis in Athens. Although, this monument appears regularly in townscape views of the city, it's likely that many tourists or locals, are unfamiliar with the writing or perhaps even the name of philosopher, Dugald Stewart.

An idea for a National Monument to commemorate the sailors and soldiers who died in the Napoleonic Wars was first mooted in 1816. In 1822, to the accompaniment of much pomp and ceremony, the foundation stone was laid for a replica structure of the Parthenon Temple in Athens. However, construction did not start until 1826. Sandstone used for the construction was from Craigleith Quarry and the blocks weighed between 12 and 15 tons. It's reported that it took seventy men and 12 horses to get the largest blocks to the top of hill.

The monument was supposed to be paid for entirely by public donations but funds ran out and work stopped in 1829. It's hard to imagine a completed structure today, but there have been several proposals over the years to finish the replica Parthenon design. At the time, there were many critics of the project and even now, its not shaken off the nickname, Edinburgh's 'disgrace'. A student of architecture writing about the monument in a letter to the Editor of  Edinburgh Evening Courant in the Saturday 25 July 1829 edition is quoted:
"For what a degrading opinion must strangers form of us from its present neglected state?"

Take a trip back to Georgian Edinburgh and view a 360 degree city panorama from the top of Calton Hill drawn in the 1780s.