A glimpse into the history of Edinburgh

When I visited Calton Hill the other day, I saw a photo of a drawing in the little exhibition in Nelson’s Column that piqued my interest. It sent me on a nice little diversion, which I had intended to include in my blog post about the hill but the post got too long. So I hope you have an interest in history, as we’re going for a ride.

The rabbit hole I went into was about trying to date a drawing of the view from Calton Hill by comparing it to the current view. The drawing is below :

Looks quite similar to what it does today. Much of Edinburgh was built before the 20th Century and both the Old and the New Town are protected under UNESCO’s World Heritage Site. But some things have changed since the drawing.

To compare with what it looks like today, see below a photo I took from the top of Nelson monument. Trees obscure the view today from the spot where the above was drawn. The angle is thus a little different, but you see the same vista, with the Dugal Monument on the right, Princes Street in the middle and the castle in the background. Hop below to see a run down of the differences.

See? The North Bridge in the drawing is still the old, stone one, stretching on the left hand side, horizontally. Also, one of the most famous landmarks is still missing in the drawing: The Balmoral Hotel. As the old North Bridge stood until 1896, and the Balmoral was opened in 1902, we have our upper time window.

The Ramsay Garden, the distinct white and red buildings just below the castle aren’t there yet in the picture, and they were built in 1890, which narrows our window down by almost a decade.

What about the earliest date the drawing could have been done? The building in the left bottom corner is the Old Calton Jail, but as that existed between 1817 and 1934 it’s of not much use in helping us date the drawing. The current building houses the Scottish Government. What else? In the same corner, the column

The artist, David Roberts. From his wikipedia page.

just behind the jail/government building is the Political Martyr’s Monument at the old cemetery, and it was erected in the 1840s. The Scott Monument was built around the same time, and it is shown in both views. Now we’re getting closer.

Anything else to narrow it down? That building behind and left of the Scott Monument (which is hidden behind the Balmoral Hotel in the photo) is the Scottish National Gallery, which was built in the 1850s. So now we have narrowed it down to between 1850 and 1890. Hm, what about the artist, D. Roberts? He turned out to be David Roberts who died in 1863, so that places our drawing probably to the 1850s. I’m fine with that estimate. His paintings are definitely worth a look, so follow the link from his name to see lots of paintings of Edinburgh, but also e.g. of Venice.

Closer examination might have brought some clue about the exact year of building, but it’s difficult to figure it our from two low res photos. But it was a fun game. I love paintings and drawings that show what places looked like in the past. Speaking of Venice, I remember being at a museum somewhere, looking at a Canaletto painting of Venice and realizing I could see the street on which I had stayed on when I was there, in a painting that was almost three hundred years old.

In historical cities change comes slowly. And that is why we all love them.


Source for the featured image, a map of Edinburgh in 1850:


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