Edinburgh peaks: Calton Hill

You know, they really should re-name it to Carlton Hill, as that is what I keep typing. That said, Calton Hill is one of the main peaks in Edinburgh, with two remnants of extinct volcanoes, Arthur’s Seat and Castle Hill. I will likely write a separate post about Salisbury Crags someday even thought it is part of the same range as Arthur’s Seat, as well as Castle Hill, beyond the castle itself. But today, it’s all about Calton Hill.

The weather in Scotland has been far nicer than I was lead to believe. It has hardly rained at all since I got here, and the Friday I explored Calton Hill was another cool but superbly sunny days we’ve enjoyed in recent weeks. I just couldn’t sit inside but had to go climb a hill. Calton Hill is almost encircled by three “terraces”, a continuous loop of a road made up of Royal Terrace, Carlton Terrace and Regent Terrace.

View of the observatory, under renovation, from Nelson’s Monument

These buildings were built in early 19th century as part of an extension of the New Town part of Edinburgh. I entered the hill area from almost due East, right at the bend in the terrace row, and continued west to try and find a way to the top of the hill. I passed by the Robert Burns monument, which you couldn’t climb, unlike the one in Ayr. I couldn’t even see an entry to it, but had to just admire it from behind a cast iron fence. There is a US consulate at the western end of the terrace which was surprisingly, if pleasantly, lacking in uniformed men with machine guns.

I finally found a way to the top of the hill and first approached the Dugald Stewart Monument to capture the iconic views of Edinburgh with the monument in the foreground and the city extending beyond (see featured image). I was a little late in the day, though, as the sun had already swung south. For optimal lighting conditions an early morning would likely be better, which leaves the sun behind you as you look toward town center. It was a fantastic view, however, a 360 ° panorama of blue skies, rolling hills and historical buildings. Alas, the City Observatory was under renovation when I visited, and behind a mesh fence. I will have to visit it once it re-opens. Apparently there will be a roof top restaurant there once it is completed.

The monuments on top of Calton Hill celebrate some of the most renown men (women need not apply, apparently) of Scotland and were mainly built between 1815 and 1830s in a fit of Greek Revival. Dugald was a philosopher and mathematician, Nelson, a hero in the Napoleon wars and Burns, of course the national poet. The National Monument was dedicated to the Scottish soldiers who died in the Napoleonic wars, like Nelson did.

View of Arthur’s Seat and Holyrood Palace from near the Nelson Monument

After admiring the view from the Old Observatory House, overlooking Dugald Monument and the city, I swung by the National Monument, which was constantly crawling with tourists posing for the perfect shot. The monument was supposed to be a grand replica of the Parthenon (what did I say, Greek Revival), but it was left unfinished as funds ran out in 1829. It caused a bit of an uproar, but these days it is just accepted as it is. And it is quite impressive.

Actually, it’s not really meant to be climbed, as the pedestal is so high that many people need a bit of a boost to get up there, but many still do. Fun fact: the foundation stone was laid by George IV during his visit to Scotland in 1822. As he was the one who basically brought kilts back into vogue, I regard him fondly.

I then headed to the Nelson Monument. Built in 1815, it’s one of the oldest buildings still standing on Calton Hill. There’s a darling cast iron turnstile, guarded by a bit grumpy but in the end kindly gate keeper, who takes your fiver to climb the tower. He pressed some secret lever to let me in the turnstile. The inside of the tower was white washed stone, with an increasingly narrowing winding staircase with 143 steps to the top. The periodical narrow windows had encouraging messages printed on them “Keep going”, “Half way” and “Almost there”. The narrow wooden door had a funny afterthought of “it” written beside it (in lower case). The views were worth the climb, as they so often are. The monument is perfectly aligned with Princes Street and you get a good view of the length of the street from on up, as well as all the major monuments in Edinburgh.

By sheer dumb luck, when I got down from the tower and glanced again at the information boards in the entrance hall, I was reminded of the Time Ball that drops every day at 1 pm. Dumb luck, I say, as it was at that point 12:57 pm. I hurried outside, and found a good spot just next to the National Monument. And lo behold, the 800 kg zinc covered wood ball was already hoisted to the top of the short pole at the top, and soon enough dropped to signal that 1 pm had indeed struck. To reinforce the message, the one o’clock gun fired at the same time at Edinburgh Castle, for those not within visual range of the Time Ball. I then returned back to the Nelson Monument to browse the little exhibition on Nelson at the base of the tower.

On my way down I stumbled upon the Old Calton Cemetery opposite the road from the south west corner of the hill. The cemetery is the first still-standing development on Calton Hill, and dates to early 18th Century. The three most interesting monuments in the cemetery are a tomb for philosopher David Hume, the Political Martyrs’ Monument and a monument to the Scottish American soldiers who fought in the American Civil War. I recognized Abraham Lincoln, who topped the monument, immediately. Apparently it is the only statue of Lincoln in Scotland. The Hume tomb (it rhymes!) is the circular tower in the photo below, and the top of the obelisk that is the martyrs’ monument peaks out just next to it.

The five martyrs so remembered were sentenced to deportation to Australia in 1793 for the audacity of saying wouldn’t it be nice if women also had the right to vote. For the poor, pale Scots and Brits so deported, the harsh sun in Australia would have been a punishment, and all out of sun lotion to boot.

Jokes aside, at least they got to keep their heads unlike many other historical political prisoners. I rather enjoyed good old Down Under, but the conditions were much harsher those days. This was only six years after the first ships full of convicts landed in Botany Bay. They were woefully inept at farming, with little food left over from the long journey, and they were dying like flies from starvation and illnesses. I like to think the aborigines watching the British with a bowl of popcorn (or the equivalent at the time), exclaiming over what the silly idiots were up to. Of course it all turned typically awful when the white men who had invaded (sorry, colonised) a country populated by natives began to think it was their land. See, Native Americans, History of.

Well, this blog post just went off on a tangent, so I better stop here. But I think this is the great thing about Edinburgh, Scotland and UK at large. You encounter so much history just on a pleasant stroll up a nearby hill that you can spend the rest of the day wikipeding the full story.


For a good write up of the colonisation of Australia, see e.g. this article.




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