The Athens of the North: Edinburgh’s Own Acropolis
by Duncan J.D. Smith
The monument to philosopher Dugald Stewart on Calton Hill, with Edinburgh Castle in the distance. Image: © Duncan J.D. Smith
Amongst the graves of Edinburgh’s Canongate Kirkyard is that of painter Hugh William Williams (1773–1829), who was known as ‘Grecian Williams’. It is thought that the sobriquet ‘Athens of the North’ was first applied to the Scottish capital in 1822, when Williams exhibited his watercolours of Athens alongside views of Edinburgh, and asked onlookers to see similarities between the two. At the time, Edinburgh’s New Town was being hailed as a triumph of enlightened town planning. Fittingly the backdrop to Williams’ grave is provided by the monument-topped Calton Hill, Edinburgh’s own Athenian Acropolis.
There are several ways to climb Calton Hill, the most dramatic being via the staircase on the south side, at the junction of Waterloo Place and Regent Road. Look out for the tablet embedded in the embankment wall on the right commemorating three Scottish singers (one of them is an ancestor of violinist Nigel Kennedy). The whitewashed Rock House on the left is where Robert Adamson (1821–1848) and David Octavius Hill (1802–1870) pioneered photography in Scotland.
Tablet celebrating Scottish singers on the approach to Calton Hill. Image: © Duncan J.D. Smith
Upon reaching the summit, the many and varied monuments of Calton Hill reveal themselves. First is the soot-blackened Observatory House built in 1777 to a design by New Town planner James Craig (1739–1795). A Leith optician, Thomas Short (1711–1788), commissioned the building as part of a proposed observatory but he died prior to its completion in 1792 (the observatory’s telescope would eventually be claimed by Short’s daughter, Maria, who removed it to the still-popular Camera Obscura on Castlehill).
Of the observatory proper nothing now remains since in 1818 the New Observatory designed by William Henry Playfair (1790–1857) was built on the same spot. With a cruciform plan, four temple-like porches and a dome on the roof, it was the first of several neo-Classical structures on Calton Hill reflecting the-then fashionable Greek Revival. The primary purpose of the observatory was to observe the transit of stars through the meridian thereby keeping the observatory’s clock accurate. Correct timekeeping was important at the time for navigation, and mariners would frequently bring their ships’ chronometers here for adjustment.
In 1896, underfunding forced the New Observatory (by now called the Royal Observatory) to relocate to a new site on Blackford Hill. The old buildings on Calton Hill were then refurbished and two years later reopened and renamed the City Observatory. A new stand-alone building called the City Dome, inspired by the Tower of the Winds in Athens, was erected at this time, too. Until 2009, the City Observatory was administered by the Astronomical Society of Edinburgh. Since then Edinburgh Town Council in partnership with the Collective Gallery have redeveloped the site as an exciting new arts, exhibition and leisure venue, which was unveiled in 2017.
The Nelson Monument crowning Calton Hill, with Waverley Station in the foreground. Image: © Duncan J.D. Smith
Whereas the observatories on Calton Hill were sited here for practical reasons, primarily to be above the city’s famous smog, the other monuments seen today were erected purely to exploit the dramatic aspect. The first of them, the Nelson Monument, was completed in 1816. Designed by Robert Burn (1752–1815) in the Gothic style to match that of Observatory House, it takes the form of a giant upside-down telescope. Over the entrance is the date 1805, marking the Battle of Trafalgar, and an inscription urging the people of Edinburgh to follow Nelson’s noble example. Weather permitting, the Trafalgar flag signal “England expects that every man will do his duty” is still flown here on Trafalgar Day (21st October).
In 1854 a time ball was installed at the top of the monument. Triggered by the New Observatory clock to drop precisely at 12 noon GMT on weekdays, it could be seen by shipping in the Firth of Forth. This equates to 1pm during British Summer Time, which means that for half the year the dropping coincides with the firing of the One O’Clock Gun at Edinburgh Castle. Both were once connected by a telegraph wire to ensure accuracy but today are triggered manually. The monument can be visited and offers magnificent views to those able to negotiate its 143 spiral steps.
The Parthenon-style National Monument. Image: © Duncan J.D. Smith
In a similarly patriotic vein, work commenced in 1826 on the nearby National Monument. Intended to commemorate Scottish soldiers and sailors killed during the Napoleonic Wars, its architects, William Playfair and Charles Robert Cockerell (1788–1863), envisaged a replica of the Parthenon in Athens. Unfortunately by this time the enormous cost of the building Edinburgh’s New Town had almost bankrupted the Town Council and only half the necessary funds were forthcoming. The project was abandoned in 1829 leaving only the dozen massive Doric columns seen today completed. Playfair described it as “the pride and the poverty of Scotland”, whilst others dubbed it “Edinburgh’s Disgrace”.
Around the same time as the National Monument was being built, the so-called Playfair Monument was also underway. Forming one corner of an enclosure surrounding the New Observatory, this scholarly mix of the Tomb of Theron at Agrigento and the Lion Tomb at Cnidos was designed by William Henry Playfair in memory of his uncle, the scientist and mathematician Professor John Playfair (1748–1819).
The neo-Classical Playfair Monument, with the New Observatory in the background. Image: © Duncan J.D. Smith
Calton Hill’s neo-Classical ensemble was completed in 1831 with Playfair’s graceful monument to the philosopher Dugald Stewart (1753–1828), who like the painter Hugh William Williams is buried in the Canongate Kirkyard below. It takes the form of the Choragic Monument of Lysicrates in Athens and is a favourite foreground motif of photographers keen to catch the vista from here across Princes Street to Edinburgh Castle.
Adapted from the book Only in Edinburgh: A Guide to Unique Locations, Hidden Corners and Unusual Objects by Duncan JD Smith (published by The Urban Explorer).
Also in this series by Duncan J.D. Smith:
About the Author
Explorer and travel writer Duncan JD Smith first got the history bug when his grandfather unearthed the grave of a Roman soldier. He opened his own museum aged eleven and went on to study archaeology at Birmingham. After many years in travel publishing, in 2003 he relocated to Vienna, where he writes and publishes his Only In Guides, a series of city guides for independent cultural travellers. Duncan is a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society. www.duncanjdsmith.com and www.onlyinguides.com.