Experiencing the Past, Present and Future of Scotland on Calton Hill

The connection that Calton Hill has with the past and future of the city has allowed it to influence the culture of the city in the present in a powerful way.

As the home to various icons that represent important aspects of Scottish culture, Calton Hill in Edinburgh allows visitors to connect with the country in a very real manner. The National Monument, the Nelson Monument and the Dugald Stewart Monument connect visitors to this past, while the City Observatory and stunning views of the city provide viewers with an equally powerful way to interact with the present and future.

Calton Hill allows visitors to interact with numerous monuments, which enables a variety of experiences. These interactions have created a powerful economic and cultural impact for the site and the city as a whole. It’s an influence that resonates in different ways for different visitors, and it’s set to become even more powerful very soon.

A History of Scotland in Monuments 

In 1724, the Town Council of Edinburgh purchased Calton Hill, establishing it as one of Britain’s first public parks. In 1775, Scottish philosopher David Hume lobbied the Council to build a walk ‘for the health and amusement of the inhabitants’, and what became known as the “Hume Walk” became one of the first public walking routes to be created in Britain.

The Nelson Monument was built between 1807 and 1815 to commemorate Vice Admiral Horatio Nelson’s victory at the Battle of Trafalgar. The monument is designed in the form of an upturned telescope. It contains a public viewing gallery that provides visitors with a 360-degree look at Edinburgh.

The National Monument of Scotland is the country’s national memorial to the Scottish soldiers and sailors who died fighting in the Napoleonic Wars. The monument was intended to be a replica of the Parthenon in Athens. Construction on it began in 1826, although it was never completed after running out of funds. There have been various proposals to see it completed, none of which have gained traction.

The Dugald Stewart Monument is a memorial to the Scottish philosopher Dugald Stewart. Completed in 1831, the design is based on the ancient Greek Monument of Lysicrayes in Athens. W.H.Playfair, one of Scotland’s most eminent early 19th century architects, designed the monument that now serves as one of Edinburgh’s most recognizable icons.

Other monuments on Calton Hill include the Playfair Monument and Portuguese Canon, but the Old City Observatory and Old Observatory House represent important attractions that bridge the past and future. The Old Observatory House was built by James Craig between 1776 and 1793 while the Old City Observatory was inspired by a Greek temple of the Four Winds and designed by William Henry Playfair in 1818. Both buildings are in the midst of being refurbished, at which point the Observatory complex will become a world-class contemporary visual arts space, commissioning important new work by local and international practitioners.

Access and activity at these various monuments will be augmented in the near future, but those developments will only expand upon the experiences that visitors have been able to have on Calton Hill for a long time.

The Past, Present and Future of Edinburgh

The most striking thing about being on Calton Hill is the incredible views it provides of the city of Edinburgh and surrounding countryside. From this vantage point, Edinburgh Castle, The Forth, Castle Rock and Arthur’s Seat are just a few of the iconic sights that are instantly recognizable.

Visitors can climb to the top of the Nelson Monument to get an even better vantage point for all of these sights and plenty more. From the top of the Nelson Monument, it’s possible to see all the way out to Burntisland, which sits on the other side of the North Sea.

The scenery is just part of the appeal though, as visitors are able to have up close and personal interactions with monuments like the Portuguese Canon, which was captured by the British during their invasion of Burma in 1885 as well as with the National Monument, where visitors are seemingly neither encouraged nor discouraged to climb right upon it. The Hume Walk goes all the way around the hill, and while it turns into the Regent Walk on the south side of the path, visitors are able to see and visit every attraction via this path, which includes the North Viewpoint as well as Parliament Cairn, a monument commemorating the “yes, yes” vote in favor of establishing a Parliament in 1999.

As notable as these attractions are, what’s especially significant for visitors is the fact that so many other notable landmarks tied to different eras of the city are in walking distance of Calton Hill. Holyrood Abbey is near the foot of the hill, which represents an important link to the city’s past. The headquarters of the Scottish Government is less than a mile from the center of Calton Hill, which allows visitors to actually witness how Scotland is operating today. The old Royal High School also sits at the base of the Hill, and while efforts to see the space transformed have so far not met with success, it’s clear that the site will play an important role in the future of the city.

The ability to take in so much of the past, present and future in a single area is practically unmatched, but the fact that all of these places enable such distinct experiences is what makes them so compelling. Visitors are free to quickly visit each or take their time to capture as many pictures and as much of the legacy as they choose. Their ability to choose when and how to visit all of these attractions is an essential aspect of the experience.

Access to Calton Hill is not restricted in any manner, but that doesn’t mean there are not significant economic opportunities that are designed to provide visitors with a more complete experience.

Revenue Opportunities on Calton Hill

Many of the direct revenue opportunities that have been enabled on Calton Hill are centered on the City Observatory Complex, where a subterranean gallery space and restaurant are being created. Once complete, fees can be charged for access to different areas of the complex, and certain areas will be able to be rented out for private parties and events.

The Nelson Monument charges a fee to ascend to the observatory deck, and has different opening and closing hours of operation which vary depending on the time of year. None of the other monuments on Calton Hill charge a fee for access.

The indirect economic impact these monuments have enabled is evident in the gift shops throughout the city, where everything from postcards to magnets to pieces of clothing feature depictions of some or all of these monuments. Given the plethora of shops and stores that line the Royal Mile, the ability to utilize these monuments for such purposes is critical.

Allowing visitors to enjoy and experience the vast majority of what Calton Hill has to offer free of charge is undoubtedly a major aspect of the appeal of the site, but the opportunity to enhance these experiences is readily available. There is monumentous potential when it comes to creating additional options for visitors throughout Calton Hill.

While the economic potential of the monument is still being developed, the impact it has made on the culture of Edinburgh and Scotland itself is even more significant, even though it hasn’t yet been fully realized.

Combining History, Art and Contemporary Culture

With a monument dedicated to people like Dugald Stewart, different sections of the City Observatory designed by W.H.Playfair and built by James Craig along with a walking path named after David Hume, it’s impossible to ignore the sense of Scottish identity that permeates Calton Hill. This group represents the best and brightest of Scottish history, and the fact that their contributions to Scotland are celebrated and honored in such powerful ways here is not lost on residents or tourists.

The Royal Mile is one of the top tourist attractions in the city, but Calton Hill offers what many consider to be an even more authentic look at the city. The sense of identity it conveys not just in terms of the history but in terms of its position in the city is something that resonates directly and indirectly with visitors.

Calton Hill’s connection with the past of Edinburgh is evident, but the direct way it will influence the future for residents and visitors is just as apparent. Renovations to the City Observatory Complex will bring people together to engage with art, science, and Edinburgh’s heritage. Additionally, the Complex will also combine innovative artworks with the iconic heritage of the region. The City Dome features an area that shows the work of established and international artists who have not exhibited in Scotland before. This space has attracted huge numbers of visitors to the site interested in the historic building and its exhibits of contemporary culture.

The connection that Calton Hill has with the past and future of the city has allowed it to influence the culture of the city in the present in a powerful way. That culture has created a powerful legacy for the Hill, which is something that continues to evolve.

A Scottish Legacy

The legacy that Calton Hill signifies and personifies is evident in every attraction on the site, and various opportunities to further supplement this legacy are all over the place. Whether doing so would mean expanding an existing monument or installing a new one, there are various ways and approaches that could see the legacy that already exists here expanded in a powerful manner.

That’s a process that has already begun at the City Observatory Complex, which could just be the beginning of a process to see the monument evolve for the 21st century. Regardless of what else happens on Calton Hill, the Scottish legacy that’s being showcased on it is one that is firmly rooted in the past of the region with an eye toward how its future will be realized.

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Jeremiah Karpowicz

Jeremiah Karpowicz always envisioned a career as a screenwriter, but found the autonomy and freedom he was looking for in the digital space. He has created articles, videos, newsletters, ebooks and plenty more for various communities as a contributor and editor. Get in touch with him on Twitter.