FEATURE – The observatories on Calton Hill

Old Observatory House

Old Observatory House

Before the light-pollution of an expanding city made it impractical, Edinburgh’s Calton Hill was a perfect vantage point from which to gaze at the night sky.

Fanned by the intellectual flames of the Enlightenment, the city granted permission to Thomas Short – an Edinburgh-born optician – to found an observatory on top of the volcanic hill in 1776.

With a telescope made by his brother James (reputedly once belonging to the King of Denmark), Short took up residence in Old Observatory House, a romantic Gothic structure designed by New Town planner James Craig.

However, funds quickly dried up and the city council bought back the land – and Short’s telescope was impounded. The castellated towers of Old Observatory House were soon abandoned – as was Short’s vision for his Edinburgh observatory.

In 1811, scientific pursuits were well-established and the Edinburgh Astronomical Society was formed. Looking to Short’s previous attempts, they oversaw the building of the Edinburgh City Observatory, which opened six year later.

The town’s planners and architects were looking to create a sense of individuality for Edinburgh at the time, choosing ancient Greece as their inspiration.

The City Observatory

The City Observatory


Thus, the “Athens of the North” was born; the City Observatory, designed by William Playfair and inspired by a Greek Temple of the Four Winds, added to the ever-growing number of Grecian-style buildings which appeared in the city around this time.

Although currently closed to the public (except for special events), Edinburgh’s City Observatory is a fascinating place, where the optimism and excitement of early scientific advances can still be felt.

A small structure, it contains two areas of particular note.

The Transit Telescope

The Transit Telescope


First, the transit telescope room. Before advances in chronometers made accurate timekeeping possible, the large telescope here – aligned to the meridian – was used to track the movement of stars and other heavenly bodies across the night sky.

Astronomers were able to record precise timings from these readings, which were invaluable to the captains and pilots of ships coming in and out of Leith Docks.

Once these methods were established, sailors would travel from the docks to the observatory – carrying their chronomoters – and would set them against the ‘Politician’s Clock’ (so-called because of its two faces: one facing inward for the astronomers; the other outward-facing to allow visitors to take readings from it).

This procedure continued until 1854 and the erection of the timeball on top of the Neslon Monument; and the establishment of the One O’Clock Gun in 1861. Both of these methods of signalling the time were controlled – via electrical transmission running along wires between the buildings – from the observatory itself.


The Politician's Clock

The Politician's Clock


On the upper floor of the Observatory, housed in its distinctive dome, is another large instrument – a 6-inch Cooke Refractor. Installed in 1896 and supported by a massive stone column which runs through the building to the bedrock below, this telescope is still in operation today and provides stunning views of the night sky.

Used as an observatory by the Astronomical Society of Edinburgh until as recently as 2008, the City Observatory is now closed, long since superceded by Edinburgh’s Royal Observatory on Blackford Hill.

Old Observatory House is now undergoing renovation with a view to being converted into luxury serviced apartments; and it is hoped that the City Observatory will one day be restored to its former glory. It is also planned to use the beautiful Playfair building as a venue during 2010’s Art Festival.

This distinctive and elegant complex of buildings atop Calton Hill provide a unique glimpse back in time to Edinburgh’s architectural and scientific golden age.


So, next time you catch a glimpse of the moon above the city skyline; or hear the boom of the gun from the Castle ramparts at 1pm, take a moment to recall the ingenuity and vision of those who helped shape this fascinating part of the city into what we see today.

Full moon in the Edinburgh sky

Full moon in the Edinburgh sky

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