Edinburgh Video Guide: Scott Monument

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The latest in our series from Rury Mason at Edinburgh Video Guide looks at the history of the city’s Scott Monument and takes in the sweeping views of the city from its peak.

DOMINATING the Edinburgh skyline, the Scott Monument is perhaps the world’s greatest memorial to a writer, with stunning views from its upper reaches lending further credence to that claim.

Picture: Jane Barlow

Picture: Jane Barlow

Following the death of world-renowned Scots poet and novelist Sir Walter Scott in September 1832, calls to erect a major public monument in his hometown of Edinburgh were echoed up and down the country.

Fundraising for the monument began in earnest, and by spring 1836 a competition was announced for its design. Submissions ranged from the Gothic to the Grecian, with the favoured design at one point taking the form of a giant obelisk located at Edinburgh’s West End. From more than fifty entrants, two reputable Englishmen and a little-known Borders carpenter filled the top three positions in the race to secure the prize of a 50 guineas premium. The carpenter, who had submitted a Gothic-inspired design, felt that his relatively poor reputation as an architect would hinder his chances, and opted to use the moniker John Morvo – a medieval mason of Melrose Abbey – rather than offer his real name: George Meikle Kemp. It appears to have been an apt choice for this particular project, as Sir Walter Scott had published works using pseudonyms himself at various points during his career.

After Kemp lost the initial vote, finishing third behind the two Englishmen, the committee had a change of heart and demanded that all three architects produce extra drawings. Kemp obliged, and after much deliberation from the committee his refined design was accepted on 28 March 1838.

Kemp’s final design was a colossal 61m high Gothic spire (lending much of its look to that of the aforementioned Melrose Abbey), complete with viewing platforms and space underneath for a suitably larger than life replica of Sir Walter. Its intended location had originally been Charlotte Square, but the committee soon realised that a more prominent site would have to be chosen if the monument was to be seen to the best advantage. Its eventual location on the south side of Princes Street was deemed far more favourable.

Located 16m below Princes Street, the foundation stone for the monument was laid on August 15 1840 to mark what would have been Scott’s 69th birthday. After an Act of Parliament gave the green light, construction on the Scott Monument commenced in 1841 and would last almost four years. Sadly, Kemp would be cruelly denied the chance to witness the completion of his magnificent creation.

Death of G.M. Kemp

One dark, foggy evening in March 1844, George M Kemp was making his way back to his home at Jordan Lane, Morningside when he accidentally stumbled into the Union Canal and drowned.

Kemp, 49, had been visiting the offices of one of the monument’s main contractors close to the canal basin on Lothian Road. Following the meeting, he was thought to have blindly made his way through the pea souper across Semple Street towards the main stretch of the canal. He was reported missing for 5 days before his body was finally recovered from the thick mud. Kemp’s hat, still attached by cord to his coat, revealed his whereabouts.

Explanations as to how Kemp perished vary, though one account alludes to his considerable swimming ability while making the uncomfortable suggestion that, not only had he become ‘addicted to habits of intemperance’, he was clearly intoxicated the night he’d gone missing.

Kemp was later interred at St Cuthbert’s graveyard in sight of his Gothic masterpiece at the other end of Princes Street. It is reported that large crowds thronged the streets to mark his passing.

Kemp’s large tombstone can still be found today. Elements of it bear a striking resemblance to some of the Scott Monument’s design features.

Opening ceremony

The inauguration ceremony of the Scott Monument was undertaken on 15 August 1846 to a “sea of people, stretching the length of East Princes Street Gardens”. The structure had been effectively complete since the Autumn of 1844 when George M Kemp’s son Thomas has placed the final stone, but the official opening was delayed while Sir John Steell, the famous sculptor, finished its centrepiece: A more than double life-sized statue of Sir Walter Scott and his beloved hound, Maida, cut from the finest Carrara marble sourced from northern Tuscany. The total cost of the finished monument was reported to be more than £15,000. It proved to be money well spent too, as Edinburgh’s citizens enjoyed spectacular views of the centre of their city that had not been possible before. The monument’s 64 statues, located in niches around the structure, depict characters from Sir Walter Scott’s poems and novels and were not completed until the late 1800s.

Present day

An extensive restoration plan during the 1990s saw the defunct Binny Quarry in West Lothian reopen so that remedial work could be undertaken on the historic Scott Monument using the same stone.

The monument continues to attract huge numbers of visitors to its upper platforms much as it has done for almost 170 years. A certificate of achievement is rewarded to those determined (and slender) enough to tackle its narrow stairwell of 287 steps.

• Words by David McLean of Lost Edinburgh and video by Rury Mason of Ediburgh Video Guide