One of Edinburgh's most famous but neglected landmarks could soon get the TLC it so badly needs, discovers Brian Ferguson
IT IS a dramatic beauty spot offering some of the best views of Scotland's capital – and a curious collection of striking monuments and memorials. Calton Hill has long been fted for the stunning panoramas visitors can enjoy and its familiar landmarks, but it has never been far away from debate, controversy and ridicule.
One of the city's highest hills, it is a daily magnet for droves of camera-toting tourists and has inspired countless classic images of the city, from paintings to the footage of the Hogmanay celebrations beamed around the world.
Yet to many it is the great neglected jewel in Edinburgh's crown. Its scruffy appearance, neglected historical treasures, run-down memorials and reputation as a place to avoid after dark have long overshadowed its natural beauty.
However, if a new drive to restore its fortunes is successful, the park could enjoy not only a new lease of life, but boast a string of new attractions and facilities, play host to regular events and celebrations, and finally shed its somewhat unsavoury reputation. The Edinburgh World Heritage Trust, Edinburgh City Council and Edinburgh University have joined forces to kick-start a fresh bid to revitalise Calton Hill. The biggest ever research project into its historical and cultural significance, which has just been commissioned, is expected to pave the way for the creation of a new blueprint for the beauty spot's long-term future. New sculptures and works of art, a visitor centre charting the city's scientific and astronomical heritage, a bookshop, and a restaurant or caf are among the ideas under consideration.
It is also hoped major improvements to the landscape of Calton Hill and its historic burial ground will be carried out. New paths and lighting features, to improve the safety of the park while highlighting its historic features, are said to be priorities.
Closer inspection reveals the damage done by years of decay and inaction, caused by a combination of a lack of ambition, some wildly inappropriate ideas and a shortage of hard cash. The shopping list for Calton Hill runs to millions and is long and somewhat depressing. A run-down and barely-used astronomy centre; the neighbouring original observatory for the capital long closed to the public; and the half-finished National Monument, surrounded by a jungle of weeds and overgrown grass – all are in need of urgent attention.
The same can be said of the broken Calton Hill time ball, the historic timepiece in the 102-foot Nelson Monument, which currently lies redundant, despite its history as once being the only accurate way of telling the time in Edinburgh.
On the north side of the hill lies perhaps the most sorry sight of them all, the neglected former Royal High School, touted as the ideal home for the Scottish Parliament, now promoted as the perfect site for a national photography centre. The city council has backed proposals to convert the building into such a centre, although they are still awaiting approval from the Scottish Government.
The project is in honour of David Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson – widely recognised as the founding fathers of modern photography due to their pioneering work in the 1840s – who developed their skills at their Calton Hill studio.
There is little doubt Edinburgh's sobriquet as the Athens of the North is inspired by the notoriously unfinished acropolis of the National Monument, along with the striking columns of the old Royal High School and the memorial to philosopher Dugald Stewart.
Calton Hill has long been the responsibility of the city council and it is now almost three centuries since it was acquired as a public open space, from Lord Balmerino, for just 40. Few of those visiting the hill today will realise how its history is littered with intrigue and incident, from hangings and burnings, to religious ceremonies and political demonstrations.
Although thousands flock every year to modern-day spectacles such as the Beltane Fire Festival and the torchlight procession held to herald the start of the capital's Hogmanay festivities, many experts say Calton Hill is a shadow of what it could be.
Its shabby car park, lack of public toilets, poor access, run-down buildings and gloomy atmosphere once darkness falls are all expected to be addressed by an action plan mapping out recommendations for the next ten-15 years.
Dorothy Marsh, senior conservation officer at the city council, reckons it would take several million pounds to make a start to truly transform Calton Hill's fortunes, but points out important work is already underway.
"Scaffolding is already up on James Craig House, the original observatory building, so that a full programme of repairs can be carried out, and we want to do the same with William Playfair's Observatory House, which is still used every Friday by the Astronomical Society.
"We've also just had historical information boards put up around the site, which has made a big difference. But the problem with trying to do anything more ambitious at the moment is really just a lack of resources. James Craig was the architect of the New Town, but although he designed its layout, he didn't actually build many of the buildings there. The one on Calton Hill was the first building there and is the most significant surviving Craig building in the city.
"It really ought to have a good use which would ensure public access in future, such as a caf and bookshop. Observatory House would be great as some kind of science centre or visitor centre for Calton Hill. There is still a working telescope there from the 19th century and it has a fantastic collection of astronomical memorabilia, some of which provided precise time-keeping for marine navigators in the 19th century.
Terry Levinthal, director of the Scottish Civic Trust, is a long-time campaigner for improvements on the hill. While welcoming news of the major study on Calton Hill, he is also wary of what it may bring, or that it may actually delay much-needed improvements. "Perhaps there is a need for a piece of work that pulls all the various elements to do with Calton Hill together, but it really has to be some kind of programme of action, rather than any kind of management plan."
News of a review of Calton Hill's future will doubtless send a shiver down the spine of many who recall the storms of controversy that have greeted previous proposals for the beauty spot. Probably the most contentious was the "glass box", planned to be located in the shadow of the National Monument, accompanied by spectacular laser shows. The 14 million scheme was dropped after a huge outcry. A scheme to create a funicular railway linking Greenside Place with the top of Calton Hill was also abandoned.
Architectural expert Peter Wilson, of Napier University, says: "The truth is there have been endless strategies produced for Calton Hill over the years, but not an awful lot has actually happened. The council seems to have been put off doing anything since the controversy over the 'glass box' in the mid-1990s, so it's about time there was a proper strategic vision drawn up.
"The two things that would really improve Calton Hill are the creation of decent visitor facilities and bringing more life to the area at night-time.
"Calton Hill would be absolutely perfect for a first-class restaurant or caf, it would offer the best panoramic views in the city."
Nick Fiddes, who led the Save Calton Hill campaign in the mid-1990s, says: "The plans the council came up with at the time were ridiculously grandiose and over-the-top.
"Calton Hill really is a jewel in Edinburgh's crown and it's wildness and openness are what makes it so special. The council should be careful that nothing changes that.
"The one thing they should be doing is making the City Observatory more accessible and allowing people in to enjoy its special atmosphere. It's really under-utilised.
This August will see the comeback of Calton Hill as a major venue on the Edinburgh Festival Fringe for the first time in more than ten years.
A spokeswoman for French theatre company Footsbarn, which is staging A Midsummer Night's Dream in a big top on the hill, says: "We were actually looking at a number of other venues when the council suggested Calton Hill. We jumped at the chance and it was actually a bit of a surprise that it was available."
One event firmly established in the city's calendar of events is Beltane, the hugely popular fire festival rooted in ancient Celtic traditions, which heralds the arrival of summer in the city.
Jon Clarke, chair of the Beltane Fire Society, sounds a note of caution against the over-use of the hill for events and festivals: "There's no doubt a lot of tourists do visit Calton Hill, but I'm not sure it's that well used by people who live in the city. Anything that helps change that should be a good thing. Edinburgh has a lot of excellent public parks, but their very nature means that there are people living beside them. We work very hard every year to try to minimise disruption for the local residents and having more events on the hill needs to be handled carefully."
CALTON Hill's long and chequered history stretches back to the mid-15th century, when James II of Scotland granted the north-west slope of the hill to the citizens of Edinburgh in 1456 for "tilts and tournaments".
• A Carmelite monastery was founded on the hill in 1518. In 1534, Norman Gourlay and David Stratoun, martyrs of the Reformation, were burned on the northern slopes so the inhabitants of Fife, seeing the fire across the Firth, "might be stricken with terroure and feare".
• Shortly afterwards, a leper hospital was built there, with the inmates being forbidden to leave the site on pain of hanging.
• Edinburgh Town Council bought the lands of Calton from Lord Balmerino in 1724 and Calton Hill was regularly used for large gatherings thereafter.
• The first building on Calton Hill was James Craig's City Observatory. Work began in 1776, although funding problems meant it was not finished until 1792. Now a listed building, it has been lying derelict since the 1980s, although current refurbishment work should make it suitable for a number of uses.
• The Nelson Monument, designed by Robert Burn after the Battle of Trafalgar, was the next to be completed in 1816. It is still open as a visitor attraction, although its historic Time Ball timepiece, the partner to the One O'Clock Gun at Edinburgh Castle, is currently broken.
• A new observatory, designed by William Playfair, was built in 1818, a year after the opening of Calton Jail to the east of the hill. It is still used every Friday by astronomers and has a number of working telescopes.
• One of the most familiar monuments on Calton Hill is that erected in honour of the 18th century mathematician and philosopher Dugald Stewart. Designed by Playfair, it was built in 1831.
• In 1822, work began on Calton Hill's acropolis, also designed by Playfair, as a national memorial to those who had died in the Napoleonic Wars. But midway through the project the money ran out and Playfair never got to see the faade of his building completed.
• The Royal High School, designed by Thomas Hamilton, who was also responsible for the nearby Burns Monument, was completed in 1829. The school was closed down in 1968 and although the building was long proposed as a home for the reborn Scottish parliament, it was ruled out in favour of a fresh site at Holyrood in 1998. Plans to convert it into a national photography centre have been backed by the council, pending Government approval