Patrick Geddes and the story of Edinburgh’s Camera Obscura

Edinburgh's Camera Obscura. Picture: James Gebbie
Edinburgh's Camera Obscura. Picture: James Gebbie
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We’re all familiar with the Camera Obscura on Castlehill, but the story of its creation is well worth telling.

In 1855, scientist and entrepreneur Maria Theresa Short moved her exhibition of scientific instruments from Edinburgh’s Calton Hill to new premises at the top of Castlehill.

A view of Edinburgh's Royal Mile at the Camera Obscura, May 1988.

A view of Edinburgh's Royal Mile at the Camera Obscura, May 1988.

The building, which was traditionally believed to be the town mansion of the ‘Laird of Cockpen’, had been transformed by the addition of two floors into Short’s Observatory. Exhibits included ‘a powerful galvanic machine which gives shocks of any power, a Fairy Fountain of Electric Water and a Wonderful Electric Boy’. The main attraction, however, was the Camera Obscura, a periscope device of mirrors and lenses which throws a moving image onto a reflective table.

In 1892, the building was purchased by Patrick Geddes and there followed the most interesting period in the building’s history. Geddes was officially a botanist and biologist, but was involved in a multitude of other activities and is perhaps best remembered for his work in the field of town planning.

Geddes intended to transform the building into a ‘place of outlook and a type-museum as a key to a better understanding of Edinburgh and its region, but also to help people get a clear idea of its relation to the world at large’.

Geddes believed that a tour of the Outlook Tower should begin at the top of the building on the flat roof terrace where a general idea of Edinburgh and ‘one of the great views of the world’ could be seen. The Camera Obscura then provided a different view of the outside environment, in the ‘miniature-like perfection of detail’ reflected in the moving image on the screen. After this ‘lesson in the art of seeing’ it was felt that ‘quiet reflection and meditation on the many new impressions which had been gathered’; would be required, so a small darkened room with a single chair was provided.

Patrick Geddes. Picture: Submitted

Patrick Geddes. Picture: Submitted

Each lower storey of the Tower was devoted to exhibits and collections. Exhibits included an Episcope, which provided a view of the world ‘as if it were suddenly to become transparent beneath one’s feet’, a Hollow Globe and a Celestial Sphere. All of these were intended to show the relation of the world to its surroundings in the universe.

The Edinburgh Room had a relief model of the city and illustrations showing its architectural development. In the Scotland Room the evolution of the nation was traced by a large floor map. The Outlook Tower was at its best up to 1914, when Patrick Geddes was most often there. It retained its educational function for a number of years and a larger camera was installed in 1945.

The Camera Obscura remains a popular tourist attraction, but it is unfortunate that there remains no clear recognition of its association with Patrick Geddes, the ‘father of modern town planning’.

• Secret Edinburgh is a book by Jack Gillon and is available for purchase on Amazon.