Book reveals history of Calton Hill

Calton Hill has played a key role in the city's history. Picture: Paul Raeburn
Calton Hill has played a key role in the city's history. Picture: Paul Raeburn
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Robert Louis Stevenson probably summed it up best when he wrote: “Of all places for a view, this Calton Hill is perhaps the best.”

Because for many Calton Hill, standing tall over the city with its grand monuments and curiosities jostling for attention against a spectacular view that takes in Fife’s hills, the tip of Schiehallion to the north, the Sidlaw Hills beyond the Tay and, incredibly on a clear day, the massif of Lochnagar, is a favourite window on the world.

Following in the footsteps of generations before, visitors head up the slope with a view to looking down at the hustle and bustle of the streets below, to the rooftops and chimneys or across to the rolling landscapes and the water of the Forth.

But now a new book by Edinburgh writers Stuart McHardy and Donald Smith aims to encourage visitors to pause to reflect instead on the very ground beneath their feet and the hill itself.

Calton Hill, Journeys and Evocations (Luath Press, £7.99) aims to unravel the volcanic rock’s diverse history, often overshadowed by nature’s spectacular vista. And it shines a fascinating spotlight on the hill’s unique position in centuries of Edinburgh life, one that straddles high society establishment with earthy rebellion, political protest and a fair amount of old fashioned 

From the statue of Abraham Lincoln that recalls the efforts of the Scots who fought in the American Civil War to the unfinished National Monument, Calton Hill is a unique mix, says Stuart.

“It’s a place where there’s always been a lot going on. Calton Hill has long held a place in the hearts of the people of Edinburgh.

“It is very much ‘The People’s Hill’.”

‘Party central’ no stranger to rioting and celebrating long before Beltane

EVERY spring since the late 1980s, Calton Hill has been engulfed in fiery dance and near naked spectacle as the Beltane Fire Festival lights up the night sky and welcomes the changing of the seasons. But Calton Hill is no stranger to wild parties and unbridled fun.

“You could call it ‘party central’,” laughs writer Stuart McHardy. “Calton Hill is where the people come together, particularly after a good riot. After the rioting was over, the windows broken, effigies set alight, and battles finished, the mob would head to the same place, Calton Hill. Here the populace would celebrate by lighting fires, drinking, dancing and singing, before dispersing back to their closes and vennels in the Old Town.”

Lord Nelson monument described as ‘among the vilest of men’s handiworks’

ROBERT Louis Stevenson was no fan of the distinctive monument to Lord Nelson on Calton Hill. Pointing out that it had been compared to both a telescope and a butter-churn, he added sourly: “Comparisons apart it ranks among the vilest of men’s handiworks”.

Yet the distinctive tribute fascinates visitors with its curious timeball and links to a proud naval victory. Within weeks of Admiral Nelson’s death following victory at Trafalgar, Edinburgh’s leaders gathered to plan Britain’s first memorial to the fallen hero. Typically beset by funding problems, it took 11 years to complete.

Five-year vigil was protest against Tory rule in Scotland

A small brass plaque on the wall at the entrance gate to the old Royal High School commemorates one of the most recent radical episodes in the history of Calton Hill.

The General Election of 1992 had seen Scotland vote out the Conservatives but England voting them in, fuelling anger at a time when Scots were already enraged by the poll tax and nuclear weapons. Protesters gathered at the gate of the Old Royal High School which had been designated as a possible home for a new Scottish Parliament in the run up to the devolution referendum of 1979.

The vigil remained for the next five years, with protesters taking turns to man the brazier – a symbolic feature to represent the flame of freedom as well as a source of heat – and a portable building set up to provide shelter.

Fairy Boy was said to have the gift of second sight

For centuries Calton Hill has played a vital role at the heart of Edinburgh life, as a much-loved place for relaxation and contemplation. But, oddly – and perhaps because of its hard volcanic base – there have been few archaelogical artefacts ever found on its slopes.

But folklore does suggest the hill was a key spot for pagan ritual, a place for bonfire celebrations and tales of fairy folk. One story related to an orphan lad called the Fairy Boy who was said to have the gift of second sight. He told folk how he regularly travelled inside the hill every Thursday to meet the fairy folk and fly to Holland and France.

Attempts to dispel the boy’s story failed when he was put in a room one Thursday night, only to vanish without trace.

An armed guard prevented desecration of Hume’s tomb

There can’t be many with the foresight or money to fund their own graveyard memorial and have it designed by one of the leading classical architects of their day.

David Hume was a giant of the Scottish Enlightenment and his monument in Old Calton Burial Ground appears as an ordered tribute to restraint and good taste. And yet his reputation in Edinburgh at the time was mixed – indeed, on the night after his burial, an armed guard had to be mounted to prevent any desecration of his tomb.

Hume, explains Donald Smith, had questioned “the truths of Christianity, making him an atheist. He left it to his close friend Adam Smith to publish his dialogues on religion after his death. There is a limit to how much righteous indignation can be borne in one lifetime.”

Indian Peter ran away from home, was kidnapped twice and became a slave

FEW of Calton Hill’s famous figures could have had a more remarkable life than Peter Williamson, who lies in an unmarked grave in Calton Cemetery.

Nicknamed Indian Peter, he ran away from home in Huntly, Aberdeenshire, when he was 12 only to be kidnapped and transported to the US. There he was sold as an indentured servant – a form of slavery – and kept for seven years. Later he was kidnapped again and made a slave by Native Americans. Eventually he made his way back to Scotland, sued the council in Aberdeen who had been complicit in his kidnapping, and came to Edinburgh where he set up the city’s first Penny Post in 1773.

Smoke threatened to stain Burns statue

The statue and monument to Robert Burns had hardly been built in 1831 after a massive public fundraising campaign, when it had to be taken apart. Smoke from the gasworks on Calton Road threatened to stain the statue. Today it is kept in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery.

Cost of bridge only recently beaten

The gully between the New Town and Calton Hill was spanned by a new bridge, Waterloo Bridge. Work on the bridge began in 1815 and it was the most expensive of all Edinburgh’s major engineering projects, until, that is, a certain tram rolled into town.

Games encouraged to raise fitness

Greenside Place today boasts one of Scotland’s finest theatres. However the entertainment incenturies past was more cut and thrust. Lively tournaments, archery contests and military exercises were encouraged by the Stewart monarchs keen to raise general fitness levels.

Martyr better known in US than Scotland

GENERATIONS of American schoolchildren can recite his words, yet how many Scots youngsters have ever heard of Thomas Muir?

He is commemorated by a 90ft ­obelisk towering over the tombs and gravestones in Calton Cemetery, paid for in full by public subscription – unlike the National Monument which failed to receive the backing of scornful Scots.

The monument is dedicated to the Scottish Political Martyrs – and a reminder to visitors that alongside establishment figures remembered there and half-built testimonies to national pride, Calton Hill was very much a place for people of independent thought and ideas to gather.

It commemorates Thomas Muir, Maurice Margarot, Thomas Fyshe Palmer, Thomas Skirving and Joseph Gerrald, all sentenced to transportation for sedition to Botany Bay in Australia in 1793.

Their crime was to have called for the reform of a corrupt political system that saw parliamentary seats bought and sold. The men were sentenced to 14 years transportation each.

Muir, whose closing speech at his trial is taught to American schoolchildren, escaped from Botany Bay and made it to Paris where he was treated as a hero. He died in 1797.