Lost Edinburgh: Duo captured Scott Monument's construction

As an aficionado of both old images and the history of Edinburgh, the work of David Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson has me positively captivated.

Picture: University of Glasgow Library, Special Collections
Picture: University of Glasgow Library, Special Collections

From their little makeshift studio situated on the slopes of Calton Hill, the prolific duo managed to produce a staggering number of calotype images capturing the city of Edinburgh as it was over 170 years ago.

Hill & Adamson began making salt prints in 1843, just four years after Louis Daguerre and his cohorts announced the invention of photography to the world.

The images they took of Victorian Scotland are utterly invaluable, and there are few nations that can boast such a large number of images from this distant era.

Picture: University of Glasgow Library, Special Collections

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As fate would have it, the early years of their partnership coincided beautifully with the construction of one of our city’s most recognisable pieces of architecture: ‘Britain’s first rocket’, the Scott Monument. Needless to say, the pair were relentless when it came to snapping the famous monument as its highest point progressed towards the heavens.

In their earliest images of this particular subject, dated early 1844, we are able to see the Scott Monument as it was when only half-complete.

Over the course of that year, we can track its progress as it’s wrapped in scaffolding and proceeds to kiss the sky.

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A half-complete Scott Monument. Picture: University of Glasgow Library, Special Collections

More remarkably yet, Hill & Adamson introduce us to the architect, George Meikle Kemp, who tragically died while his creation was still under construction.

And we’re even able to meet the masons, as they take a well-earned break, in what qualifies as an early Edinburgh version of Charles Ebbets’ ‘Lunch Atop a Skyscraper’.

Equally as fascinating are the background details. We’re able to see long-lost buildings, structures on the Mound, a developing Princes Street Gardens and Princes Street before the clubs, hotels, insurance firms and department stores replaced many of the original Georgian townhouses.

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George Meikle Kemp’s masterpiece to the writer Sir Walter Scott was finally capped on 26 October 1844, Hill & Adamson having captured it almost every step of the way.

Picture: University of Glasgow Library, Special Collections

Just imagine, had they met a couple of years later, the monument would have been done and dusted.

For those interested in checking out Hill & Adamson’s work for themselves, there’s still time left to take in an exhibition devoted to their work and their partnership.

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The aptly-titled exhibition Perfect Chemistry - Hill was a painter and Adamson a chemist and fledgling photographer - finishes up on 1 October at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery on Queen Street.

Scott Monument under scaffolding, 1844. Picture: University of Glasgow Library, Special Collections

Their pioneering work allows us to peel back 17 decades of progress and visit the ‘real’ lost Edinburgh hidden beneath. Make no mistake, we’re incredibly fortunate that such a magnificent visual record of our early Victorian past happens to exist.

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• Read more from Scotsman Heritage here.

Workers at the Scott Monument. Picture: University of Glasgow Library, Special Collections
George Meikle Kemp, architect of the Scott Monument. Picture: University of Glasgow Library, Special Collections
Picture: University of Glasgow Library, Special Collections

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A half-complete Scott Monument. Picture: University of Glasgow Library, Special Collections
Picture: University of Glasgow Library, Special Collections
Scott Monument under scaffolding, 1844. Picture: University of Glasgow Library, Special Collections
Workers at the Scott Monument. Picture: University of Glasgow Library, Special Collections

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George Meikle Kemp, architect of the Scott Monument. Picture: University of Glasgow Library, Special Collections