Calton Hill observatory set to open to public next year after revamp

Apprentice stonemasons working on the building.
Apprentice stonemasons working on the building.
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BIRTHDAY celebrations typically involve a couple of cards and maybe even a party – but who’s got time for cake when you’re helping transform one of the Capital’s most iconic buildings?

Not this team of dedicated workers who marked today’s 227th anniversary of the birth of Calton Hill observatory designer William Playfair by carrying out vital restoration work on the structure’s roof.

It comes as the observatory prepares to open its doors to the public for the very first time next year as the new modern art Collective gallery.

As part of the project three apprentices from St Mary’s Cathedral Workshop also leant a hand with some of the repairs.

Under the supervision of acting foreman Jordan Kirk, they were given the chance to master the traditional craft skills needed to restore the historic building’s masonry and pointing.

Collective director Kate Gray said: “We’re delighted with the progress the apprentices from St Mary’s Cathedral Workshop have made in helping to restore William Playfair’s observatory.

“Collective look forward to opening it to the public early next year and launching our new exhibition programme, featuring international artists alongside home-grown talent.”

The historic site, which has lain empty for more than five years, was designed by Playfair in 1818 to serve as a centre of The Scottish Enlightenment.

Its buildings, which were constructed between 1818 and 1822, played an important role in the history of astronomy and timekeeping.

The transit of stars through the meridian was observed and used to keep the observatory clock accurate.

In 1854 the time ball was installed on Nelson’s Monument, which was visible from the port for the benefit of shipping.

The ball was controlled by electrical pulses from the observatory clock.

The £3.5 million project to restore the observatory, which sits at the heart of the Capital’s Unesco World Heritage site, will also see the provision of a new restaurant with panoramic views across the Edinburgh skyline.

Last year the project received a cash boost after it was awarded a restoration grant of £300,000.

Adam Wilkinson, director of Edinburgh World Heritage, said at the time: “These buildings are of national and international significance, and it is especially appropriate that they will be open to the public next year - the 250th anniversary of the first New Town.

“We have invested significant funds in the conservation of other monuments on Calton Hill over the last ten years and are pleased to support these works which form the final piece of the jigsaw.”

Playfair – born on this day in 1790 – went on to design a number of Edinburgh’s most iconic New Town buildings, including the National Gallery of Scotland and the Royal Scottish Academy.

The Playfair Project completed in 2004 joined the two historic buildings with an underground link.

In the 1830s Playfair is listed as having lived in Great Stuart Street in the Capital’s west end. He died in 1957 and was buried in Dean Cemetery.