PERCHED high atop Calton Hill, the Nelson Monument is one of Edinburgh’s must-visit tourist attractions, offering unrivalled panoramic vistas of the entire city and beyond.
For one Edinburgh family, though, it was a view they enjoyed waking up to every morning for 18 years – and they didn’t have to pay a single penny for the pleasure.
In 1957, Elizabeth Cornelius was offered the role as caretaker of the Nelson Monument, and moved in to the circular house at the base of the 32-metre-high structure with her husband, Charles, and six-week-old Alison.
Now aged 60, Alison Weir has revealed that growing up on Calton Hill was every bit as magical as it sounds.
“It was a fantastic place to be brought up – one of the biggest playgrounds and gardens you could ever imagine.
“Snow up there lasted forever and summers were just fantastic. Sometimes my younger sister Elizabeth and I would try and climb Edinburgh’s Disgrace (the National Monument) and the parkie would run out blowing his whistle.
“We were the only kids there until our sister Lesley was born.”
Alison, who still lives and works in Edinburgh as a station relationship manager for Virgin Trains, recalled her late mother took a while to settle in.
“Dad was a greenkeeper at that time and whenever he went out, my mum was so terrified she’d lock herself in. It was an eerie place – especially the museum at the entrance. She soon got used to it, though.”
Mrs Cornelius’ job revolved around maintaining the Nelson Monument and operating the turnstiles.
Young Alison often helped out too.
“It was my introduction to customer service at an early age. I’d tend the turnstiles whenever my mum had to see to my baby sister and I earned my pocket money by cleaning the monument’s 143 steps.”
The family could expect to welcome up to 10,000 ‘guests’ through their front door every year.
“In the summer the influx of tourists was constant. It was open 10-7 in the summer, and 10-3 in the winter, and my mum only got two weeks’ holiday a year. Her £4-a-week wage never went up the whole time we were there. She was a phenomenal woman.
“My dad also had a real gift for the gab and a deep knowledge of Edinburgh. He loved entertaining the tourists.
“We used to get postcards from all over the world.”
Alison was proud to say she lived at the summit of Calton Hill, but it wasn’t always a walk in the park.
“When they started knocking down St James Square in the 1960s it was hellish. We were overrun with thousands of mice. It was a year before the council sorted it out.
“The house had a flat roof and was always suffering from damp, and when lightning struck the tower the phones would cut out.
“Winters up there were dreadfully cold as well.”
But it wasn’t all bad; living at such a prominent address attracted some interesting visitors.
“Spike Milligan once came round for a cup of tea. I was too young to know who he was, but wise enough to get his autograph. We also welcomed famous jazz musicians, Johnny Dankworth and Cleo Laine.
“Back in those days, Calton Hill wasn’t used for much. One of the main events took place during Students’ Rag Week.
“Every year the torchlight parade would end on the hill and there’d be a huge bonfire and fireworks display.”
At one time Alison would happily hop between the parapets along the roof of her house.
It’s something she wouldn’t dream of doing now, because – astonishingly – she has since developed a terrible fear of heights. Nevertheless, she always loves to revisit the place she once called home.
“I feel at peace when I come back here. I spent 18 crucial years here growing up. It was an adventure.
“Folk who I went to school with, they might forget my name, but they always remember they went to school with the girl who lived on Calton Hill.
“I mean, who wouldn’t?”