Hill Walking in Scotland: Calton Hill

One of my favorite things to do in Edinburgh was go walking. I’d pick a direction and just go until I got tired, then turn back toward home. With so many different neighborhoods, each with its own character, and a humongous park, I was never starved for options. I did have a favorite route, though, and it included Calton Hill.


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If you’re ever flicking through pictures of Edinburgh, you’ll come across some of Calton Hill. It’s one of the most picturesque and recognizable spots in Edinburgh, and you can get great views of Arthur’s Seat, Princes Street, Leith, and on a clear day, over into Fife.

If the views aren’t enough to make you want to make the climb up there, here’s something else: There are several monuments that grace the summit. In a town of many historic places, these historical monuments nestle in quite nicely, and are easily lost in the crowd.


The National Monument The Enlightenment happened in Scotland a bit before it spread to the European Continent and the Americas, and Edinburgh, with its university and print shops, became its focal point. As such, it came to be known as the ‘Athens of the North.’ Naturally, an Athens must have a Parthenon. One was begun atop Calton Hill, which was supposed to serve as a new Acropolis, but short funding left the project unfinished. Today, a quarter-built Parthenon sits atop Calton Hill, where work was abandoned in 1829. Failed projects are a dangerous thing in Scotland, since the Scots are a sharp-tongued people with a penchant for forming nicknames: The National Monument, to this day, is known as “Scotland’s Disgrace.”


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Hume Walk The great Enlightenment thinker, whose ideas we all study in high school and never think about again, lobbied the city of Edinburgh to build a walkway “for the health and amusement of the inhabitants.” That was pretty forward thinking, given that many people at that time believed that exercising would cause bad humors and all other ailments, and the idea that moderate exercise was healthy was barely gaining any traction. But, Hume was a popular – and rather rich – guy, so the city did as he suggested an constructed a walkway which winds around Calton Hill, from the bottom to the top. I recommend taking a stroll on Hume Walk right around sunset.


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Nelson Monument Vice Admiral Horatio Nelson was the hero of the Napoleonic Wars. In 1805, Nelson led the Royal Navy to victory in the Battle of Trafalgar, earning him wonderful posthumous popularity back home (he died in the battle) and namesakes all over Britain. Most of us are probably familiar with Trafalgar Square in London, which was named after his superlative victory on the high seas. A monument was built to him in Edinburgh as well. Fittingly, it’s shaped rather like a very tall lighthouse. Those who are not afraid of heights can make the climb up to the top, where I’m assuming wonderful views can be had (I never made the fateful climb myself).


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City Observatory Right smack in the middle of the summit, there’s a building which appears rather squat compared to the Nelson Monument, but which is very interesting in and of itself. The City Observatory was built for the sole purpose of housing a fancy telescope with Thomas Short brought home with him from his travels. He asked around for funding to build an astronomical observatory, and it just so happened that the university had some funds earmarked for an observatory just lying around (no, really – they had the money, but after the Jacobite Rising of 1745, building plans were put on hold). They gave the money to Short on the condition that students be allowed to use the observatory. Aside from some closures due to renovations, this condition has been and continues to be met to this day.


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Visiting Calton Hill

Getting There: Calton Hill is located at the eastern end of Princes Street, across from St. Andrew’s House, the old Parliament building. If you’re walking towards the Balmoral, keep going, and you’ll see a walkway on your left leading up to the hill.

Admission: While there’s no admission for the hill itself, there is a £5 fee to climb the Nelson Monument (the exhibit on the ground floor is free).


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