City Observatory

Old Observatory House, Calton Hill
©2022 Gazetteer for Scotland

Old Observatory House, Calton Hill

The City Observatory comprises three buildings on Calton Hill in Edinburgh; the Old, New and City Observatories. The Old Observatory (now Observatory House) was built in 1776 as a commercial enterprise by Thomas Short (d.1788), an optician from Leith. He leased the land and, by promising access to students, gained access to funds collected by Professor Colin Maclaurin (1698 - 1746) some 35 years previously. Observatory House is an early example of the Gothic-revival style and one of few surviving buildings by James Craig (1744-95), planner of the New Town. Craig took advice from Robert Adam (1728-92), who suggested the castellated appearance.

By the early 19th Century the building was disused. It was acquired by the new Edinburgh Astronomical Institution (founded 1811) which erected in 1812 the New Observatory, a building designed by William Playfair (1789 - 1857) and looking more like a temple. Playfair also designed the nearby monument to his Uncle, John Playfair (1748 - 1819), who had been first President of the Institution.

One of the functions of the institution was time-keeping; ensuring that ships at Leith could accurately set their chronometers. Initially the mariners had to walk up to Calton Hill, but later the time-ball on Nelson's Monument was used as a signal. In 1822, during his visit to Edinburgh, King George IV made the institution a Royal Observatory and government funding and official responsibilities followed. This new role was not best served by a location effected by smoke from the City and nearby railway. Thus the Astronomer Royal moved the institution to Blackford Hill in 1895 and the old buildings were acquired by the city. The City Dome was added the same year and brewer William McEwan (1827 - 1913) donated a six-inch telescope to mark the opening of the City Observatory. The Astronomical Society of Edinburgh (founded 1924) now runs the facility on behalf of the city. It is open to the public and includes various telescopes and a library.

A plaque was unveiled on Old Observatory House by the Lord Provost of Edinburgh on the 31st October 1994, to celebrate the 250th anniversary of the birth of James Craig (1744-95).

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