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Edinburgh is a very photogenic city, the kind of place where it might once have been nice to buy a post card for a close friend or relative. People hardly ever send post cards anymore. (This should be said somewhat whimsically.) People hardly ever send post cards anymore; instead, they take a quick picture on their ‘phone and dispatch it by some mysterious means to their nearest, dearest and 189 assorted casual acquaintances: “Hi guys – here I am in the middle of some kind of creek. Cool! LOL :-)” So, as more thoughtful writers have observed, posterity will be denied an invaluable historical resource. Aside from the really useful information written on the back of post cards (“Weather is here, wish you were lovely”), the pictures are, obviously, contemporary snap shots – in more ways than one. But if you were going to send or receive a post card from Edinburgh, the classic view of the city from Calton Hill wouldn’t be a bad one to choose. Or you could pop up there and take a quick snap on your mobile ‘phone – if you haven’t already done so whilst I’ve been rambling on.
Calton Hill, at the east end of town, is a landmark that has long been common ground for Edinburgers. It’s actually included within the boundary of Edinburgh’s World Heritage Site and it’s used for casual strolling (in daylight hours), as well as for high days and holidays – such as the City’s Hogmanay fireworks and the revived ‘traditional’ Celtic Beltane Fire Festival at the end of April. From the top are panoramic views: west over the City are landmarks like the baronial Balmoral Hotel, the Waverley Memorial, the crown steeple of St Giles’ Cathedral and, beyond that, Edinburgh Castle; to the north is the Firth of Forth and Edinburgh’s port, Leith – you know, the place they had sunshine over – and to the south-east, the Palace of Holyrood and Arthur’s Seat.
So visitors to Edinburgh go to Calton Hill to take photographs. And they go to see its monuments and other buildings. These date from or were inspired by the age of enlightenment, a time of cultural and scientific revolution when Western Europe allegedly threw off the intellectual shackles of the past. Having said that, much of the architecture of this period has classical influences, which suggests to me that people were looking backwards as well as forwards; but what do I know?
Anyway, the National Monument, inspired by the Parthenon in Athens, was intended to honour all Scottish servicemen who perished in the Napoleonic Wars (1803-15). Construction began in 1826 but, unfortunately, the cash ran out – displaying a stunning grasp of public project planning equal to anything in modern times. It was never completed and has subsequently been called “Scotland’s Disgrace” as well as other understandable names. Whilst on the subject of successful public projects coming in on time and on budget, you’ll find the Scottish Parliament Building not far away.
The Nelson Monument, erected by the grateful citizens of Edinburgh (that’s what it says), commemorates one of Britain’s greatest naval heroes, Admiral Lord Nelson, and the victory over the nasty French and Spanish at the Battle of Trafalgar (1805). The design is allegedly based on Nelson’s telescope and the views from the top are reputed to be spectacular.
Close by, you’ll find an 18th century cannon, probably Spanish originally, captured when the British invaded Burma in 1885.
But the monument that seems to feature in all the pictures from Calton Hill is the Dugald Stewart Monument. In case you’ve not heard of Dugald Stewart – and I’m really surprised how many people haven’t – he was a Scottish philosopher and professor at the University of Edinburgh, born 1753, died 1828. He was evidently a bright spark, sufficiently respected at the time for someone to want to remember him with an enormous Greek-style erection, and even has a building named after him at the University today. Yet his contribution to the world, so far as I can make out, is now largely in the form of the attractive monument that bears his name. I bet it’s sold a few post cards in its time though.