Tuesday, December 16, 2008

City Observatory, Calton Hill--Edinburgh, Scotland

It is a pity. In my community was once the oldest observatory west of the Mississippi River located on the then Park College [now Park University] campus in Parkville, Missouri. Back in the 1960's the 5" telescope provided many late night group observations and a running battle with the local power company who had installed a large light adjacent to the telescope's dome. A volley of stones would eliminate the problem for the evening's viewing pleasures and was promptly replaced by the power company sometime after we left. Again, when we returned, we eliminated the problem. Finally, after some negotiations, an on/off switch was installed inside the observatory. Unfortunately, years of little interest and neglect and a fire sealed the observatory's fate. The telescope was removed and placed in storage somewhere and the structure removed.

I am surprised that the lead roof parts were stolen for scrap. Lead is not high on the scrap metal value list. Two to ten cents a pound is not much incentive.

"Astronomy head's observatory fear"


Sue Gyford

December 15th, 2008

Edinburgh Evening News

THE Astronomer Royal for Scotland has hit out at the "utterly shocking" condition of the City Observatory on Calton Hill, as the amateur stargazers based there prepare to abandon it.

John Brown, who is also honorary president of the Astronomical Society of Edinburgh, called for extra security at the observatory after repeated thefts of lead from the roof left the inside sodden.

The ASE are preparing to move out because of the damp after meeting there for the last 55 years.

Mr Brown said: "The place is a disgrace, it's unfit for human habitation. There's water pouring down the walls, the toilets have been knackered for months, there are 200-year-old instruments at risk. It would just make you cry."

He urged the owners – the city council – to urgently look at extra investment in the building and more security to save it falling into disrepair.

Graham Rule, ASE secretary, said the ceiling had continued to leak after the council carried out initial repairs following the theft of lead from the roof.

"The council have now put a covering on which should stop water getting in again, but the building timbers have been waterlogged. My guess is that they're going to start rotting," he said.

"We can't carry on meeting there. I would hope we would still have access to the one telescope that's still usable."

The Observatory, designed by William Playfair and built in 1818, contains three historic telescopes, the oldest dating from 1833. One is covered in a tarpaulin to protect it from water and a second has been moved to the only dry room in the building. The remaining working telescope, installed in the dome, dates from 1896.

Mr Rule said vandalism had also forced the closure of the toilets. "It's always been a bit embarrassing because when we take our speakers out for a meal, we have to say 'You might want to go to the toilet now before we go up the hill'," he added.

The ASE used to meet weekly at the Observatory, but that has reduced to once a month because conditions are so poor. They will meet on January 9 to discuss their future at the Observatory.

A council spokesman said: "To date £16,000 has been spent on repairs to the Playfair roof but a large investment is required for lead and copper repairs following thefts."

Adam Wilkinson, director of Edinburgh World Heritage, set up to protect Edinburgh's status as a UNESCO World Heritage site, added: "We are all working towards a long term solution, but clearly there are short term issues that need to be resolved."


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).


Anonymous said...

I'm glad..but ashamed that the disgraceful condition of the City Observatory will now become public knowledge, though I'm very concerned it still might not receive the repair and protection it urgently needs to bring it back into a useable state, for Edinburgh residents and our visitors.
2009 is, after all, the internationally recognised 'Year of Astronomy' suported by the United Nations. How tragic if Edinburgh is remembered as the city that abandoned such an important part its scientific heritage in this, of all years!

'Our' City Observatory must not be allowed to deteriorate further and become another 'Edinburgh's Disgrace'!

frank@frankhowie.com (Edinburgh)

Mercury said...


Unfortunately, the reality of the situation will pretty much seal the fate of the observatory. City heritages come and go all the time but it is more personal when it is in one's own community. Even world-wide limelight won't change its status. It is unfortunate that its physical condition has come at the time of economic collapse where corporate or private institutional support is thin and even thinner is public support. I have no answer.