7 Hills of Edinburgh – Calton Hill

Edinburgh, it is famously said, is built on 7 hills. It’s as if, not being content with describing itself as ‘the Athens of the North,’ it had to compare itself to Rome as well. Which would explain all the Graeco-Roman fluted columns and shit.

Only kidding, of course – anyone that knows me will know my deep love for this place: which is why, in an attempt to look at it from all angles, I’m planning to walk up its seven hills, which are now accepted as being Castle Rock, Calton, Arthur’s Seat, Blackford, Braid, Corstorphine and Craiglockhart. Walk, mind. None of this running or cycling malarkey.

As an aside, there is some dispute as to what seven hills we’re talking about as the ‘traditional’ seven hills, as the reality is that Edinburgh is built over a succession of folds in the land and rocky outcrops. I’m always reminded of this when walking almost anywhere from home, as our flat is at the foot of one hill and it’s not long before you’re climbing another one. Wikipedia reproduces an old rhyme that supposedly lists them:

One way up the hill: Regent Terrace, featuring the American Consulate. Recently listed as Scotland’s most expensive street, with average selling price £1.68m for a des. res.
Abbey, Calton, Castle grand,
Southward see St Leonards stand,
St Johns and Sciennes as two are given,
And Multrees makes Seven.

Some of these will be no longer obvious to the casual boulevardier, as one of the reasons Edinburgh was an early centre of civil engineering excellence was that they had to work out how to level stuff up and bridge gaps – and not just the obvious bridges like North, South, and George IV.

So, on Boxing Day, we decided to work off the food and drink by climbing Calton Hill. We’d already been up Blackford on Christmas Eve, but I’ll probably do it again before the series is complete.

Also on the way up: memorial plaque to the Franco-Scottish Alliance, the oldest alliance in the world.

No particular deadline for this particular seven hills challenge, incidentally. I might try to do it before my next Big Birthday in September.

So: Calton Hill. Clear benefit, despite it not being the biggest of the hills, is its central location – so you get the Royal Mile, Princes Street and Leith Walk in close proximity. The Balmoral Hotel’s clock tower – famously set a couple of minutes fast, to ensure train passengers catch their connection in nearby Waverley Station – rears nearby (see first pic).

Also close at hand are more recent additions to the city skyline: the back of the Omni Centre and the Glasshouse Hotel, the latter with its rooftop green spaces and meeting rooms with their own splendid views; more controversially, rising majestically above its associated retail in the recently-built St James Quarter, the gold-coloured whorl that tops the Quarter’s hotel. Locals of a kinder bent have dubbed it the Walnut Whip, after an old piece of confectionery (appropriately enough first made by Duncan’s of Edinburgh in 1910, Wikipedia  tells me). The local satirists know it as the Golden Turd. It even has its own Twitter account.

On the hill itself, a variety of buildings stand about awkwardly, like actuaries at a party (see future post). There’s the National Monument, consisting of twelve Greek stylee columns and not much else. It was meant to commemorate the Scottish servicemen in the Napoleonic Wars, but they ran out of money. Just in case you thought name-calling of architecture was a new thing in Edinburgh, the Monument’s variously been called since then ‘Scotland’s Disgrace,’ or ‘Edinburgh’s Folly’ (probably Glaswegians came up with the latter). It was meant, when finished, to be based on the Parthenon in Athens – that Athens of the North moniker again.

Incidentally, in 2011 I went to Nashville, known as the Athens of the South, and had dinner in their Parthenon. They finished theirs. It’s very nice.

Also up the Hill is the Nelson Monument, the one that looks like an upturned telescope. It was finished in 1816, not that long after Nelson snuffed it at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805, but in 1852 a time ball was added to the top, to help ships in the Forth know when lunchtime is. It still drops at one o’clock every day, to coincide with the gun that’s fired from the Castle.

The original City Observatory was built here, until light pollution and/or smog caused it to be moved to Blackford Hill. One of our family’s favourite places is Observatory House, the 18th century residence designed by James Craig (the architect that planned the layout of Edinburgh’s stunning Georgian/Victorian New Town) it is – or certainly used to be, available for rent for holiday lets. My sister rented it out and we all stayed there for a weekend on her Big Birthday a few years ago, and it was fab. There’s a room in the turret which has the weirdest of acoustic effects, where it sounds like someone sitting across from you is speaking behind you.

I’ve only scratched the surface of what’s up there, by the way. It’s an incredible place in many ways – some say it’s a Fairy Mound, and the local pagans use it for their fire festivals at Beltane and so on. At one time, not so long ago, it was also used as a meeting place for homosexual men, afraid of speaking their love aloud in this Presbyterian place: I’m glad to say they’re a lot more accepted in modern day cosmopolitan Edinburgh than back in the Seventies and Eighties. I dare say assignations of all persuasions still happen up there at night.

On the way down, in the park off Regent Road, there’s a ‘Scotland in Stone’ ring, laid at the opening of the Scottish Parliament, and comprising stones from all 32 of Scotland’s regions. I kind of like its simplicity. Lastly, then, here’s the view from there, with the Midlothian stone foregrounded, and Arthur’s Seat/Salisbury Crags – one of the remaining 6 – in the distance.


Since you’re here…

If you like my writing, you might also like my songwriting. My latest album, ‘Leaving Time,’ is only a click away!



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