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Calton Hill and the Plans for Edinburgh’s Third New Town


Kirsten Carter McKee


Edinburgh: John Donald, 2018

Hardback. 224 pages. ISBN 978-1910900178. £25


Reviewed by Clarisse Godard Desmarest

Université de Picardie-Jules Verne (Amiens)




This book on the urban development of one of Edinburgh’s seven hills – the most significant in terms of its neo-classical architecture – sheds light on the broader intellectual and cultural debates that shaped the development of Calton Hill in the early nineteenth century. The site, which constituted a key component of Edinburgh’s application to UNESCO in 1995, is unique through the development of its layout, its superlative architecture, and its relationship not simply with the city of Edinburgh, but the nation of Scotland. Over the last three centuries, the hill’s topography, urban layout and architectural design has been a reflection of the aesthetic, scientific, cultural and political theories that have shaped Scottish identity from the late 18th to the end of the 20th century. Most significantly, Calton Hill, and the former Royal High School, was the site chosen for the Scottish Assembly proposed in 1979, and after this missed opportunity the hill became closely associated with the campaign for home rule – a vigil was permanently located there – until devolution was granted in 1997.

Architectural historian Kirsten Carter McKee presents here the results of her doctoral dissertation in a richly illustrated publication. The area is uncommonly well-served by beautiful and rich historic images which the author has painstakingly tracked down and now published, many for the first time in decades or for the first time ever, and many an enjoyable surprise to see. This piece of research was carried out at the University of Edinburgh, in conjunction with Edinburgh World Heritage Trust and the City Council of Edinburgh, with the express purpose of superseding the existing Calton Hill Conservation Plan, and to offer a better understanding of the wider political and cultural implications of a site which was key to the development of Edinburgh’s Athenian identity in the early 19th century. This well-researched publication is timely, given the application – still pending – to extend the Royal High School, a neo-classical structure built on the south side of the hill by Thomas Hamilton (1784-1858), one of Scotland’s greatest architects, and one of the few in Scotland whose reputation is truly international.

The book, which is divided into three sections, starts with a clear identification of the area under study, as delineated in the 1819 plan by William Henry Playfair (1790-1857) for the Third New Town; the North back of the Canongate to the south, the bottom of Leith Walk to the north, Waterloo Place and Princes Street to the west, and Easter Road to the east. In her introduction, the author makes a short literature review of previous titles which covered aspects of Calton Hill, and explains her own approach:

It has not previously been considered how the shaping of cultural and social theories of the eighteenth century, and their evolution through scholarly and political dialogue of the nineteenth century, can also be identified in the developing urban landscape in the city […] As a result, the cultural and scientific remnants now found on Calton Hill are argued to have been as influential on the development of this area as the accompanying political discourse. [9]

The book reflects on the political and cultural discussions that shaped the development of the Third New Town, and highlights the importance of the Greek Revival to Scottish national identity, when Scotland had little political identity of its own.

The opening section, Part 1, ‘Rural Urbanism to Urban Arcadia: The Evolution of Calton Hill’, explains how Playfair’s unique urban design is the culmination of the development of a discourse surrounding picturesque theory as applied to the urban realm at the turn of the 19th century. This, coupled with the construction of Greek Revival architecture on this site, demonstrated Scotland’s understanding of its own significance as a nation, and its pivotal role in ensuring the successes of 19th-century British imperial ambition. Chapter 1 discusses how Calton Hill developed into a semi-rural periphery that was to be seen from the rest of the city, as well as being a place from which to view the city. This new approach regarding the cityscape was influenced by Thomas Short’s Observatory, the earliest development of note on the hill, and the Panorama of Edinburgh from Calton Hill of 1792 created by Robert Barker (1739-1806). By offering a 360° depiction of the urban surroundings, this panorama opened up the landscape, an approach which contrasted with Slezer’s The North Prospect of the City of Edinburgh (1693), and its depiction of the narrow confines of the city on the Old Town ridge. The popularity of Barker’s panorama was exploited in the design of the Nelson Monument as an outlook tower fifteen years later (designed by Robert Burn). In the story of Calton Hill’s development and its integration to the city, Robert Adam’s Bridewell played a significant role; it prompted numerous attempts by Adam to reconcile Old and New Towns (as illustrated in his designs for bridges in the 1790s: plates 1.17 and 1.18).

The connection between Old and New Towns was purely visual, before the physical connection was instituted by the bridge spanning Low Calton in 1817; Robert Stevenson’s piece of engineering and Archibald Elliot’s designs for Waterloo Place are discussed in Chapter 2. This monumental entrance gateway, the equivalent of Waterloo Place in London, set Edinburgh firmly within the context of imperial Britain; Edinburgh, it is argued, adopted a British architectural style to legitimise its place within the union. The details of the 1812-1813 competition for the development of the area to Leith is explained in this chapter, as is also the importance of William Stark’s report published posthumously, in 1814. Playfair’s adopted plan, and his own reports of April and December 1819, were heavily indebted to Stark and his approach to the landscape (Chapter 3). Both Playfair and Stevenson understood the importance of responding inventively to the natural context of the surrounding landscape, and the importance of scale regarding development on the hill. Stark had discussed how the gradual reveal of buildings along bending streetscapes created a level of suspense and interest in the dynamic nature of the urban realm. The development of the site was shaped by the urban aesthetic of the picturesque; architects Thomas Hamilton, Archibald Elliot, William Henry Playfair, and William Stark were all responsive to such ideas.

In 2019, the significance of the approach to the Hill from the west was a major argument given by amenity groups to oppose a modern-day extension of the Royal High School – both the 2015 and 2017 schemes of the hotel developer included wings on each side of the building. Carter McKee explains that Archibald Elliot’s design for Waterloo Place, especially the twin triumphal screen arches, emphasise the importance of the approach along this route. This classical vista created a ceremonial approach from Edinburgh to Calton Hill, which was used during the visit of the Prince Regent – by then George IV – to the city in 1822.

The book’s Part 2, ‘Burial, Memorial and Commemorative Monuments’, explains the development of the commemorative landscape of Calton Hill; how its planning evolved from private (a routine cemetery, and place to bury the dead) to public (a place of national commemoration of dead ‘heroes’). Through a detailed analysis of the monuments on the hill (in chapter 4), the author concludes ‘with the exception of the monument to Lord Nelson, those who were to be commemorated were not representative of the British state, but rather marked the significance of the Scottish contribution to the “British idea”. In this manner, the allegorical nature of the classical architecture used on this site conducted a dialogue which was not only to glorify the successes of the British state, but also to claim Scotland’s role within that success’ [121]. This interpretation of the Edinburgh landscape in the early 19th century accords with John Lowrey and Richard Rodger’s studies of Edinburgh. Carter McKee also shares much of what other scholars – such as Johnny Rodger, on local or national heroes, Miles Glendinning and Aonghus MacKechnie, on the Scots Baronial – have written about romanticism, and this shift away from Greek classicism towards Gothic Revival and Scots Baronial, in the second half of the 19th century.

Lastly, Part 3, ‘Unionism to Nationalism’, brings to the fore the more social and political dimensions of the hill, especially in the more recent years. Chapter 6 questions the orthodoxy of Calton Hill as a utopia, by focusing on the disjunction between the original agenda promoted by the elite (sitting in municipal and trust committees), and the harsh reality faced by the poor as the 19th-century unfolded, with the associated effects of industrialisation. In addition to beautiful pictorial views of the hill and its monuments by artists including J.M.W. Turner and Alexander Nasmyth, the author shows Thomas Begbie’s 19th-century photographs as well as David Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson’s experiments with the calotype technique; images of the Dugald Stewart Monument, the Nelson Monument and the political Martyrs’ Monument appear in a different light as the more mundane activities of those who experienced the Hill are presented (such as women bleaching linen). Chapter 7 focuses on the later part of the 19th century, when neo-classicism was seen to reflect a unionist, or English style; and so could no longer be seen to express Scottish cultural identity in face of the developing demand for home rule. The author explains how the Calton Hill and its structures afterwards became a symbol for state control over Scottish affairs (see the debate about the design for St Andrew’s House in the 1930s), and later for demands for independence in the 1990s.

Kirsten Carter McKee was invited to act as an expert witness for the Cockburn Association, Edinburgh World Heritage, and the New Town and Broughton Community Council  at the Local Public Inquiry on the Royal High School in the autumn of 2018. It is hoped that the clear scholarship within this publication will help inform decision-making as regards the future of the Calton Hill, not simply concerning present matters, but for a great many years to come. But more directly, this book is a welcome analysis, and a beautifully-illustrated and well-rounded account of a discrete area of a city which – as the author has shown – is also one of Scotland’s most culturally resonant, symbolic and momentous places.


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