The Nelson Monument on Edinburgh’s Calton Hill has never been noted for its beauty.With its overtly classical backdrop, there is a gothic incongruity about the place but last Tuesday it looked and was absolutely magnificent
The distinguished editors of Buildings of Scotland consider it one of Edinburgh’s “odder things”. RLS, not a fan, compared it to a telescope and a butter churn. “This strange elongated battlemented tower” (pace Ian Lindsay, Georgian Edinburgh) is remarkable for its “dubious architectural merit” (Youngson, The Making of Classical Edinburgh). In July 2014, Visit Scotland generously increased the tower’s star rating from two to four stars in judicious recognition of customer care and range of facilities. Customer services and the clash of arms are unlikely bed fellows. The monument is now rated “excellent”. On Trip Advisor, a visit to the tower is generally considered good value for money in return for minimal physical effort but, despite gleaming lavatories and carefully crafted signage, there is still an enduring feeling of oddness about the place.
The monument, erected by the grateful citizens of Edinburgh, commemorates Admiral Lord Nelson’s victory at Trafalgar in 1805. Designed by the Edinburgh Architect Robert Burn, whose massive burial vault lies at the foot of the hill, the ungainly hundred foot tower was begun in 1807, but not finished until after the Napoleonic wars. With the massive unfinished National Memorial as a backdrop, the Tower gives the impression of a neo gothic add-on but it was the Monument which was built first. A glorious Edinburgh landscape painted by John Knox in the early 1820s and now hanging in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, shows an isolated Tower and just the faintest suggestion of scaffolding or something where the massive neo classical National Memorial now stands. When the Regent Road, Edinburgh’s new eastern approach was blasted through the southern flanks of Calton Hill and the Old Cemetery rearranged – some of the dead transplanted to a newer cemetery further down the hill – it was only the Tower and the Old Observatory that looked down. The cluttered hillside, which in Stevenson’s words, suggested reflections “on fame and on man’s injustice to the dead” was fully developed later: the Playfair Monument, the Dugald Stewart Monument, the National Memorial – the outstanding paraphernalia of Calton Hill.
At the top of the Nelson Monument, a time ball is lowered at one o’clock in the afternoon, a silent but visible signal to sea faring folk on the Firth of Forth, and a companion to the artillery blast from the Castle Rock. As part of the original design, small apartments were built for disabled seaman at the foot of the monument, but unsurprisingly a Tower on a hill failed to attract any takers. The apartments later became a restaurant where customers could eat and drink to the memory of the hero of Trafalgar.
On the 21st October 2014, the two hundred and ninth anniversary of Trafalgar, the Monument was bedecked with flags. England Expects. A service had taken place in the morning to commemorate Nelson’s decisive victory. For one glorious autumn afternoon this much maligned monument became the billowing mast of a sailing ship. For a day, withering aesthetic judgments and meaningless star ratings were, thank goodness, cast aside. Distracted and moved, I grabbed my camera.
Above the main entrance to the Nelson Monument, an inscription reads:
“To the memory of Vice Admiral HORATIO LORD VISCOUNT NELSON, of the great victory of Trafalgar, too dearly purchased with his blood, the Grateful Citizens of Edinburgh have erected this monument, not to express their unavailing sorrow for his death, nor yet to celebrate the matchless glories of his life, but by his noble example to teach their sons to emulate what they admire and, like him, when duty requires it, to die for their country AD MDCCCV”