Edinburgh New Town Blog

Calton Hill Part 1: the Nelson Monument

Calton Hill

Nelson Monument Calton Hill
Nelson Monument from St Andrews House


Calton Hill in Edinburgh is at the west end of Princes Street, just a short walk away from Anthemion in New Town, and you’ll get your reward for the wee climb to get to the top. There are a number of historic monuments and 360º views.  It’s an excellent way to get the lay of the land and to see several of Edinburgh’s seven hills.

Calton Hill Nelson Monument
Calton Hill with the Nelson Monument, from North Bridge

Nelson Monument

Make sure you don’t miss a visit to the Nelson Monument. It was built between 1807 and 1815 to commemorate Nelson’s victory and death at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805. (Around 20% of the military in the Battle were Scots.  10-year-old John Doig from Leith was among them, and was the youngest crew member). The monument sits on the highest point at Calton Hill.  Its original purpose was as a signal mast to the sailors in the port of Leith. As you climb the 143 steps to the gallery at the top, you can see why!

Holyrood Nelson Monument Calton Hill
View of the Palace of Holyrood House from the Nelson Monument
Calton Hill Nelson Monument
View from the Burns Monument

The city fathers discussed the design of the monument at length, and wrestled with the inevitable funding problems.  They finally settled on architect Robert Burn’s design. He modelled the monument on an upturned telescope. The castellations on top of the monument mirrored those of the notorious Calton Jail, which was on the south of the hill.

Calton Burial Ground Jail
The Governor’s House – all that remains of Calton Jail

Money was tight, so when Mrs Kerr, the widow of a petty officer, leased the monument to set up a tea room, she helped provide the necessary funding to complete the job.

The Time Ball

In 1853, the city added the time ball. It signalled the time to the sailors who set their chronometers by its rise and fall, and were thus able to calculate longitude more precisely. Originally, the clock in the nearby City Observatory (about which, more in future!) triggered the clock via an underground wire.   The ball rises just before 1pm and falls at exactly 1pm. Because on foggy days the sailors could not see the ball, the authorities established the one o’clock gun at Edinburgh Castle so that the signal could be heard if not seen. The two were synchronised via a very long telegraph wire between Calton Hill and the Castle. For 150 years the ball faithfully fulfilled its role, until a storm damaged it in 2007.

Nelson Monument Calton Hill Inverleith Park
Nelson Monument from Inverleith Park


The City of Edinburgh Council and restored the monument in 2009 and the ball was repaired, and you can still see it in operation today.Ritchie & Son Clockmakers have had the responsibility of operating the ball since 1852 and continue to this day.

Trafalgar Day

On Trafalgar Day, 21 October, every year, the city runs flags with the message that Nelson set out at the start of the battle: “England expects that every man will do his duty”. On a slightly more down-to-earth matter, Holyrood Palace has also used flags from the monument when they signalled the cancellation of royal garden parties due to rain!

Edinburgh's Folly view leith bass rock
Edinburgh’s Folly, Port of Leith, and even Bass Rock! from the Monument

If you’re fit to climb the stairs, it’s well worth a visit.  The views are unparalleled.  It’s open all year round.


Robert Burns: Scottish poetry for everyone

Burns Statue Portrait Gallery Christmas
Burns Statue, National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh

Burns: The Words

You may think you don’t know any poetry by Robert Burns– but you do!

Ever linked arms and sung Auld Lang Syne? Or remarked that “the best laid plans of mice and men go oft astray?” Or hummed the song “Coming through the rye”? You may be surprised that they are all works by Robert Burns, Scotland’s national poet.

The Man

Burns was a ploughman, born and raised in Ayrshire to tenant farmers. His parents paid for a decent basic education, and he continued to study on his own. His poetry was very much in tune with the literary tastes of the time: he was just ahead of the countryside loving Romantics (Shelley, Wordsworth, Coleridge).  Thus the general public loved his use of his country experiences to reflect on universal considerations. Although he was very adept at writing in English Burns chose to write in Scots language or dialect.  Many readers feel that the lilt and language add beauty and atmosphere to his work.

When he moved to Edinburgh in 1786 (on a borrowed pony!) the Scottish enlightenment was in full swing. So it was that young Burns found himself amongst some learned men – metaphysicians, philosophers and Earls!  The egalitarian poet must have been happy with the set-up in Edinburgh Old Town, where all levels of society lived side-by-side.  However, he was also a womaniser and heavy drinker, and he soon spent the fortune he made through his poetry.  Consequently, he took a job as an Exciseman (tax collector) in Dumfries – not something that particularly suited to his personality, rockstar lifestyle (whisky, women and song!) or his social views. But he continued to write poetry and during this period wrote some of his most stunning works.  Amongst them was the glorious Tam O’ Shanter. (Once you know the story, have a wee listen to Malcolm Arnold’s musical interpretation.  It’s great!)

Sadly, Burns’ health deteriorated rapidly, and he died of endocarditis at age 37.  He was buried in St Michael’s churchyard in Dumfries, with full military honours.

Although “Burns Country” remains his beloved Ayrshire, there are monuments to him in Edinburgh: a beautiful statue in the main hall of the National Portrait Gallery, and a Monument down from Calton Hill, looking towards Arthur’s Seat – a short walk away from Anthemion.

Burns Monument Edinburgh
Burns Monument, Edinburgh

The Memory

Scots throughout the world celebrate Burns’ Night on 25th January each year, on the anniversary of the poet’s birthday.  In the past, Burns Suppers were an all-male affair, but nowadays both men and women attend.

If you attend a traditional Burns supper, the format will go something like this:


Selkirk Grace

Piping in of the Haggis

Recital of the “Toast to the Haggis” by Robert Burns



“The Immortal Memory of Robert Burns”, a speech about the poet and his life

“Toast tae the Lassies”, a speech (by a man) celebrating the fairer sex. This is normally humorous and can be quite risqué! (Burns would have approved, as he wasn’t averse to the odd risqueé poem himself!)

“Reply on Behalf of the Lassies”, a speech (now normally by a lady) that gives as good as it gets in terms of humour at the expense of the men!

Toasts, of course, are with a wee dram, so keep your glass filled!

The night ends with everyone standing in a circle singing Auld Lang Syne.  Please note, for the purist, that there is no “for the sake of” in the song, and that you shouldn’t link arms until the verse that starts “And there’s a hand, my trusty fiere”.  Oh, and it’s Syne with an “s”, not a “z”!  There you go, you’re all set!

There are plenty of less formal Burns Suppers on the go, and a three-day event this year on New Town’s Rose Street.  In other venues, you might still expect a haggis, whisky – and sometimes a good going ceilidh (Scottish dancing) to round off the night.

And when it’s all over, you could do worse than listen to some Burns songs.  One of my favourite albums is Dougie MacLean‘s  “Tribute“.  Well worth a listen.  I’ve taken it with me all around the world!





The Unicorn: An unusual national animal

England has its lion, France its cockerel, the United States their eagle, and Scotland has ……. the unicorn!

Unicorn figurehead ship Dundee
Frigate HMS Unicorn, Dundee Harbour


coat of arms with unicorn
James V Royal Arms, main door Holyrood Palace

But why would Scotland make this extremely strange choice of national animal? To find out, we have to go back in time to Celtic lore and legend.   The ancients believed unicorns had healing powers. Throughout the ages, people thought they could purify water, and heal rubella, measles, and even the plague! Although the unicorn symbolised purity and innocence, it also stood for masculinity, power and courage (eat your heart out, My Little Pony!) It was such a free, wild animal that it had to be chained – and only a virgin maiden could tame it! It would choose to die rather than be taken alive. One can see how our Scottish kings would appreciate the symbolism.


Unicorns in Heraldry

edinburgh ice sculptures unicorn
Unicorn Ice Sculpture, Ice Adventure, Edinburgh Christmas

In Scottish heraldry, it goes back to the 12th century, when William I used it in his coat of arms. The unicorn was the enemy of the lion – perhaps another reason to keep it in chains.  Might King Robert the Bruce have seen the significance of this enmity when he adopted it as Scotland’s national animal in the 14th century?  The unicorn also appeared on Scottish coins in the 1400s and 1500s.  Then, in 1603 came the Union of the Crowns.  James VI of Scotland, now also James I of England, decided to change the coat of arms.  He replaced one of the two unicorns in his Scottish Royal Arms with a lion to symbolise the unity of England and Scotland.

unicorn chains edinburgh Holyrood
Holyrood Palace

Unicorn Horn Marketing

While unicorn horn isn’t the marketing draw it used to be (in the middle ages merchants could make a pretty penny because of its well-advertised healing powers) we can still enjoy going searching for the motif as we travel through Scotland.  There are several close to Anthemion!And don’t worry if you don’t believe in uhttp://www.anthemionapartmentedinburgh.co.unicorns – gone are the days when Inquisition could burn you at the stake for doubting its existence!

Unicorn sign for antiques shops
Unicorn Antiques, Dundas St, Edinburgh

To get you started, here are a few examples unicorns in Scotland – where have you spotted our national animal?


Soldier’s Trunk in Edinburgh Castle

Quite a mascot at the Castle!

As there’s been wonderful winter weather in Edinburgh recently, I took a dauner from Anthemion up to Edinburgh Castle.  When I go there, I always make a point of looking at the 78th Highlanders monument on the Esplanade.  Edinburgh Castle Monument Edinburgh Castle Elephant

What makes it special is the elephant – and there’s a reason he’s there!

In 1838 when the regiment came back from their posting in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) they came home with an unusual souvenir – an elephant they had adopted as a pet during their time abroad.  The elephant became the regimental mascot and headed their parades.  He lived on site in the Castle stables, looked after by Private McIntosh.  Before long the soldier discovered he had a drinking buddy: the elephant showed a taste for beer, and used to reach its trunk through the bars in the canteen windows to get its evening brew!


Oddly, the elephants toenails are on display in the National War Museum within the Castle!





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Poppy Day Comes to Edinburgh

Poppy Day

Anyone visiting Scotland (and indeed the UK in general) between now and 12 November will no doubt notice that many people are wearing red poppies. The Answer is Poppy Day.

Remembrance Sunday is the nearest Sunday to the anniversary of the end of the First World War, when Armistice was declared in 1918 on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month.

Poppy Day Adam Smith

Why Poppies?

As a symbol, they come from the 1915 poem “On Flanders Field” by Canadian Lt Col Dr John McCrae. He saw the poppies popping up as the first signs of life on the muddy battlefields of Ypres. The poem inspired Moina Michael, an American teacher, to have disabled ex-servicemen make and sell silk poppies. A member of the French YWCA, Anna Guerin, saw how these poppies could support ex-servicemen and families affected by the war. She spread the idea to Canada, New Zealand and Australia. In 1921 she met Field Marshall Earl Haig, and persuaded him to adopt the poppy for the British Legion.

Poppies move to Britain

The Legion ordered 9 million poppies for the first Poppy Day in November of that year. The poppies sold out almost immediately.  The demand was so high that Scotland did not see many of these poppies for sale, and in 1926 Earl Haig’s wife set up a poppy factory in Edinburgh for Scottish sales.

The Edinburgh Connection

When you walk along the Royal Mile, look out for Panmure Close. The entrance has wrought ironwork poppies on top. This close was the location of the poppy factory from 1931 to 1965. The factory has now moved to Warriston in Edinburgh, and poppies are still made there by hand by disabled ex-servicemen.

The photo shows the entrance to Panmure Close. On the left, the plaque to the poppy factory. On the right is a plaque to the Adam Smith, pioneer of political economy, who lived in Panmure House for 12 years!  Edinburgh does indeed have a multi-layered history.