The City Observatory stands on the summit of Calton Hill, near the East end of Princes Street and with in easy reach of Edinburgh’s City centre. Its buildings date back to 1776, and their classical architecture blends with many fine examples of telescope craftsmanship to make the Observatory unique. Here then, is an account of its rich and chequered history.

The Short Observatories

The grounds of the popular observatory

The grounds of the popular observatory

The first observatory on Calton Hill was founded in 1776 by Thomas Short, an optician from Leith, who returned from London with his late brother James’ twelve foot reflecting telescope and other instruments, with the aim of exhibiting them to the public for a small fee. A fund for an Observatory had been set up thirty-five years earlier by Colin Maclaurin, then Professor of Mathematics at Edinburgh University, and Short obtained this, together with a 99 year lease of half an acre of land on Calton Hill, on condition that he should make the telescopes available to university students.

A plan for the Observatory was drawn up by James Craig, architect of the New Town, and building commenced later the same year. The building was to be an octagonal tower some 48 feet high, with East and West pavilions, however, the architect Robert Adam suggested that it should be made to look like a fortress, with embrasures and buttresses. By the time one of the corner towers in the wall had been built, the money had run out, and the Town Council had lost interest. Short decided to use the round tower as a house, and a much smaller observatory was erected nearby.

The Short’s involvement on Calton Hill resumed in 1827, when Maria Theresa Short, the only surviving daughter of Thomas Short, returned from the West Indies. She found herself cut out of any share in the Observatory, which by then was firmly in the control of the Edinburgh Astronomical Institution. Claiming that she had assisted in the project, Maria managed to secure the return of the great telescope, and was granted permission to erect a wooden observatory near the National Monument, inside a palisade containing statues and side shows by one Robert Forrest.

The Observatory was advertised with three powerful telescopes, together with camera obscura and other instruments, however, opponents of the scheme complained of the “inferior scientific displays”, and of persons of ill repute being attracted to the “peep show”. Eventually the Town Council ordered the removal of the “offensive deformity”, despite a petition of 4000 signatures, and a plea that no defence had been heard. Maria was forcibly evicted in 1850, and the Observatory demolished, amidst protests about the crude manner in which instruments were thrown to the ground.

Not to be outdone, Maria took over an old building near the Castle, to run as a public observatory, with a museum of scientific and other curiosities. It is now the Camera Obscura and Outlook Tower.

The Edinburgh Astronomical Institution

The Astronomical Institution of Edinburgh was the first society in Britain devoted solely to the science of Astronomy. It was formed in 1811 by a group of gentlemen, initially for their own study and amusement, however, as membership grew to include much of the landed gentry and nobility, the Institution evolved the aim of establishing a proper observatory in Edinburgh. This was to have three different departments. A “scientific observatory” for the furtherance of astronomy and navigation, a “popular observatory” for general instruction and amusement, as well as a “physical cabinet” of books and instruments for use by members.

After examination of many possible sites around Edinburgh, the abandoned buildings on Calton Hill were soon acquired. The round Gothic Tower was converted into a popular observatory and camera obscura, and a transit telescope installed in a small building nearby. Of vital importance for the scientific observatory was exact knowledge of its geographic location, hence, in 1815, the old octagonal observatory was demolished and the ground levelled to provide a base for Captain Thomas Colby’s Trigonometrical Survey of Britain.

Playfair's 1818 building

Playfair’s 1818 building

The New Observatory was founded in 1818, to the plan of William Playfair, and is the earliest of his many Edinburgh masterpieces. It stands in the form of a Greek Temple of the Winds, and blends with the nearby classical architecture which earned Edinburgh the title “Athens of the North”. The Institution presented a loyal address to the King during his triumphal visit to Edinburgh in 1822, and he was pleased to bestow the title of “Royal Observatory of King George IV”. The accolade was a hollow one, as no money remained to purchase the expensive instruments. These were finally installed with the aid of a Government grant, after many delays, in the early 1830’s.

The Scottish Astronomers Royal

The title of Royal Observatory nominally elevated the Observatory to the same status as the great Royal Observatory at Greenwich. In practice, there were no immediate changes, however the way was paved for the creation of the post of Scottish Astronomer Royal. Mention must first be made of John Playfair, who would almost certainly have held the title had it existed in his lifetime.

Playfair was Professor of Mathematics and later of Natural Philosophy at Edinburgh University. His publication of “Illustrations of the Huttonian Theory of The Earth” in 1802 was to have profound influence on geological thinking. He became the Astronomical Institution’s first president in 1812, and was the major driving force behind the establishment of the New Observatory. He did not live to see its completion, however, and is commemorated by a monument erected near the Observatory by his nephew William Playfair. The monument bears a latin inscription which, for the curious, translates:

To John Playfair
His friends’ piety
Spurred on by constant longings
in the place where he himself
had once dedicated a temple
to his Urania
Placed this monument
Born 10th March 1748
Died 19th July 1819

(Urania was the muse of astronomy)

Thomas Henderson

Born in Dundee in 1798, Thomas Henderson began his career as a lawyer’s clerk, before his keen interest in astronomy led to his appointment as H.M. Astronomer at the Cape of Good Hope in 1831. He carried out a great deal of astronomical work there, but poor health caused him to return to Scotland after only two years. He was appointed first Scottish Astronomer Royal in 1834, and worked diligently at the observatory for ten years, making over 60, 000 observations of star positions before his death in 1844.

Henderson is best remembered as the first person actually to measure the distance of a fixed star. Publishing in January 1839, he was beaten to the credit by Bessel, whose independent measurements of the star 61 Cygni were published three months earlier. Bessel later visited Edinburgh, and the two men became best of friends.

The star Henderson measured was alpha Centauri, which is not visible from Britain, observations being made at the Cape. It is now known to be the nearest star to the Sun, but is still so distant that its light takes 4.5 Years to reach us.

Charles Piazzi Smyth

The successor to Henderson was the brilliant but eccentric Charles Piazzi Smyth (1819-1900), son of the renowned English amateur astronomer, Admiral William Henry Smyth. Shortly after his appointment in 1846, the Astronomical Institution was wound up, and the observatory placed under Treasury control. There then set in a long period of neglect. Most of Piazzi Smyth’s best work was carried out away from the routine of Calton Hill.

In 1856, he undertook his famous scientific voyage to the mountain peaks of Tenerife – on his honeymoon! Here he pioneered the modern practice of siting telescopes at high altitudes for better observing conditions. He also made an estimate of the amount of heat radiation received from the Moon, and thus pioneered infra-red astronomy.

Piazzi Smyth had a major obsession with the pseudo-science of pyramidology, which is founded in the belief that the measurements of the Great Pyramid contain a mystical significance. Indeed he was the only person ever to have resigned his fellowship of the Royal Society, following their refusal to publish his pyramid papers.

Although the time service at the Observatory was well maintained, many of the instruments were obsolete, and had ceased to function. A Royal Commission examined the Observatory in 1876, but recommendations for new instruments were largely ignored. Piazzi Smyth resigned, disillusioned, in 1888,and devoted the rest of his life to cloud photography in the Lake District.

The Government then threatened to close down the Observatory, but when news of this intention reached the ears of James Ludovic Lindsay, Earl of Crawford, he was horrified, and offered his entire collection of instruments and priceless library of astronomical books to enable the foundation of a new Royal Observatory. This was completed on Blackford Hill in 1896. Meanwhile the Calton Hill Observatory was handed over to the Town Council and became the City Observatory.

The Altazimuth Telescope by Troughton and Simms

The Altazimuth Telescope by Troughton and Simms

William Peck: the first City Astronomer

Prior to his appointment as Director of Calton Hill Observatory in 1896, William Peck was observer at the private observatory of Robert Cox, a glue manufacturer from Gorgie. Peck was an ingenious maker of telescopes and instruments, and was also a fine author and draughtsman. Knighted in 1917, he ran the City Observatory very ably as a popular observatory until his death in 1925.

Instruments of the City Observatory

The original instruments from the 1830’s are a unique example of early telescope craftsmanship. They comprise a great Transit Circle by Fraunhofer and Repsold of Hamburg, together with a three-foot Altazimuth Telescope and six-foot Mural Circle, both by Troughton and Simms of London. These functioned, together with a Sidereal Clock by Bryson, and a Mean Time Clock by Reid & Auld, to provide Edinburgh’s time service, and to make measurements of star positions. The Altazimuth Telescope and Transit Telescope are still at the Observatory, the latter still occupying its site on the Edinburgh Meridian in the Observatory’s East wing, while the Mural Circle is currently under restoration at the Royal Scottish Museum.

Towards the end of the l9th Century, several instruments were installed. A new thirty-foot dome was built to house a 22-inch refractor. One of the largest of its time in Britain, the instrument was old and never performed well, being finally scrapped in 1926. The dome upstairs which formerly housed the Altazimuth Instrument, played host to a 24-inch reflector before 1896, when a fine six-inch Cooke Photo-visual refractor was donated by William McEwan the brewer, to mark the building’s inception as City Observatory. The instrument has recently been restored to a high standard by Charles Frank Ltd, and is currently the Observatory’s main telescope. Also erected about this time was the Crawford Dome, which used to house a telescope of the Earl of Crawford, and the Cox Dome, which houses a 13-inch reflecting telescope.


The need for a time service for Edinburgh, and the neighbouring port of Leith, was brought to light in the early l9th Century, when the master of a foreign ship docked at Leith to discover that he was unable to rate his ships’ chronometer. The recently formed Astronomical Institution set out to fulfill this need and, in 1812, John Playfair set up a transit telescope in a small building next to the Gothic Tower. Time was displayed on what was called a “Politicians Clock”, so called because it presented two faces. One face pointed inwards, to be read by the astronomers, while the other pointed outwards, in order that the citizens of Edinburgh, and mariners from the port of Leith, could set their watches and ships’ chronometers accurately.

The time ball on the Nelson Monument

The time ball on the Nelson Monument

With the construction of the New Observatory, the time service was greatly improved. The great Transit Circle was set up in the East wing, and defined the Edinburgh Meridian, along similar lines to the meridian at Greenwich. The telescope was used to regulate a clock, which in turn controlled several slave clocks, at the General Post Office, University and Museum.

Mariners still had to trek up from Leith with their ships’ chronometers, however, until 1854, when a time ball was erected on top of the Nelson Monument, in full view of the harbour. In 1861 the famous time gun was added, fired by means of electrical signals along a single span of wire between Calton Hill and Castle Hill. These

 The 6-inch photovisual Cooke telescope

The 6-inch photovisual Cooke telescope

Erected in 1896 under the dome upstairs, the Observatory’s main instrument has been restored to a high standard by Charles Frank Ltd. Its massive equatorial mount and fine optics give excellent high magnification views of the night sky.

The Astronomical Society of Edinburgh

Founded in 1924, Edinburgh’s Astronomical Society exists to further interest in astronomy among people in Edinburgh and the surrounding area, catering for amateur and professional alike. The Society operated from the Observatory from 1938 until 2008 when vandalism rendered the site unsuitable for meetings.

Copyright © 1984, 1995 The Astronomical Society of Edinburgh
Produced by Jamie Shepherd, BSc
Second edition and Electronic version by Graham Rule, BA, FRAS, FRSSA
Historical Research by Dave Gavine, MA, BSc, PhD, FRAS
Illustrations by Duncan Waldron and Jamie Shepherd