There are two observatories in Edinburgh, the Royal Observatory on Blackford Hill and the City Observatory up on Calton Hill, along with monuments to Nelson, Dugald Stewart and Robert Burns and the unfinished National Monument with a predominant Greek architectural style reinforcing Edinburgh’s title of ‘Athens of the North’. The history of the two observatories is intertwined as the City Observatory was the Royal Observatory before the latter moved to Blackford Hill in 1896.
The origins of the observatory on Calton Hill go back to the mid-18th century when a joint private and university observatory was created in buildings which are Gothic in style. Playfair’s neoclassical temple with its four wings round a central dome came at the highest part of the hill in 1822 as the Royal Observatory.
The Observatory was latterly occupied by the Edinburgh Astronomical Society, but they moved out in 2009 and the buildings had various temporary uses until a £1million refurbishment project by Edinburgh City Council in partnership with the Collective contemporary art gallery, restoring the buildings, creating a visitor centre and new art spaces plus, in a new building, a restaurant with incredible views across Edinburgh, and also creating a new landmark clinging dangerously to the edge of the hill when seen from the east end of Princes Street
I last visited the Collective four years ago, before the refurbishment, so it was good to see the project completed and the new spaces occupied. The Collective specialises in contemporary art on show in its new Hillside and Dome spaces and you will either love it or hate it. The current installation ‘saracen go home’ by Glasgow artist Sulaiman Majali where you sit in a waiting room and experience the sounds around it, did little for me, I’m afraid, but I was the only visitor there at the time so perhaps I didn’t experience it fully? The Dome was between installations, so I look forward to returning to see the two spaces working together.
It would be good if the gallery and Edinburgh Museums could use the exterior spaces for contemporary sculpture – this could be an amazing addition to this windswept hilltop location.