Genius Loci of the Athens of the North: the cultural significance of Edinburgh’s Calton Hill
Carter McKee, Kirsten
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At the eastern end of the Edinburgh World Heritage Site, a protrusion of volcanic rock known as Calton Hill is situated on the northern side of the Waverley Valley. This area sits approximately 100m above sea level at its highest point - around 20m higher than Princes Street in the First ‘New Town’ and at approximately the same height as the Castle Esplanade in the ‘Old Town’ of Edinburgh. During the early nineteenth century, the hill and its land to the north were developed, to extend the city of Edinburgh towards the Port of Leith, in order to open up new routes of access and communications between the port, the city, and the surrounding lands to the south and east. The resulting development provoked debates on the best approach to the development of the urban landscape, the suitability and resonance of specific architectural styles within the urban realm, and the use of public funds for large-scale urban development projects. In addition, the visual prominence of the hill in the city presented a stage for massive changes to the visual context of the boundaries of the city, the relationship between the Old and New Towns, and Edinburgh’s relationship with its surrounding countryside. This blurring of the rural and the urban alongside new interpretations of the classical and the gothic, further emphasised the discordance between societal classes, initially marked out by the mid 18th century expansion of the first New Town and which became further emphasised during the city’s industrial expansion in the latter half of the 19th century. The great care over the choice for the hill’s architectural character as an allegorical commentary on Scotland’s role within the constitutional development of the United Kingdom became muddied throughout the 19thcentury, as shifts in both societal perceptions and government constructs resulted in an evolution of the hill and its structures within the mindset of the Scottish populus. Although the structural evolution of the site during the later 19th and 20th centuries had lesser visual impact on the urban realm, as Scottish national identity swayed from a political to a culturally led discourse in architectural terms, perceptions of the structures on Calton Hill were considered to be representative of Scottish support for the construct of the British State during the 19th century. This was further confirmed by the development of the Scottish Office in the 1930s on the southern side of the hill, and the failed establishment of a Scottish Parliament in 1979, which was to be sited in the vacant Royal High School building. This culminated in the site becoming the focus for grassroots led campaigns for Scottish Independence and Home Rule by the later 20th century. This thesis therefore focuses on the changing relationship between the perception of the hill and its structures over time, by exploring the architectural evolution of the site within broader aesthetic, social and political dialogues. It considers the extent to which the site, its structures, and the discourse surrounding the development of the hill represent the nuances that define Scotland as a nation, and help us to further understand how Scots viewed their identity, within both a British and Scottish context from the late 18th to the early 20th centuries. This approach not only places the architecture on the hill within a broader discourse surrounding architecture’s relationship with national, state and imperial identities, it also demonstrates how a more nuanced exploration of urban landscapes can contribute to a better understanding of the contemporaneous societies who developed the urban realm, and the events and debates that surrounded their development. Due to the wide variety of themes that this thesis explores, and the extended timeframe that this work covers, the geographical limitations of the study area are mercurial in their extent, changing focus with the issues being discussed throughout the text. However, for clarity and for ease of reading, the physical study area has been defined as that of the external limits of Playfair’s 1819 plan for the Third New Town (Plate ii), which in the present day is defined through the following locations: The southern limit is the North Back of Canongate; the northern limit is the bottom of Leith Walk, at the intersection with Great Junction Street; the western limit is where Waterloo Place meets Princes Street, and follows Leith Street to the top of Broughton Street; and the eastern boundary is at the junction of Easter Road, Regent Road and Abbeymount, running down Easter Road to meet Leith Walk at its northernmost point.