Site History

The New Observatory And Playfair's Monument, Thomas Shepherd, 1829, City of Edinburgh Council – Libraries

Site History

The City Observatory
Calton Hill is the birthplace of astronomy and timekeeping in Edinburgh. Within the walled grounds of Collective sits a collection of buildings including the City Observatory - designed by William Henry Playfair in 1818- the Transit House, City Dome, Observatory House and Playfair Monument. The City Observatory stands in the centre, a temple to scientific innovation and discovery.

The site forms a vital component in the group of buildings on Calton Hill, which are central to the UNESCO World Heritage Site and both architecturally and culturally significant to the history of Edinburgh and Scotland.

Astronomy and timekeeping
Astronomy on the site dates from 1776 when the first Observatory, founded by Thomas Short, was built to a design by James Craig, the architect of Edinburgh’s New Town. The Transit House, dating from 1812, was used for accurate timekeeping by observing the transit of stars across the meridian right up until Thomas Henderson (the First Astronomer Royal for Scotland) was installed as Director of the City Observatory in August 1834. Originally, sailors from the Port of Leith would set their chronometers (time pieces) by walking up Calton Hill and observing the ‘politician’s clock’ in the window of the Transit House - so called as the time was displayed on two faces, one facing in, one out.

The Observatory houses two telescopes, an 8.3ft Fraunhofer-Repsold transit telescope installed in the west wing in 1831 and a 6 inch astronomical observatory refracting telescope, made by T Cooke, York, in 1896, housed upstairs in the McEwan Dome.

Astronomical Institution and Royal Observatory
The City Observatory itself was commissioned by the Astronomical Institution, founded in 1811, the first society in Britain devoted solely to the science of astronomy. The Institution presented a loyal address to the King during his visit to Edinburgh in 1822, where he bestowed the title of 'Royal Observatory of King George IV'. In 1896 the Royal Observatory relocated to Blackford Hill, just to the south of the city. The City Observatory continued to be used by the Astronomical Society of Edinburgh from the late 1930s until 2009.

Under the direction of Astronomer Royal Charles Piazzi Smythe, a ‘time-ball’, visible from the Port of Leith, was installed on top of the nearby Nelson Monument in 1853 which dropped at 1pm each day at a signal from the Observatory. The time-ball, later superseded by the One O'Clock gun at Edinburgh Castle, which was also linked by cable to the Observatory, has been restored and still drops every day.

Collective and the City Observatory
Collective was established in 1984 as an organisation dedicated to the presentation of new art. Collective first became involved with the site when it commissioned artists Kim Coleman and Jenny Hogarth to exhibit work in the Observatory during the 2010 Edinburgh Art Festival. In 2013, Collective moved to a temporary gallery space on Calton Hill and began fundraising to restore and develop the site in partnership with City of Edinburgh Council as a new kind of observatory, where visitors are invited to look at, think about, and produce contemporary art. Collective opened to the public in November 2018.

Find out more about Collective’s work here.