Calton Hill, Journeys and Evocations, by Stuart McHardy & Donald Smith

There is a strangeness to Calton Hill. The volcanic fragment is neither the tallest nor largest of Edinburgh’s numerous hills–indeed, at just 103 metres (338 feet) it’s dwarfed by Arthur’s Seat barely half a mile to the south–but it has a unique sense of separateness from the Scottish capital, “stubbornly enduring as an untamed space encircled by the city”. Though one of the world’s earliest public parks, it retains an air of being distinct; after all, the most iconic views of Edinburgh, looking west towards the Castle and the New Town, are those seen from Calton Hill–which at best will include only some of the monuments on the hill itself.

This compact new volume by historian and writer Stuart McHardy and the Director of the Scottish Storytelling Centre, Donald Smith, gathers together stories and histories about Calton Hill, some told in prose, a few in poetry, along with a range of journalistic images which, alas, do little to progress the art of monochrome photography. A Robert Louis Stevenson extract not withstanding, this is a book of two parts: McHardy’s “A Radical Tour” is a relatively straightforward recounting of the histories behind the various buildings and monuments on and around the hill; in contrast, Smith’s “Pillars of Folly and Wisdom” is an altogether more colloquial, expressive unearthing the hill’s wider political and cultural archaeology. (The Nelson Monument, for example, “is a salient reminder of Scotland’s active involvement in the British Empire’s first global conflict”.)

For readers who think of Calton Hill as little more than a useful viewpoint or the venue for modern-day Beltane celebrations, this volume is an interesting reminder that it’s so much more. Not least the idea that it’s “a scientific landscape”, both in the sense of it being geologically “the outcome of a long natural evolution” and the location of buildings that celebrate “many of those who have investigated and explained the evolution of life as well as the physical sciences”. Calton Hill, don’t forget, was the original location of the city’s Observatory–though the tales of family squabbles and “Edinburgh’s near fatal predilection for architectural dispute” will surely raise a wry smile with most of the city’s current inhabitants.

In these pre-Referendum days, there’s also a strong political thread through the book; understandable, given that the old Royal High School on Calton Hill had been earmarked as the intended home for a Scottish Parliament in 1979. Certainly this book helps explain why Calton Hill has a radical heritage going back, at the very least, to 1554 when it was the location for performances of the medieval drama Ane Satyre of the Thrie Estaitis. Fittingly, the book ends with a reprinting of the “Declaration of Calton Hill”, a document approved on the 100th night of what would become a 1,980 day vigil for the creation of a Scottish Parliament. “Sovereignty rests with the People of Scotland, and as such, we demand a referendum, to determine the will of the People of Scotland.” Well, we have now!