The Nelson Monument on Calton Hill is one of the defining features of the Edinburgh skyline, and provides probably the best vantage point for views across the city and beyond. Yet the monument is not just a historic and striking building, because for the past 150 years it has also had an important practical function to perform.
The monument was built to commemorate Admiral Lord Nelson, who died at the Battle of Trafalgar during the Napoleonic Wars in 1805. The battle was a victory for the Royal Navy, but Nelson was fatally wounded. When the news reached Edinburgh, a group of subscribers banded together to raise funds for a monument to express their gratitude to the Admiral. An initial idea was to build the monument in the shape of a Chinese pagoda, but this was quickly rejected in favour of a design by Robert Burn, which was more appropriately modelled on an upturned telescope. Building work began in 1807 but fundraising was so slow that the monument was not completed until 1816.
By then the subscribers were desperate for money, and so it was opened to the public with a small entrance fee. There was a suggestion at first that disabled ex-sailors might live in the monument, but in the end it was the widow of a Petty Officer, Mrs Kerr, who moved in as a tenant. She set up a restaurant selling ‘breakfast, soups, jellies, dinners, tea and coffee’, and on the anniversary of Trafalgar the Edinburgh Nelson Club met there to commemorate the battle. Perhaps the oddest visitor to the monument was a visitor from Lapland, who took his herd of reindeer to the top of the monument in 1822 as a publicity stunt.
The monument’s prominent position also made it useful for sending messages across the city. The arrival of a shipment of the latest London fashions at Leith was once signalled from its tower, and in recent years the cancellation of royal garden parties because of rain was also advertised with flags flown from the monument.
Then in 1852 the monument took on a new importance as a time ball was installed at the top of the tower. It was the idea of Professor Charles Piazzi Smith, the Astronomer Royal in Scotland, who could see its use in helping ships to navigate at sea. The ball would drop at exactly one o’clock as a signal to ships moored in the Firth of Forth, enabling captains to check the accuracy of their chronometers and correctly calculate their longitude at sea.
The flaw in this plan of course was that an audible signal was also needed, for those days when a thick mist made the time ball invisible. So in 1861 the One o’clock Gun from Edinburgh Castle was introduced. For a while the two time signals were connected by a wire that ran across the city, which fired the gun automatically as the time ball fell.
In 2009 the Nelson Monument and its time ball were restored as part of the Twelve Monument Project, a joint initiative of the City of Edinburgh Council and Edinburgh World Heritage. With funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund and many private donors, the stonework was conserved and the time ball was carefully removed for specialist restoration. After more than 150 years of use the internal gearing mechanism also needed attention, but all the work was completed using only traditional materials and retaining as much of the original as possible.
Thanks to the project the time ball still drops at one o’clock on most days, and is operated by an employee of Ritchie & Son Clockmakers, as it has been since 1852. No longer needed for navigation, the daily ritual has become a tradition of the city. Along with the gun from Edinburgh Castle it is one of those quirky events that adds to Edinburgh’s distinctiveness.
Those visitors prepared to take the 147 steps to the top of the monument are rewarded with the best view of the city. You have a stunning panoramic view of Edinburgh, with buildings such as the Scottish Parliament and the Castle competing with the scenery of Arthur’s Seat, Salisbury Crags and Princes Street Gardens. All in all, well worth that long climb.
Read about Twelve Monuments conservation project here.