The Nelson Monument stands at the highest point of Calton Hill, built in honour of 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 as a tribute to Nelson. The design, by Robert Burn, was appropriately modelled on an upturned telescope.
The monument’s prominent position made it useful for sending messages across the city. 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.
This unusual structure plays a very valuable part in the overall visual composition of Calton Hill, and is one of Edinburgh’s most prominent landmarks. It is also important for its association not only with the Battle of Trafalgar but for the part it has played in the history of timekeeping in the city.
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. All of the work was completed using only traditional materials and retaining as much of the original as possible.
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