I’ve discovered a new condition called cityscape photography fever.
It’s what happens when you stay in Observatory House at the top of Calton Hill.
This historic building, one of the hilltop’s oldest landmarks, has been restored by Collective Architecture through the World Heritage site’s residents, the center for contemporary art, Collective. It’s now available as a two bedroom holiday let. On the ground floor, there’s also a one bedroom apartment that will be available to rent at the same time, or separately, from March 2022.
Of course, there are the endless pictures you can take from the outside of this iconic 18th-century building, once the home of various astronomers as well as its architect James Craig, who designed the layout of Edinburgh’s New Town. However, once you get inside, the symptoms of this fever become chronic. They are exacerbated if you’re overly excited Edinburgh natives, who’ve been up this hill a million times, but never imagined that they’d actually get to stay the night.
Instead of gazing at the heavens, we were obsessed with the horizon. We found ourselves going from window to window.
The ones at the front, from the kitchen, look out to William Playfair’s City Observatory, which is now one of Collective’s galleries and shop, the Playfair Monument and this architect’s National Monument – aka, Edinburgh’s Disgrace, his half-finished tribute to the Athens of the North. You get the same view from the upstairs bathroom, where there’s a beautiful matte white bath, like half an egg. From the kitchen’s side windows, there’s Nelson’s Monument and the city spreads out until misty Hillend.
There are more vantage points from the living room, where you can also spy on dog-walkers, joggers and tourists taking the path that curves around the back of the building. This comfortable space, with its huge red velvet sofa, was part of the extension of the house, which was instigated by royal astronomer, Charles Piazzi Smythe, in the 1880s.
From the dining room, you can see the new W Hotel, and wonder what Craig would have thought, along with The Balmoral, The Glasshouse’s rooftop garden, and the Usher Hall, as well as every other dome and spire. And that view is a 24/7 thing. At night, the city is like a fiber optic rug. You imagine it’d be pitch black up here, but it’s not.
Apparently, this site lost its Royal Observatory title to Blackford Hill in 1896, partly because of rising levels of light pollution from the New Town.
That’s nothing to today’s glow. We watched the sunset from the house’s Astronomer’s Suite, where the inside of the domed observatory roof has been dappled pink and brown by artist Rachel Adams. It echoes the sky outside at dusk. Other rooms in this building feature work from more Collective artists, including Rabiya Choudhry and Thomas Aitchison. There’s a Jonathan Owen photograph in the second double bedroom, and harlequins with fruit and flowers, by Christian Newby, in the dining room, which is part of the Gothic tower and the oldest section of the building.
The work is subtle, and doesn’t distract from the building’s charm. Although there are contemporary touches and mod-cons, there are still the remains of maid’s bells in the rooms, original floorboards that pop and creak, a beautiful staircase and original fireplaces, and sash and case windows. We stay on one of the windiest days of the year, and the house grows like an old ship. It’s exciting, and we feel about 12 years old when we disembark to walk around the Collective’s space, which is walled and enclosed at night, or whenever the galleries and The Lookout restaurant are shut.
Thus, if you stay here in the summer, you’re not going to get naked Beltane festival participants coming too close to your front door.
We gaze into the dark window at Transit House, where the Politician’s Clock, made in 1812, is housed. It was once used by Port O Leith sailors to set their ship’s chronometers, but stopped working when it was hit by lightning in the 1860s. However, it had become redundant before then, as the Time Ball, which drops from the top of Nelson’s Monument at 1pm every day, had replaced it.
We pass The Lookout, which is usually open to serve breakfast, lunch and dinner to those staying in Observatory House, so you can take full advantage of the harlequin adorned dining room. Sadly, on our visit, the restaurant is closed, so we just fantasize about the Dunbar crab tart and their magnificent cheeseboard.
After we’ve checked out, we exit through one of the Collective’s heavy wooden doors.
“Can you go in there?” asks a tourist, mid selfie. “Not today, but you can stay in THAT house”, I say. “Wow, the views must be amazing.”
Indeed. I have the photographic evidence, and plenty of it.
Three nights’ self-catering for four in Observatory House costs from £1,050; three nights’ self-catering for two in the one-bedroom apartment will start from £390, www.observatory-house.art/book
A message from the Editor:
Thank you for reading this article. We’re more reliant on your support than ever as the shift in consumer habits brought about by coronavirus impacts our advertisers.
If you haven’t already, please consider supporting our trusted, fact-checked journalism by taking out a digital subscription.
George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.