Listed Building

The only legal part of the listing under the Planning (Listing Buildings and Conservation Areas) (Scotland) Act 1997 is the address/name of site. Addresses and building names may have changed since the date of listing – see 'About Listed Buildings' below for more information. The further details below the 'Address/Name of Site' are provided for information purposes only.

Address/Name of Site


Status: Designated


There are no additional online documents for this record.


Date Added
Local Authority
Planning Authority
NT 26160 74164
326160, 674164


James Craig, 1776, building (to altered plans) until late 18th century; subsequent major alteration, 1883. L-plan, 3-storey (2-storey to N elevation) Gothic/ Scots Baronial building with buttressed round tower to SW corner; later machicolated and crenelated wing to E and crowstepped wing to N; 3-bay tower, 3-bay E elevation, 3-bay S elevation, 2-bay W elevation, single bay N elevation. Random rubble to 18th century sections; squared, tooled, snecked rubble to 19th century sections; predominantly polished margins with droved tabs to openings; squared rubble quoins to tower buttresses; droved ashlar to quoins and crowsteps to 19th century sections. Long and short quoins. Predominantly regular fenestration; pointed-arched openings with hoodmoulds to 1st floor (excluding N elevation).

SW (ROUND TOWER) ELEVATION: 3-bay elevation; 2 battered buttresses flanking central bay and single battered buttress to outer right. Windows to left and right bays only to ground floor. Corbelled eaves cornice broken by 2nd floor openings; to opening to left bay to 2nd floor, lower sections of jambs chamfered with chamfer-stops.

S ELEVATION: 3-bay elevation with battered buttress to outer right. Predominantly random rubble to left of centre bay, with low natural rock outcrop incorporated into elevation; squared tooled snecked rubble to remainder. To ground floor, no opening to centre bay, loophole to right bay. To left and centre bay: eaves band (partially covered by lead); modern metal balustrade. To right bay: machicolated, irregularly crenellated parapet with blind loophole to right; to base, cable moulding broken to centre by ornamental cannon; feather-edged coping.

E ELEVATION: 3-bay elevation with 2-storey setback battered buttress to outer left. Advanced left bay with curved return (corbelled out to form arris above 1st floor) to right: to ground floor, cruciform loophole; machicolated, irregularly crenellated parapet with blind loophole to right; to base, cable moulding broken to centre by ornamental cannon; feather-edged coping. To centre bay: in re-entrant angle, forestair from right leading to 1st floor landing; to ground floor, timber boarded door with ornamental cast-iron hinges in segmental-headed opening; to 1st floor, timber boarded door with ornamental cast-iron hinges and blocked fanlight in segmental-headed opening; lean-to roofed porch with shouldered arches with chamfered lintels to E and N and chamfered pier to NE corner. Small window to 2nd floor. Corbelled crenellated parapet; rope moulding to base; feather-edged coping. To right bay: crowstepped gable-end with thistle finial; curved return (corbelled out to form arris at 2nd floor cill level) to right; to ground floor, predominantly random rubble with no openings (see Notes); relieving arch above 2nd floor window; recessed square panel above.

N ELEVATION: ground floor obscured by enclosing walls; not seen 2002. Curved return (corbelled out to form arris above 1st floor level) to left. To right, to 1st floor, canted bay with single triangular-headed opening to each side; eaves band, cornice and pyramidal roof surmounted by wrought-iron finial.

W ELEVATION: to left, crowstepped gable-end with cross finial; random rubble to ground floor, squared, tooled, snecked rubble to upper floors; 2 windows to ground floor; relieving arch above 2nd floor window. To right: to ground floor, projecting section with loophole; to upper floors, corbelled-out stair oriel with corbelled and corniced parapet; blind trefoil to right, 2 windows at half-storey.

GLAZING etc: to ground floor, 12-pane glazing to tower and S and W elevations. To 1st floor, predominantly intersecting Y-pattern astragals to top sashes (to bottom sashes, 6-pane glazing to tower, 4-pane glazing to S elevation, plate glass to E and W elevations); plate glass to N elevation. To 2nd floor, predominantly 2-pane glazing to bottom sash and 4-pane glazing to top sash; 8-pane glazing to left bay to S elevation and stair oriel to W elevation; 4-pane glazing to centre bay to E elevation; 12-pane glazing to tower. All glazing in timber sash and case windows. Shallow conical roof to tower; pitched roof to N end of N wing; graded grey slate; stone skew putts; flat roof to E wing and S section of N wing. To E elevation, corniced wallhead stack forming part of parapet to right of advanced left section; to W elevation, corbelled-out corniced gable end stack to left; corniced stack to roof between tower and N wing; predominantly circular cans.

INTERIOR: inner timber and glazed door and screen forming small vestibule. Closed-well timber stair with quarter landings; acorn finials to newel posts to upper flight. To 1st floor tower room: ornate cornice; architraves door and windows; classical painted stone chimneypiece with decorative tiled cheeks. To 2nd floor tower room: plain cornice; architraved and corniced doorpiece; shallow domed ceiling painted with a scene from Norse mythology (see Notes). To 1st floor room in N wing, plain cornice; architraves to door and windows; classical painted stone chimneypiece with decorative tiled cheeks

Statement of Special Interest

Old Observatory House is of great importance for several reasons. It is one of the very few extant buildings designed by James Craig, the planner of Edinburgh?s first New Town. It is a well-known landmark in Edinburgh and is a vital component in the group of buildings (of which Old Observatory House is the earliest) on Calton Hill which are both architecturally and culturally significant in the history of the city and the nation. It is also highly significant in the history of astronomy in Scotland. In addition, the roof of the tower of Old Observatory House was the viewing point from which the world?s first 360? panorama, Robert Barker?s 'Panoramic View from Calton Hill,' was painted in the late 1780s.

The idea of an observatory was first put forward in the mid-18th century, and a fund was set up accordingly, but it was not until the 1770s that firm proposals were received by the Council. These came from Thomas Short, an Edinburgh optician and instrument maker who had inherited his brother James? respected telescope making business. Short proposed to build a relatively basic observatory, but following an increase in funding the scheme became more complex; the final proposal included an octagonal observatory with flanking pavilions for storage and a further, smaller observatory with accommodation for a keeper. James Craig began preparing the plans in 1775, and in 1776 the buildings were begun.

However, several sources report that Robert Adam suggested to Craig that a castellated appearance would be appropriate for the smaller Observatory House, recommending ?the appearance of a fortification?.with buttresses and embrasures, and having Gothick towers on the angles? (Arnot); (it is not certain a what point Craig altered his scheme to accommodate the increased funding and Adam?s recommendations; a plan (E.C.A.) of the site and proposed observatory, drawn by the surveyor John Laurie as late as 20th April 1776, shows a very simple scheme.) All concerned were so taken by the design that the building of the octagonal observatory was all but abandoned to concentrate on the construction of the Observatory House. This consumed all the available finance for the project, and in 1777 construction halted, with only one of the four intended buttressed towers and the compound wall complete. By 1780, a 2-bay, 3-storey wing to the east was extant, and Kincaid?s plan of 1784 is the first indication of a single storey wing to the north. However, the exact date of these wings is not clear, and it may be that they were completed in, or soon after, 1777. The mason for the project was William Pirnie, the plumber William Scott and John Sibbald was the smith who supplied the ironmongery and hardware. Many of the tradesmen were owed wages for several years, and even Craig himself was writing to the council as late as 1792 to demand unpaid architect?s fees.

After the funding ran out in 1771, the council withdrew from the contract, and siezed Short?s telescope in leu of payments. There then ensured a complicated wrangle over ownership which continued after Short?s death in 1788 until the telescope was finally reclaimed by his daughter Maria in 1820. Meanwhile, in 1788 the council took control of the project in partnership with James Douglas, Short?s grandson, who undertook to finish the Observatory. However, it seems that Douglas? contribution was limited, and that the project was completed in a style far inferior to the original plan. Douglas appears to have focused on the Observatory House rather than the main Octagonal Observatory (although a painting of 1799 by Adam Callender shows the Octagonal Observatory completed with a domed roof). The roof of the tower of Observatory House was fitted with a rotating roof with a 17ft diameter iron wheel. The 'New Observatory?, based in the Observatory House was opened in 1793. However, in the same year Douglas went to sea to escape financial problems, and the tenancy of the observatory was taken on by his wife. She sub-let it to Robert Bowman, an optical instrument maker, who shared the compound with the Town Militia who used it as an arsenal. By 1802 the building was reported to be in a state of bad repair. Bowman asked the council for funds for repair but was denied.

In 1811 the Astronomical Society was formed and the lease of the Observatory site subsequently transferred to them. The small building to the NE of Old Observatory House was built to house a transit instrument. They made plans for a new observatory (Playfair?s City Observatory, see separate Listing), on the site of Short?s original octagonal observatory, for scientific research, and adapted Old Observatory House for use as a popular observatory and camera obscura. The keeper of the of the observatories was housed in the single storey N wing until around the mid-nineteenth century, when the camera obscura seems to have closed, and the whole of Old Observatory House was given over to accommodation for the Assistant Astronomer.

In 1883, the Astronomer Royal of the time, Charles Piazzi Smyth, instigated the extension and upgrading of Old Observatory House. Consequently the building was extended in a Scots Baronial style: the second bay of the east wing was partially rebuilt and a third bay added; the north wing was also altered and given an additional two stories. An entrance porch was also added at the re-entrant angle.

In 1896, the Astronomer Royal moved to Blackford Hill to escape the city smog, and the observatory compound returned to the council. Playfair?s observatory became the City Observatory, and Old Observatory House found use as a council house. It is not currently occupied (2002).

The painted ceiling in the 2nd floor tower room is thought to have been painted in the early twentieth century. The choice of subject is particularly appropriate for the dome of an observatory; it depicts a story from the ancient Norse / Scandinavian Creation myth. Part of this legend describes how the sun and moon were placed in chariots which pulled them across the sky, eternally pursued by two wolves, Skoll and Hati.



Lizars Map, 1779, Ainslie?s Map, 1780, Kincaid?s Map, 1784, Ainslie?s Map 1804, Kirkwood?s Map, 1817, O.S. Map, 1853, 1897. Illustrated Evening News, supplement, 1848. Edinburgh City Archives, City Architects Plans and Bundle D 105 R ('Papers relating to observatory on Calton Hill, including Short?s Observatory?). Edinburgh City Archives, Tradesmens Accounts, 1777-1784. Arnot, THE HISTORY OF EDINBURGH, (1779), p415-417. A.J. Youngson, THE MAKING OF CLASSICAL EDINBURGH, (1966), p159. H A Bruck, THE STORY OF ASTRONOMY IN EDINBURGH, (1983). D J Bryden, THE EDINBURGH OBSERVATORY 1736-1811: A STORY OF FAILURE, Annals of Science, 47, (1990), pp445-474. Gifford, McWilliam and Walker, EDINBURGH, (1991), p438. A Mitchell, THE PEOPLE OF CALTON HILL, (1993). K Cruft and A Fraser, eds, JAMES CRAIG, 1744-1795, (1995). City of Edinburgh Council, CALTON HILL CONSERVATION PLAN, (1999). RCAHMS Inventory.

About Listed Buildings

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