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The National Monument, or “Edinburgh’s Disgrace”, City of Edinburgh

The National Monument in summer

In 1822 work began in Edinburgh to construct a National Monument to commemorate the men of Scotland who had lost their lives during the long years of war with France. Calton Hill had been purchased for the people by Edinburgh’s Town Council in 1724, making it an early example of a public park in Britain, and the elevated site was chosen for the new monument. After considering various forms the city decided to erect a replica of the Parthenon, giving Edinburgh its very own Acropolis.  Charles Robert Cockerell was asked to design the building, with the Scotsman William Henry Playfair as executant architect in Scotland.

A committee of nobleman and local grandees had been tasked with raising the funds, and they were confident that the cost would not exceed £40,000. The Earl of Elgin was one of those involved and helpfully offered some of the mementoes he had ‘brought home’ from Greece as models during construction. His ‘specimens of the Entablatures’ of the Parthenon would of course become known as the Elgin Marbles.

The foundation stone was laid on 27 August 1822 but work was slow and the money soon ran out. Playfair wrote to Cockerell in London in June 1829 to report that ‘Our Parthenon is come to a dead halt… and what is to be done next I know not. I suppose, Nothing!’ Playfair was right: building ceased and the monument was soon dubbed ‘Scotland’s Folly’ and ‘Edinburgh’s Disgrace’. Although there have been numerous proposals to complete the structure over the centuries it remains a roofless shell, albeit a very handsome one.

Nelson’s Monument in summer.

Calton Hill is home to a number of other structures and monuments, including a tower dedicated to Lord Nelson (Robert Louis Stevenson was not a fan of the slender Nelson Tower, writing in 1878 that it ‘ranked among the vilest of men’s handiworks). W. H. Playfair had designed the City Observatory in 1818 and this structure has recently been restored by arts organisation Collective as a contemporary arts venue. Collective raised the funds to restore the buildings and with the support of City of Edinburgh Council the new venue opened to the public in November 2018. One of the current exhibits (January 2019) is a work by artist Klaus Weber. Fagman was inspired by ‘the rich history of realised and failed monuments on Calton Hill’ and takes the form of a ‘smoking snowman sculpture’ which is an ‘anti-hero, humorously countering the historic monuments of Calton Hill – traditional large, stone sculptures that celebrate the dominant histories of white, male figures’.


Fagman by Klaus Weber, a copper structure filled with constantly refrigerated spirits. The conductivity of the copper and the sub-zero temperatures of the alcohol creates the frost. The spookily realistic spectator is smaller than an action man figure.

The development also includes a new restaurant space, partially cantilevered out over the slope of the hillside and with amazing views. The Lookout by Gardener’s Cottage is highly recommended after an invigorating ascent of Calton Hill for a bit of folly-spotting The Folly Flâneuse serendipitously visited during the 2019 Hogmanay celebrations when a series of son et lumiere installations across the city included a work at the National Monument. Collectively called Message from the Skies, six writers were asked to write a ‘love letter to Europe’. Read more in the link below, and with apologies for the poor photo on a dark and damp evening, here’s a taste of what you can see until 25 January 2019:









Walking back down into the city, the Dugald Stewart Monument (1831) looked like an Atkinson Grimshaw painting, with the gas-lamps replaced by the towering cranes of Edinburgh’s latest shopping complex development.

Dugald Stewart Monument.









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