Lord of the Monuments: The Two Towers (of Edinburgh)

Edinburgh is a city of ceaseless discovery. If one thing unites the locals (aside from the usually friendly rivalry with Glasgow), it’s the fact that the city contains enough treasures to continually delight and surprise even the most jaded of residents. Some of these treasures are hiding in plain sight, so iconic and imposing that they seem to many to be as natural as Arthur’s Seat or Castle Rock. In early May I set out to forge a more tangible connection with two of them – the Scott Monument and the Nelson Monument.



Both monuments are definitive features of Edinburgh’s skyline, the ‘gothic rocket’ of the Scott Monument looming 60 metres above Princes Street Gardens and the Nelson Monument atop Calton Hill commanding views as far away as Bass Rock and, on a clear day, the distant peaks of the Cairngorms.


Something’s up, then, because most Edinburgh residents and visitors I’ve spoken with have never climbed either of them despite admiring them from the outside. You don’t need ropes and harness and a daredevil’s grit for them, either – just a sturdy set of legs to take you up the 287 steps of the Scott Monument and the 145 steps of the Nelson Monument. Ok, maybe don’t be afraid of heights, either. Aside from that, you’re sorted.



Until I ventured up two weeks ago I, too was one of those locals that had never gone up either. After experiencing the views and being steeped in the history of each, I’m now convinced that they’re an essential part of the Edinburgh experience. Let me show you why!


The Scott Monument


Few individuals living or dead have shaped the character and perception of Scotland as much as Sir Walter Scott. Born in Edinburgh in 1771, Scott wove the folk ballads, forgotten histories and lore of Scotland into a literary tapestry featuring such genre-defining works as Waverley, Rob Roy and The Lady of the Lake. Essentially, Scott used works of historical fiction to reintroduce elements of Scottish culture which had been violently suppressed following the final Jacobite Rising of 1745-46.


Scott Monument view of Edinburgh Old Town


In a time when tartan and bagpipes were outlawed, Scott boldly (and exaggeratedly) reintroduced them when the Hanoverian monarch George IV visited Edinburgh in 1822. George was wildly unpopular and thought little of Scotland and its people, but he did like playing dress-up. Scott convinced the king to wear garish red tartan and bright pink leggings, making him a laughing stock during his ceremonial procession along the Royal Mile (which wouldn’t actually be called that until the early 20th century) but leaving such an impression that George became fanatical about all things ‘traditionally’ Scottish. We have Walter Scott, therefore, to thank for the modern obsession with tartan, kilts and bagpipes – indeed, for many aspects of Scotland’s national image.


The Scott Monument is a celebration of Scott’s influence and imagination, featuring an exhibition about his life and several levels with viewing areas from which Edinburgh can be surveyed. Designed by George Meikle Kemp, the Scott Monument is built of Binnie sandstone from West Lothian and features, in addition to a marble statue of Scott and his beloved hound Maida, carvings of 93 of Scott’s characters and contemporaries.



The views over Scotland’s precipitous capital, including many landmarks with which Scott was intimately familiar (having, for instance, rediscovered the Royal Scottish Regalia in a hidden chamber within Edinburgh Castle in 1818) speak for themselves.




The Nelson Monument


Calton Hill is Edinburgh’s monumental epicentre, with the National Monument, Dougald Stewart featuring in a disproportionate number of Instagram pictures of the city. The Nelson Monument towers over them both. Designed to look like an upturned telescope, the monument stands as bold and triumphant as its namesake.


Nelson Monument



Admiral Horatio Nelson is widely considered to be one of the sharpest tactical minds ever to take to the seas, using a combination of strategic mastery and decisive action to carve his name out of the shattered hulls of enemy vessels. He is best remembered for his final action leading the British navy to victory over a Franco-Spanish alliance at the Battle of Trafalgar (21 October 1805). Sailing his flagship HMS Victory into the jaws of the enemy fleet and at one point engaging three ships simultaneously he bought time for his two columns of ships to break the Franco-Spanish – yet at the cost of his life. The Battle of Trafalgar dashed Napoleon’s chance of launching an invasion of Britain and reinforced Britain’s naval hegemony.


The Nelson Monument was built between 1807-1816, with a public meeting of Edinburgh’s ‘great and good’ held to create a fund for a monument a mere month after Trafalgar. The Monument was not, however, just eye candy – the Northern Lighthouse Board immediately recognised its practical potential, being visible for many miles around.


Now, the unexpected origin story of the famous One O’clock Gun that is fired daily (except Sundays) from the walls of Edinburgh Castle. Sailors in the 19th century used devise called chronometers to navigate with, and chronometers needed to be set with absolute precision to the correct time of day. Ships in the Port of Leith could easily see the Nelson Monument from the harbour, so a large zinc-covered ball was set atop it which would drop – a bit like the big ball in Times Square on New Year’s Eve – at 1 o’clock. Sometimes, however, Edinburgh is draped in a thick mist called the haar, which can make it impossible to see the next lamppost along the street, never mind a ball dropping atop a tower from over a mile away. The elegant and extraordinary solution was to link the ball atop the Nelson Monument to a cannon firing from the Castle by a steel wire. If you don’t see the ball drop, you’ll sure hear the cannon roar. And that’s why every day at 1 o’clock tourists in Edinburgh get scared half to death by a big bang!


The Practical Stuff

Both monuments are open to the public all year round. The large number of stairs and steep ascent at both mean that they are not accessible for everyone, and for the Scott Monument in particular some may find the climb quite challenging. There are, however, regular places to take a break. The very top of the stair in the Scott Monument is the definition of a ‘tight squeeze’ (as you can see from the image of me inside it) so bear that in mind before making the final push to the top – which I strongly encourage you to at least try!


Scott Monument: Access to all levels – £8 adult, £6 concession, £5 adult. Access to level 1 and exhibition – £6 adult, £4 concession, £3 child. 

Nelson Monument: Museum entry free of charge. £5 per person to climb the tower.




This post is part of a campaign I ran for Museums & Galleries Edinburgh highlighting the Scott & Nelson Monuments as places to visit. I was paid for this work, which included the three live videos I made on 9-10 May 2018. Nonetheless, I’ve long wanted to experience both and considered my visit to each to be long overdue. I truly enjoyed both sites for their beautiful views, insights and historical value, and can genuinely recommend visiting them if you come to Edinburgh.