The National Monument – ‘Edinburgh’s Disgrace’

A fantastic folly

It’s pretty hard to miss Edinburgh’s National Monument, which resembles a ruined Greek temple towering above the city skyline atop Carlton Hill.

It is actually an unfinished war memorial to commemorate the Scottish troops who had fought and died in the Napoleonic Wars.

Jointly designed by Charles Robert Cockerill and  William Henry Playfair, the idea for the memorial was first proposed in 1815 and after several years of discussion, it was decided that it should take the form of a grand church, which would be an exact copy of the Parthenon in Athens. It’s not coincidental that, around this time, Edinburgh was trying to reinvent itself as the “Athens of the North”.

Construction started in 1826, with less than half of the £45,000 budget raised. It soon became evident that this figure was woefully inadequate and the money ran out after only three years, with only 12 of a planned 69 columns erected. And so we were left with the resulting splendid folly, which, although officially is called The National Monument, also has the less grand monikers of Edinburgh’s Disgrace or Edinburgh’s Embarrassment!

Plans to complete construction have come and gone several times. A site to house a new National gallery has been one of the ideas. As a replica of the Parthenon would have covered an expanse of 70 x 30 metres, this would have been a more than impressive site, but no plans have yet come to fruition.

You would think that Edinburgh would have learned from history, but recent construction projects such as the vastly over-budget Scottish Parliament building and the truncated tram line have shown that this hasn’t always been the case!

A few interesting facts:

  • The foundation stone, which weighs in at six tons, was laid on 27 August 1822, during a visit by George IV.
  • The original plans included extensive catacombs where it was intended to lay to rest significant Scottish figures in the same manner as the Pantheon in Paris.
  • The massive sandstone blocks were cut at the Craigleith quarry which is located about two miles north-west of the city centre. It took teams of 12 horses and 70 men to move them. The quarry is now home to the Craigleith Retail Park.
  • It is also said that it was built as a deliberate folly and there was never any intention to complete the full building.