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Edinburgh's Calton Hill shows that not even buildings are safe from the tide of populism

Despite “post-truth” appearing to be a recent turn of phrase, the mechanisms of heritage have been at this game far longer than any Trumpian political spin. Editing the past to conform to our modern agendas is inherent to our historic cities, and ultimately how we see ourselves.

“Heritage” is different from “history”, but not just semantically. More than the investigation of the past or authorised textbook tales, “heritage” ultimately relies on faith. It’s a shared certainty that transcends mere facts. It even rises above the views of experts (and just as well, our nation has apparently had enough of those).

Heritage is collective belief, and it is belief that creates our identities. Heritage is populist.

Our capital cities – places so often saturated with selling their own imagery that they become mere façades of themselves – coalesce this belief. Nowhere is this more obvious than when it pertains to the construct of national identity. Traditional nationalism, relying as it does on a shared belief in a reimagined past, feeds off the built abstraction of heritage. Littered with totems of national iconography, our architectural past is a battleground for today’s political ownership.

Whether the backdrop to faded delusions of imperial grandeur, or to firebrand Scottish independence campaigners, Edinburgh’s Calton Hill acts as an analogue of the struggle to align the past with today’s identities.

The Dugald Stewart Monument, left. Image: Max Pixel

Today’s tumultuous political conditions make this battle pertinent. With the recent hubbub around another Scottish independence referendum following Brexit – and with the SNP pulling the levers of government in Holyrood but increasingly threatened by the reviving fortunes of the Scottish Conservatives – this is a problem as much in the present as in the past.

Dominating the skyline, the edifices of Calton Hill hold a dual identity, feeding off one another. On the one hand, Nelson’s Tower and the unfinished National Monument commemorate the conflicts that truly cemented the British political union.

A full spread of monuments and national buildings on Calton Hill. Image: Saffron Blaze

The grandiose architecture atop the hill went hand in hand with nation building across the continent during the 18th and 19th centuries, reinforcing the identity of a state that was to be an equal partner in the British Empire.

Conversely, Calton Hill is often described in terms of its radical political connotations, indeed today one can even undertake a “democracy tour” around the hill itself. Home to mausoleums of the intelligentsia of the Scottish enlightenment, the hill also hosts memorials to important political martyrs such as Thomas Muir.

Calton Hill’s unfinished National Monument. Image: Donald Thomas

The landscape boasts a permanent cairn to Scottish democracy and even inspired an eponymous written declaration. This bill demanded fair democratic process against an apparently “undemocratic” British establishment, a legacy of the long vigil for a Scottish Parliament held on the hill. Even the unfinished nature of the brooding national monument is often spun as some colonial folly, and has been setting for recent rallies and protests for Scotland to be free from a perceived remote Westminster rule.

Calton Hill is simultaneously both a testament to a historic unified British identity and a resurgent independent Scotland. It just depends on where you stand.

Sunset in Edinburgh from the Duguld Stewart Monument. Image: Pixabay

Therein lies the challenge for the SNP’s brand of “civic nationalism”, self-described as beyond the traditional divisive and exclusionary tropes which often define nation building. Instead of the narrative of shared cultural history, there is only the idea of common endeavour. To be Scottish, one must only want to contribute to “Project Scotland”.


Belonging to the nation is an unspoken daily plebiscite (although with our current frequency of heading to the polls, that somehow doesn’t feel too large a jump).

However, shoehorning this progressive definition of national identity into our historic cities, rich with contentious heritage, highlights the difficulty of civic nationalism.

By its nature, built heritage is a marker of some shared past or culture, the very themes of nation building that civic nationalism seeks to avoid. Our monuments often make visible past wrongs, real or imagined, rather than inspiring future hope and unity.

Calton Hill illustrates the ease with which buildings become belief, almost in spite of their histories. Forged, shaped and sharpened on the whetstone of public opinion, there is an inherent potency to the political weapon of heritage.

How we care for and design within these battlegrounds is worth more than a pause for thought.  After all, heritage is clearly far greater than the sum of its past. 

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