Edinburgh has been a city known for its centuries of intellectual leadership, and that includes research into astronomy. The subject had been taught in Edinburgh since 1583, and in 1818, Playfair Observatory was built on Carlton Hill by the Astronomical Institution of Edinburgh. King George IV was sufficiently impressed with astronomy in Scotland that, when he visited in 1822, he designated Carlton Hill as the Royal Observatory. The first Astronomer Royal for Scotland, who managed the observatory, was Thomas Henderson. Appointed in 1834, Henderson was also known for being the first astronomer to measure the distances to stars using parallax (the slight shifting of the position of nearby stars relative to background stars seen when the Earth was in different locations in its orbit).
After 50 years, however, the observatory facilities were run down, the organization had financial issues, and the city lights from Edinburgh made observing from Carlton Hill difficult. A Royal Commission recommended eliminating the observatory as a national institution and handing over the facilities to Edinburgh University.
However, the Earl of Crawford intervened, donating his library of astronomical books and manuscripts and his observatory in Aberdeenshire along with the equipment within that observatory so that the Royal Observatory could continue to operate. This collection is still available for viewing at the observatory. This prompted the government to fund the construction of a new observatory about 3 km to the south of Edinburgh’s Old Town on Blackford Hill. The new facilities were completed in 1896.
The Royal Observatory Edinburgh has continued to operate in this location ever since. While the original late Victorian buildings are still present, several additional buildings have been constructed over the years as both the staff and the research activities of the observatory have expanded. Even though the telescopes at the location are no longer used for scientific observations, the site is still involved in cutting-edge astronomical research involving telescopes around the world and in space, including the James Webb Space Telescope.
However, the institution is still involved with education and outreach in the local community as well and even hosts multiple events and talks, making it a place where everyone can learn more about astronomy research in Edinburgh.
Know Before You Go
The Royal Observatory Edinburgh is located about 3 km south of Edinburgh’s Old Town in the Hermitage of Braid and Blackford Hill Local Nature Reserve. It is relatively easy to drive to the location, and parking is available at the site. Additionally, regular bus services run from the city center to both the area just north of the park and the area slightly further to the east near the Cameron Toll Shopping Centre.
The observatory is still an active research organization, and it is generally not open to visitors except for specific public events that are listed on its Eventbrite page. These events include public talks, stargazing events, and annual Doors Open Days events.
The nature reserve that the observatory is located within is itself a nice area for walking and viewing the surrounding landscape, with Edinburgh Castle visible from some locations. The nature reserve also features several other attractions, including the Hermitage of Briad, a house built in the 1700s.