Edinburgh’s Folly–The Half-Finished National Monument of Scotland

"'Edinburgh's Disgrace,' Calton Hill - geograph.org.uk - 185368" by Tim Hallam. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons -

“‘Edinburgh’s Disgrace,’ Calton Hill – geograph.org.uk – 185368” by Tim Hallam. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons –

Monuments are enduring symbols of what a culture values, and are of vast importance to archeologists studying ancient cultures. Given the vast amount of labor and resources required to make them, monuments can tell archeologists a lot about the cultures that built them. Sometimes, all the remains of a culture is its monuments, mysterious reminders of a time long past and a people long dead.

Most of the best known monuments around the world have mysteries of some sort surrounding them. By way of example, the moai of Easter Island have been extensively studied, but only now are archeologists beginning to understand them in greater detail. No one even agrees exactly why they were built, or how much impact if any they had on the catastrophic collapse of Easter Island’s once thriving civilization.

A more modern but probably less well known monument, the Georgia Guidestones, remains an enduring mystery even though it was only built forty odd years ago. The site has stirred up some controversy due to its advice for rebuilding society after an apocalypse, mostly due to the fact that one key tenet of the mysterious builder’s idea for an ideal society involves extensive population control.

One structure that may cause head scratching to future archeologists does not provide advice to future generations, and is no mystery to today’s society. Located on Carlton Hill in Edinburgh, Scotland, the twelve pillars of Scotland’s National Monument stand as a visible symbol of an ambitious project that flopped for the painfully mundane reason that kills many a grand plan: lack of funding.


The Scottish Parthenon

Scotland in the 18th and early 19th centuries was a hotbed of Enlightenment thinking, attracting intellectuals of all stripes from around Europe to discuss exciting new ideas. The city of Edinburgh was in a boom, with construction projects popping up all over the city. One such project was the National Monument of Scotland, later dubbed “Edinburgh’s Disgrace.”

The project had its origins in an 1816 meeting of the Highland Society, when members proposed a monument should be built for Scottish soldiers who fell during the Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815.) The society nominated Charles Cockerall as architect, and William Henry Playfair as his assistant.

The duo dreamed up an ambitious monument modeled after the Parthenon in Athens. It would consist of an upper building with classical columns, which would house a church. They planned to excavate a massive catacomb beneath the temple that would house Scotland’s best and brightest in death.

In total, the project would cost £42,000, a huge sum for the day. The Society planned to raise the money by appealing to the public, especially the wealthy aristocrats who may wish to populate the catacombs one day. Such luminaries as Sir Walter Scott, Lord Elgin, and Lord Cockburn backed the project.

Despite the support of these wealthy men, the project was only able to raise £16,000. Edinburgh’s public works boom was to blame; simply put, there were too many projects needing support, and something had to fall by the wayside. Despite this, supporters of the monument pushed forward. In 1822, the Duke of Hamilton laid the foundation stone and construction began. The first phase lasted from 1826 to 1829, when the twelve pillars that stand today were raised at a cost of £13,500. Once the funds ran out, supporters had trouble finding anymore backers. With no funds, the monument stood half-finished, as it would remain for the next 200 years.


Plans to finish the monument fall through

In the years since funding petered to nothing, some suggested that Edinburgh’s Folly was planned to be just that–a folly. However, plans from the era show that the architects did indeed plan a grand Greco-Roman style monument where only half of one stands today.

The centuries since have produced plans to complete the monument, some stranger than others. One plan put forward in 2004 by Malcom Fraser called for 150 flagpoles to be erected on the site. He wanted to have school children write prayers and messages of good will on the flags to be hoisted onto the poles, so that their well-wishes could be borne on the wind to the rest of the world. He said he was inspired by Tibetan prayer flags, which basically operate on the same principle.

Like every other proposal to finish the structure, Fraser’s met with a mixed response and ultimately failed. As it stands, the monument is both a tourist attraction and a point of pride for Edinburgh’s citizens. Since the people of Edinburgh seem perfectly content with their half-finished monument, it will likely stay that way for years to come.




“Architect flags up plan to finish ‘Edinburg’s Disgrace.”. edinburghnews.scotsman.com. April 20, 2004. The Scotsman. March 30, 2015. http://www.edinburghnews.scotsman.com/news/architect-flags-up-plan-to-finish-edinburgh-s-disgrace-1-1009104

McManus, David. “National Monument Edignburgh: Architecture Information.” Edinburgharchitecture.co.uk. April 8, 2010. Edinburgh Architecture. March 30, 2015. http://www.edinburgharchitecture.co.uk/national-monument

McLean, David. “Lost Edinburgh: Edinburgh’s Disgrace.” Scotsman.com. February 17, 2014. the Scotsman. March 30, 2015. http://www.scotsman.com/lifestyle/heritage/lost-edinburgh-edinburgh-s-disgrace-1-3308927