Edinburgh World Heritage

The revenge of the widow

Jacobina Short takes Calton Hill by storm.

The Old Observatory on Calton Hill dates to 1776, but it was never a success, and in 1819 a new observatory was built next door. It is significant today as probably the only surviving building by architect James Craig, who won the competition to design the First New Town in 1767.

The observatory was the idea of an Edinburgh optician called Thomas Short, who had inherited the business of his brother James, a famous telescope maker. In 1788 Thomas Short died, and his grandson James Douglas took over the un-finished observatory.

However his ownership was disputed by Short’s widow Jacobina. In 1788 she led an armed gang of 10 men to take possession of the observatory, and wounded Douglas’ accountant Mr MacLean in the attack. The city guard then stormed the observatory and arrested all of the gang.

From 1802 the militia were allowed to use the grounds as an arsenal. The Edinburgh Magazine of June 1814 wondered“...how long the Proprietors of the Astronomical Insitution may yet be favoured with the chance to have their brains blown out…” Apparently two barrels of gunpowder had even rolled away, and were only stopped by a fence lower down the hill.

The building was then leased out as accommodation right up until the 1980’s.
James Craig House is now a category A listed building in the care of the City of Edinburgh Council.

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