Climbing Blackford Hill

Blackford Hill, Edinburgh Castle view in Autumn
The view from Blackford Hill

I first climbed Blackford Hill, to the south of the city and one of the ‘seven hills’ of Edinburgh, in the mid 1970s. Shorn of forest, the hill is exposed to the wind and covered in season with yellow gorse and purple heather. Behind the hill the city is abruptly curtailed by the Pentlands. It’s a place for locals, not well known to tourists, mostly frequented by families with their dogs and kites and children.

My father had moved our family from England to Edinburgh to start a new job. We found a house in the throes of being built on the lower reaches of the hill itself, facing towards the city, so that the glorious sight of the Castle and Arthur’s Seat was framed in its large lower windows.

Blackford Hill, view of Arthur's Seat, Edinburgh
The view from the house

Scrambling up the hill at the back of the house only increased the glory, the full wonder of the Pentlands and Edinburgh and the glittering Firth beyond slowly spreading out as you climbed. Sometimes we would scramble down again further along into the Hermitage of Braid, the deep wooded gorge enclosing the swiftly running Braid Burn, and end up at Blackford Pond throwing bread to the ducks.

After moving in I promptly headed off back down south again to university and a career, but the rest of the family made Edinburgh their home. My younger brother started school at George Heriot’s, and an older and younger sister who had already left the nest slowly drifted up to find a new life in the city. We all congregated at the Blackford house for the holidays, gradually instituting a windswept climb up the hill as a Christmas tradition – although without my mother, who was not a walker. Over time the number of us making the climb increased: spouses and children, children of children. My father got a little slower, but still we climbed, always taking the steep path directly up the hill to the marker at its blustery peak and pretending to push each off the precipices. Other families climbed too. Always during the walk, whatever the weather, the Castle in the distance would suddenly be lit by a single shaft of sunlight. 

View of Blackford Hill Observatory, from the south
Royal Observatory

At night the stars shine brightly in the clear sky over the hill and halfway up sits the green-domed Royal Observatory, open to the public. Unchanging for all the decades my parents lived there, the old edifice has now been augmented by a new building named after Edinburgh’s Nobel Prize winner Peter Higgs, predictor of the Higgs boson particle. He was known to my father, likewise a professor of theoretical physics, and creator of the (slightly less famous) Harper Equation.

Astronomy lovers, and anyone wanting the best view in Edinburgh, should take the 41 bus from the stop at the side of the National Gallery off Princes Street. Ask for the Royal Observatory.

A few years ago I retired to my beloved Edinburgh, and I still climb Blackford Hill. My parents are long gone; other people live in the house now. When I see young families toiling up the hill with a silver-haired grandfather in their midst, I think: how lucky you are. How lucky.