Craiglockhart is probably the least known and least visited of Edinburgh's seven major hills. It's rarely recommended as a destination for newcomers and tourists, and is notably absent in many of the walking guides to the city and Lothian. Despite sitting high above the city, it might even be described as a hidden gem. This is particularly true of the Wester of the two distinct sections of the hill. Even on a bright (if cold) Saturday morning, it was largely deserted.
An exploration of this spot is best started from Napier University's Craiglockhart campus. After taking in the remnants of a 14th-century tower (Craiglockhart Castle) and the space age Lindsay Stewart Lecture Theatre, thoughts drifted towards Owen and Sassoon. By extraordinary coincidence, the two poets spent time here when the Italianate building was (under the auspices of the Red Cross) a military psychiatric hospital during World War I. Originally built as Craiglockhart Hydropathic (a private health hotel), during the war it treated shell-shocked officers. Sassoon later described the place as an 'underworld of dreams haunted by submerged memories of warfare and its intolerable shocks and self-lacerating failures to achieve the impossible'.
Owen's dates on the plaque at the entrance (18 March 1893 - 4 November 1918) are deeply poignant – he died a week before the armistice was signed. They bring to mind the excellent, if overlooked, 1997 film adaptation of Pat Barker's Regeneration
(directed by Gillies MacKinnon), which focused on Owen and Sassoon's time at Craiglockhart and their interactions with the multifaceted Freudian psychiatrist WHR Rivers (superbly played by Jonathan Pryce). Not an accessible film but worth seeking out.
Excellent, overlooked, and not immediately accessible also describes Craiglockhart Hill. That it is not located in the centre of a wide public space is perhaps one reason it is less visited than, say, Blackford Hill. Instead, running over and between Easter and Wester sections of Craiglockhart Hill is the course of the private Merchants of Edinburgh Golf Club. The course provides stunning views and some challenging, somewhat eccentric holes. The publication Capital Golf
from 1985 relates that this 'short but intriguing course' was founded in 1907 and was substantially redesigned in 1931 by the 'ubiquitous' James Braid. It's notable that a number of other hillside golf courses in and around Edinburgh (including Torphin, Lothianburn and the Old Braids No. 2) have closed since the book was published.
The path up the side of the university campus is also used by golfers (it takes them to the 8th tee). You are immediately reminded ('WARNING – golf course ahead') that you need to be on the lookout for white missiles coming out of nowhere or urgent cries of 'Fore!'.
The most direct route up to the Wester summit (575 ft/173 metres) takes you on a narrow path which starts behind the green of the 7th hole. There are several other ways up, but impatience took hold. The steepness here is significant. In his 2013 biography of Owen, Jon Stallworthy talks of the 'dark flank of Wester Craiglockhart Hill… upreared like a breaking wave,' giving this area a 'forbidding aspect'.
We wound ourselves up a rugged and fairly testing path, made trickier by patches of ice and snow. In the narrower sections, the gorse tugged at our clothes, though much of it had been burnt back. Pausing to take in the view, we looked out over the bright yellow gorse and the roof of the Napier buildings, towards Corstorphine Hill and the Forth Bridges beyond. There was, on this bright Saturday morning, a great stillness, with the light hum of the traffic the only evidence of activity and life. Otherwise the city looked and felt at peace. Suddenly, an excited dog galloped towards us, expressing true joy at being out on such a glorious day.
From the top, I could see behatted golfers determinedly finishing off on the 6th hole, lipping out with shortish putts. Near them two others stood on the 7th tee, relishing this little gem of a hole, with its plateau green. At 116 yards, it's a mere 'flick with the wedge' for most players, but, like the famous Postage Stamp at Troon, is still a testing little hole with thick gorse lying in wait at the rear of the green.
The first player badly thinned her shot, the ball skating down the path, desperately trying to make its way to the green before dribbling back down the slope into a tricky spot. An exasperated 'what am I doing?!' drifted across towards us. Her playing partner looked more confident and struck the ball sweetly, sending it fizzing beneath the stiffening breeze and fading to the centre of the green. The ball pitched and came to rest just behind the flag; leaving a tap-in birdie. The fluctuating joys and frustrations of the game nearly encapsulated within a minute.
The breeze started to bite at the summit marker. Around you are embedded masses of sandstone. You have a truly fantastic view from this point; one well worth savouring. From this angle, the series of hills (Pentlands, Braids, Blackford, Arthur Seat, Calton, Castle Hill) seem evenly spaced, as if laid down like that in prehistory. It's an epic view of the city, with these volcanic edifices dominating the man-made. A view unchanged over millennia. 'Let's go, it's freezing.' Down the much gentler path on the other side of the hill, our feet sticking in the claggy clay-laden mud.
We welcomed the warming embrace of the sun as we descended through the woods. Past robust Scotch pines and densely packed birches into The Steils. The 23 bus terminates here, taking passengers 'into town'. This residential area nestles around the buildings which were once the City Poor House, with up to 1,100 'inmates', including some who were considered 'lunatic paupers'.
On the opposite side of the road, the old Edinburgh City Hospital has similarly, since closing in 1999, become a desirable area of housing, Greenbank Village. These two old institutions illustrate Edinburgh's long tradition of pushing 'undesirables' to its periphery. In fairness, the site of the hospital (mainly focused on the treatment of infectious diseases, such as scarlet fever – its original name was Edinburgh City Fever Hospital) was selected because of the 'fresh air and sunlight' afforded by its near rural setting. The site covered 130 acres, including sheltering woodland. Similarly, the Craighouse Mental Hospital was perched on Easter Craiglockhart Hill, in picturesque grounds.
As the late local historian Charles Smith relates (in Historic South Edinburgh
), public transport tended to fizzle out at the foot of Morningside Road – the rest of the journey along so-called 'Poorhouse Drive' was on foot. This served to manifest the marginalisation of those who stayed and worked there. An aerial photo of the area taken in 1931 shows these institutions surrounded by fields, as if a separate village untouched by urban life. In time, these once 'marginal' areas have been swallowed up and the city now extends well beyond Craiglockhart Hill to the bypass in the south.
The Craiglockhart Hills provide one of the best angles to see Edinburgh's topography. Craiglockhart looking across, green with envy at its more illustrious, more visited sisters. This overlooked pair of hills offers much in terms of scenic beauty, as well as access to intriguing, uncomfortable aspects of the city's history.
Charlie Ellis is a researcher and EFL teacher who writes on culture, education and politics