Camera Obscura (Edinburgh)

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Outlook Tower.

Camera Obscura and World of Illusions is a major tourist attraction in the Old Town, Edinburgh, Scotland. It is located on the Castlehill section of the Royal Mile next to Edinburgh Castle and was founded by entrepreneur Maria Theresa Short in 1853.


″In 1827, Maria Theresa Short returned to Edinburgh from the West Indies claiming to be Thomas [Short]’s daughter. She wished to claim his ‘Great Telescope’ for her inheritance. There was strong competition from other parties, but Maria received the telescope and set up a ‘Popular Observatory’ in 1835, housed in a wooden and stone building next to the National Monument on Calton Hill. She exhibited many scientific instruments and kept her Observatory open till 9pm each evening.″[1] After this very popular observatory was pulled down by authorities against her protests in 1851, she moved to Castlehill. In 1849 she had married Robert Henderson. In 1852, the lady bought the Laird of Cockpen’s townhouse, now known as the Outlook Tower, and added two storeys to the pre-existing tenement to create Short's Observatory, Museum of Science and Art, in existence from 1853 to 1892. The tenement is thought to be the original mansion of the Ramsays of Dalhousie (the "Lairds of Cockpen"), turned into small flats in the 18th century. The main attraction in "Short's" was the camera obscura occupying the topmost room. Her husband continued to run the attraction after Mrs. Short had died in 1869.

The museum was purchased and refurbished by Patrick Geddes in 1892, who transformed it into a "place of outlook and a type-museum as a key to a better understanding of Edinburgh and its region, but also to help people get a clear idea of its relation to the world at large".[2] Part of the Old Edinburgh School of Art in Ramsay Lane, on the corner of Castlehill, Geddes renamed Short's Observatory as the Outlook Tower, incorporating Maria Short's camera obscura and mounted his Civic Survey of Edinburgh exhibition. Patrick Geddes was a committed believer in the exhibition as a vehicle of education. The exhibition though constructed and opened to the public, was relatively short-lived and never completed. ″Later Geddes went to India, the Tower lost its ‘enchanter’, and the place became less of a hive of intellectual debate.″[3]

The camera room was expanded and remodelled in 1945.[4] From the 1940ies to 1982 Edinburgh University owned the building. Thereafter it was sold to Visitor Centres Ltd. who also runs other tourist ventures. Today the building is known as "Camera Obscura & World of Illusions".

Outlook Tower Today: Camera Obscura and World of Illusions[edit]

The tower, with its six floors of hands-on exhibitions, is still open to the public, making it the oldest purpose built attraction in the city, and one of the oldest in the United Kingdom.[5] Nowadays there are passing references to Patrick Geddes in the presentation on the top floor where the Camera Obscura is still in use to project a "virtual" tour of the city for visitors, and also on the rooftop terrace with its stunning views and very powerful telescopes. But there are many more things to do, see and play with in the World of Illusions on the other floors where there is a huge variety of hands on interactive exhibits on the themes of optical illusions, light, colour and ways of seeing, among them puzzles, mirror mazes, and a vortex tunnel. Although the project is primarily positioned as funhouse and tourist attraction, it also serves as a learning center about optical illusions, holograms and the origins of photography.

Other Outlook towers[edit]

The concept of the Outlook Tower was tried elsewhere. When aged 70 years, Patrick Geddes moved to Montpellier, France where he bought land on a hill with a view over the city, built a house and incorporated another Outlook Tower. The house became the Scots College (College Des Ecossais). There is a working camera obscura tower near the eastern end of Isambard Kingdom Brunel's Clifton Suspension Bridge, Bristol, England, also at Aberystwyth in Wales and at Kirriemuir, Scotland.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Camera Obscura Edinburgh: History of the Attraction, retrieved on August 11, 2015
  2. ^ Anon. (1906). "A geographic exhibition at the Outlook Tower, Edinburgh". Geographical Teacher 3, 268–271.
  3. ^ History of the Attraction, quoted above
  4. ^ Eccentric Edinburgh, JK Gillon
  5. ^ Atlas Obscura, retrieved August 12, 2015