The Kirkhill Pillar

Another local adventure – the Kirkhill Pillar was one of those ‘how did I never know that was there’ deals, especially since I did know about some of it, and just never thought to go looking.

In 1776 the Earl of Buchan set up a scale model of the solar system in the grounds of his house at Kirkhill, now in Broxburn, building the sun and the larger planets out of stone and the smaller planets out of bronze.

The pillar stood on its original site at Kirkhill until it collapsed in the 1970s, and was rebuilt in Almondell Country Park a few miles away in 1988, near the site of a house built by the Earl’s brother.

A few years ago there was a local project to create a new solar system in sculptures, stretching across West Lothian from Almondell in the south to Beecraigs and Kingscavil in the north, and I spent an interesting day recently walking across the county trying to track these down – having already come across Jupiter and Saturn when I was walking part of the Union Canal towpath a few years ago.

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The Kirkhill Pillar
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Pillar explanation

The pillar has inscriptions on all four sides – the front is a quotation from Virgil, and the left side is a dedication to James Buchanan, professor of Mathematics in Glasgow, which hints at an interesting history – ‘I, who formerly animated by love of country, dared to succour liberty and oppressed citizens, now cultivate my paternal fields and shun the threshold of Kings.’

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Virgil quotation

The back has a careful description of the exact location of Kirkhill, its latitude and longitude, height above high water at Leith, and distances from local landmarks – all of which makes me feel a little bit sorry for it now all its careful notes about its location are wrong!

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Kirkhill location

The right hand side sets out the solar system – its scale (which is a very odd one), and the details of all the planets.

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Solar system
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Table of planets

A more legible version of the table was published in the Transactions of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland in 1792.

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Full table

The pillar is not the only astronomical thing at Almondell – the flowerbeds behind the visitor centre are laid out in sun and moon shapes, to reflect the interests of the family.

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Sun and moon flowerbeds at Almondell

The park also has the lovely Nasmyth bridge, built in about 1800 – again, it had collapsed, but Almondell appears to be indefatigable when it comes to rebuilding things!

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Nasmyth Bridge

Kirkhill itself is now squeezed between modern houses in Broxburn, and has been renovated and turned into flats, but the centre of the new model solar system is very close by, on Broxburn Academy, reflecting its origins.

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Kirkhill House
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