The Kirkhill estate in Broxburn was home in the 18th century to an unusual project – a model of the solar system as it was understood at that time.
This was the inspiration for another model of the solar system to be created locally about 10 years ago. Known as the Kirkhill Pillar Project, it consists of ten art installations across West Lothian representing the sun and nine planets– you may have seen some of them dotted around and wondered what they are…
The slightly eccentric 11th Earl of Buchan who lived here, David Steuart Erskine, fancied himself as a patron of the arts and part of the Scottish Enlightenment – he took it upon himself to offer poetry writing advice to Robert Burns, and when Walter Scott was ill in 1819 the Earl busied himself with funeral plans! Scott later graciously commented that Buchan's "immense vanity bordering upon insanity, obscured or rather eclipsed, very considerable talents…"
he took it upon himself to offer poetry writing advice to Robert Burns,
So it's perhaps no surprise that he decided to tackle a scale model of the solar system.
Completed in 1776, it consisted of the sun and larger known planets made from stone, and the smaller planets from bronze. He also made a stone pillar, carved with Latin inscriptions and recording the astronomical equations he used for the size of the planets and their relative distances from the sun. The pillar had a belltower and cross. The Earl also predicted the position the planets will be in on 20th May 2255 (No-one knows why he picked this date, but it may be to do with the transit of Venus). He used a scale of 12,283 miles 23/100 to an inch for his model, an odd scale but the astronomical information on the pillar is apparently quite accurate.
This pillar is all that remains of the model; it stood in the garden at Kirkhill in a bad state of repair until it was rescued and relocated to Almondell Country Park and renovated in 1988. It stands in front of the Visitor Centre. (This locations was chosen as Almondell House was built by Henry Erskine, the Earl’s younger brother).
At the centre of the modern model is the sun – a lightbox with a diametre of 1.83m on Broxburn Academy - appropriately cited as the Academy is close to Kirkhill House, the site of the original model. Ten sculptures representing the planets are distributed to scale across West Lothian in their orbits. The furthest planet Pluto is represented by a plaque ("I could be") in Beecraigs Country Park – to be to scale with the 1.83m sun, Pluto would be 3mm in diameter.
For more information see the Kirkhill Pillar Project website at www.kirkhillpillarproject.org.uk, where you can also download suggested walks from the project website.
Article published in Konect July 2015
Author: Helen-Jane Gisbourne