Camera Obscura & World of Illusions’ previous owner, Patrick Geddes, was a town planner, sociologist, ecologist, and biologist who believed green spaces were an important part of the community. After taking over from our founder Maria Short in 1892, Geddes’ aim was to change people’s outlook, hence our old name “Outlook Tower”: a place to ponder the imponderable and think the unthinkable. A visit here aimed to encourage ethical ideas and active participation in civic life in Edinburgh. A demonstration of the Camera Obscura itself could show visitors the close connection between the city and nature, highlighting how they work together side-by-side. Geddes continued this ecological theme on the lower floors, including exhibits such as a relief map of Scotland and two large globes illustrating land formations and the plant life they support.
In 1886, Geddes purchased a group of tenement flats right in the heart of the Old Town. These buildings are still a very prominent feature of the skyline today and you might recognise them as Ramsay Garden. They became one of Geddes’ projects - he believed that by changing a society’s surroundings, it was possible to change the structure and behaviour of that society. The buildings’ refurbishments involved knocking down walls, widening alleys and planting gardens, letting in air and light. They painted the walls and added turrets making the buildings unavoidable to see from the New Town.
After completing Ramsay Gardens, Geddes was able to replicate his success all over Old Town, applying his ideas about bringing natural light, air and nature into other buildings and creating gardens in disused spaces throughout the Old Town. Over time, the wealthy moved back to this part of the city.
Fast-forward to today and we’re continuing Geddes’ legacy by showcasing the Camera Obscura to Scotland and beyond. Our current owner David Hayes bought Outlook Tower from the University of Edinburgh in 1977 and we have been an independent family business ever since. Whilst we collaborate with artists, inventors, and technical wizards to plunge visitors even further into our world of wonder, we also take steps to care for our environment and local community.
Since 2012 we have reduced our carbon footprint by 70%, and 60% of our electricity from green resources. We do not use any gas, and we reduce waste by recycling everything we can, including specific items like glasses which go to Peep Eyewear who upcycle or recycle them, and donating our lost property items to Calum’s Cabin Charity’s shop, where they will find loving new homes. We reuse building materials to create new structures and exhibits, and by 2025 we want none of our waste to end up in landfill. You'll see this quote on our rooftop from Geddes, and we think it's a great reminder for us and our visitors to keep going, so that the reflection we see stays as spectacular as this for a long time to come. Read more about what we do on our sustainability page.