Dumfries Camera Obscura, Dumfries

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There aren’t many rules at Nothing To See Here, but here’s one – if you’re ever near a camera obscura go and see it. Scotland is blessed with three, in Dumfries, Edinburgh and Kirriemuir. Edinburgh’s has the best views, Kirriemuir’s has a literary connection (gifted to the town by Peter Pan author J.M. Barrie) but Dumfries’s is the oldest of the three and in fact, the oldest working instrument of its type in the world.

Plans for the camera obscura started in 1834 when local businessman Robert Thomson heard that the old windmill at the top of Corbelly Hill was going to be demolished. With local support he purchased the building for £350 to create the Dumfries and Maxwellton Astronomical Society. The tower was converted into an observatory and the camera obscura was brought all the way from Kilmarnock on a horse and cart.

Initially, the tower was only open to members and selected ones at that. The writer Thomas Carlyle was one of the first to arrive. It was 1849 before members of the working class were allowed in and even then it was only on Saturdays. As donations from patrons grew, the adjoining museum began to grow as the observatory went slowly out of fashion. It stopped operating as an observatory in 1870s.

Providing the weather is amenable, its operation is fairly simple. An angled mirror on a long pole poking up at the top of the tower (like a periscope) projects images of the outside world onto large flat table below. That may not sound very exciting considering that you could look out of the window and see more or less the same thing but it feels magical, like floating invisibly around the world with an all-seeing eye. It’s fun to play God, picking up passing cars with a piece of paper or making an invisible bump in the road for buses to shuffle over.

With technological advancements, camera obscuras have no practical purpose, but that doesn’t diminish their appeal. It’s a chance to catch a little glimpse of the present through the eyes of the past. Dumfries is lucky to have this illuminating little gem.

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