At a corner of the present site is James Craig's Observatory House of 1776 (incorporating suggestions made by fellow architect Robert Adam). This was built for Thomas Short, an optician from Leith, using funds provided 35 years earlier by Colin Maclaurin, then Professor of Mathematics at the University of Edinburgh. Short's observatory was run as a private concern before running into difficulties and being abandoned.
The prominent central building is an 1818 design by William Henry Playfair, commissioned by the Edinburgh Astronomical Institution.
The running of the observatory later passed to the government and it was used by the University of Edinburgh. Between 1834 and 1844, Thomas James Henderson worked there whilst Astronomer Royal for Scotland.
In 1890 the observatory was replaced by the bigger Royal Observatory on Blackford Hill in the south of the city, which suffered less from city-centre light pollution.