Rising from the heart of Edinburgh’s Princes Street, it is the towering Gothic monument to Scotland’s literary hero that almost never was.

Controversial, over-budget, beset by problems and loathed by some – perhaps not entirely surprising for a grand Edinburgh construction project - the Scott Monument stands tall in praise of an author whose works most of capital’s citizens have probably never read.

Inaugurated on August 15, 1846 – making it officially 175 years old next weekend – it would be hard to imagine Edinburgh’s prime thoroughfare without its Victorian stone steeple encompassing an Italian marble statue of Sir Walter Scott and adorned with gargoyles, sculptures of literary figures and stained glass windows.

However, a virtual lecture marking the 250th anniversary of Sir Walter Scott’s birth is set to explore the extraordinary story behind the monument’s construction and beyond – and which could easily have led to a very different kind of tribute.

In perhaps in the best honour possible for one of Scotland’s most famous writers, the twisting tale has just about all that might be expected from a gripping Victorian novel: claims of corruption, controversy, snobbish behaviour, an air of mystery and even a rumour of murder.

Even after its 1846 inauguration – and having significantly blown its original £5000 budget – the elaborate Gothic spire attracted debate, including a scathing put down by another literary figurehead, Charles Dickens, who likened it to “the spire of a Gothic church taken off and stuck in the ground.”

Jackie Sangster, Learning Manager at Historic Environment Scotland who researched the monument for her lecture The Gothic Rocket: The Scott Monument, says its design attracted controversy and drama from the start.

Having decided within days of the writer’s death in 1832 to create a grand memorial in his honour, city fathers set about arranging a competition to find an architect and a major fundraising drive to pay for it.

“Sir Walter Scott was so well loved and had such an impact on the national psyche, that it must have seemed like the thing to do,” Jackie says.

“The competition attracted 55 entries; 22 were Gothic in design, 11 were statues, 14 Grecian temples and 5 were obelisks fountains or pillars.

“While East Princes Street Gardens, where the monument stands today, was not where all the design ideas were pitched.

“Some suggested a site at the West End, and Charlotte Square was also proposed as a location.”

Entries came from as far afield as Birmingham, and included designs by local architects of high status, among them the city’s New Town architect and designer of many of its neoclassical landmarks, William Henry Playfair.

He had already built the Royal Scottish Academy on Princes Street and would go on to design its neighbour, the National Gallery of Scotland, earning Edinburgh’s its title ‘Athens of the North’.

There’s every chance he considered himself to be a frontrunner to scoop one of the 50 guinea prizes on offer to the top three entries.

Instead, his simple obelisk intended to be located at a West End site later occupied by the Caledonian Hotel, could scarcely have been more different to the convoluted design that would win.

Nor could his background as one of Scotland’s leading architects be further from the much less accomplished, self-taught George Meikle Kemp.

A joiner and carpenter who became skilled as an illustrator, he had a deep fascination for Gothic style but feared his lack of architectural experience would rule him out of the prestigious competition.

Nevertheless, he dashed off his design for an imposing 135ft high tower in just five days, submitting it to the competition under a false name.

News that his design was among the three shortlisted by the monument committee sparked uproar among rivals who condemned his lack of architectural qualifications, inexperience and his humble background.

Allegations flew that he had copied the Gothic lines of Antwerp Cathedral, that he should have been disqualified for using a fake name and even that he had been shown favouritism by a member of the monument committee said to be his friend.

There were also claims that his design was strikingly similar to one submitted by celebrated artist David Roberts which depicted an extravagant Gothic tower topped by a statue of the author.

Undaunted by the negativity, Edinburgh’s monument committee pressed ahead with a massive fundraising campaign to build Kemp’s design and purchase the land on which it would be built.

As has often been the case with lavish Edinburgh construction projects, costs soared.

Having initially raised £7000 to pay for the land, monument and its marble sculpture by Sir John Steell, it soon became clear the finished structure would cost almost twice that.

While the challenge of creating George Meikle Kemp’s Gothic tower was matched by the problems surrounding the statue at its centre.

“The sculpture of Sir Walter Scott was to be the first outdoor sculpture in Scotland created using Carrara marble and importing that from Italy proved tricky,” says Jackie.

First there were problems finding a vessel able to accommodate the huge block of stone. Then, as it was being lowered into place, the ropes gave way, sending it plunging through the vessel and narrowly avoiding killing the 14 men below.

Its eventual arrival at Leith brought more drama when it was realised the port’s largest crane could handle only nine tons, resulting in the vessel having to travel upstream in search of more powerful lifting gear.

There would be more twists and turns, however, when a mysterious tragedy befell its designer.

“George Meikle Kemp died before the monument was built, and in slightly mysterious circumstances,” says Jackie, whose lecture for Museums and Galleries Edinburgh marks the 250th anniversary of Sir Walter Scott’s birth and includes fascinating images of the structure in varying stages of construction.

“So, as well as his competition entry, there were rumours surrounding how he died.”

His body was retrieved from the Union Canal, sparking suggestions that a jealous rival may have taken revenge, that the stress of the construction had proved too much and he had taken his life, or that drink had got the better of him on a night out.

More likely, of course, was that he simply lost his footing as he walked home in thick Edinburgh fog.

Having been initially scorned by some for his efforts, his funeral drew more than 1000 mourners, with stonemasons who worked on the monument carrying his coffin from his Morningside home to his final resting place.

He lies in Edinburgh’s St Cuthbert’s Church graveyard, less than half a mile from his remarkable structure and, poignantly, with his grave facing in the direction of his Gothic masterpiece.

The Gothic Rocket: The Scott Monument virtual lecture is on August 20 at 2pm. For details of how to book, go to www.edinburghmuseums.org.uk