The tower is 200 feet 6 inches (61.11 m) high, and has a series of viewing decks reached by a series of narrow spiral staircases giving panoramic views of central Edinburgh and its surroundings. The highest viewing deck is reached by a total of 287 steps (those who climb the steps can obtain a certificate commemorating the event). It is built from Binnie shale quarried in nearby Livingston; the oil which continues to leech from its matrix has helped to glue the notoriously filthy atmosphere of Victorian Edinburgh (then nicknamed "Auld Reekie" — old smokey) to the tower, leaving it an unintended sooty-black colour. Bill Bryson has described it as looking like a "gothic rocket ship".
Following Scott's death in 1832, a competition was held to design a monument to him. An unlikely entrant went under the pseudonym "John Morvo", the name of the medieval architect of Melrose Abbey. Morvo was in fact George Meikle Kemp, forty-five year old joiner, draftsman, and self-taught architect. Kemp had feared his lack of architectural qualifications and reputation would disqualify him, but his design (which was similar to an unsuccessful one he had earlier submitted for the design of Glasgow Cathedral) was popular with the competition's judges, and in 1838 Kemp was awarded the contract to construct the monument.
John Steell was commissioned to design a monumental statue of Scott to rest in the space between the tower's four columns. Steell's statue, made from white Carrara marble, shows Scott seated, resting from writing one of his works with a quill pen and his dog Maida by his side.
The foundation stone was laid on the 15th of August 1840. Following an Act of Parliament permitting it (the Monument to Sir Walter Scott Act 1841 (4 & 5 Vict.) C A P. XV.), construction began in 1841 and ran for nearly four years. The tower was completed in the autumn of 1844, with Kemp's son placing the finial in August of the year. The total cost was £16,154/7/11. When the monument was inaugurated on the 15th of August, George Meikle Kemp himself was absent; walking home from the site on the foggy evening of the 6th of March that year, Kemp had fallen into the Union Canal and drowned.
In the 1990s, the monument was closed periodically for restoration work: In the early 1990s it was covered in scaffolding for several years, and it was closed again for additional work in 1998/99. For these purposes, the original quarry was re-opened to get matching sandstone from which craftsmen carved the necessary replacements. The overall cost of the restoration was £2.36 million and was funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund, Historic Scotland and the City of Edinburgh Council.
The monument is now administered by the Culture and Sport division of the City of Edinburgh Council, although the cost of restoration led to discussions in 1996 about selling the landmark to private interests.