Issue 196
Winter 2016

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Jun 27, 2017
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    Back to School yet once more…

    Richard Carr on a new twist to Edinburgh's ongoing Royal High School saga

    AN INSIGHT into the differing aims of developers, heritage bodies, local authorities and even governments has been provided by the battle over the future of the Old Royal High School on Calton Hill in Edinburgh.

    Designed by Thomas Hamilton and built between 1826-9, and costing the city £34,000 (including a donation of £500 from King George IV), the building's portico and great hall were modelled on the Hephaisteion in Athens and hence earned Edinburgh the title 'the Athens of the North.'

    Perhaps unsuprisingly, the architect Alexander 'Greek' Thomson, regarded the building as the second greatest in Britain However, once the school vacated the building in 1968, a variety of uses and ideas for conversions followed, including a home for Scotland's Grand Committee, departments of Edinburgh City Council and even a base for the Duke of Edinburgh's Awards in Scotland.

    The building was also considered as a home for Scotland's new Parliament. Had this happened, it would have been on a geographical level with the castle and above Holyrood Palace - psychologically, a good place to be.

    But as this was approved by the Scottish National Party, it was vetoed by Labour. So, having been left empty for a long time, Duddington House Properties proposed to convert the Old Royal High School into a £75m luxury hotel – an application to Edinburgh City Council that aroused the ire of heritage bodies including the Architectural Heritage Society of Scotland, the Cockburn Association and the Royal High School Preservation Trust.

    As a result, the developers scaled down their hotel plans, from 175 to 100 bedrooms, while those opposing the conversion supported a completely new proposal. This was for the building to be turned into a new home for St Mary's Musical School.

    This proposal is now being backed by the council. But, to bring the battle to an end, the council has had to refuse referring the hotel application to the Government, while the Government has had to refuse calling the application in for further consideration.

    And there is now another development: Sandy Stoddart, the Queen's sculptor in Scotland, has called for the monument above the school to be completed. Designed by Henry Playfair and C.R. Cockerell, based upon the Parthenon on the Acropolis in Athens. And, though work on the monument began in 1822 to coincide with George IV's notorious visit to Edinburgh, when he was swathed in an extraordinary array of tartans, funding for the monument soon ran out.

    Stoddart has offered to assemble a host of experts to complete the monument and says that doing so would offset the current 'generic horrors' which, he says, are changing Edinburgh from the 'Athens of the North' to the 'Dubai of the North.'

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    An extensive new preface by the Ross Herald of Arms, Charles Bunnett, Chamberlain of Duff House