Royal High Decision Time
At some point in the next few weeks Scottish ministers are poised to rule on the future of Edinburgh’s former Royal High School, the subject of one of the most hard-fought planning disputes since Donald Trump won consent for his Aberdeenshire golf course. City councillors previously voted not once, but twice, to reject the scheme to convert the A listed 1829 neoclassical structure on the Calton Hill into an ‘international luxury’ hotel with much derided ‘Mickey Mouse Ears’ extensions The applicants instantly lodged an appeal with the Scottish government.
As previously revealed in this parish, the project initially was a venture by local developer Duddingston House Properties (DHP), but in March 2019 its ‘person of significant control’, thanks to a Scottish Limited Partnership deal, became offshore Ocm Luxembourg Epf lii S.A.R.L, acting for Los Angeles fund manager Oaktree Capital Management, itself majority owned by Brookfield Asset Management of Toronto, which has over $500 billion under management worldwide, and whose Chief Finance Officer was formerly with Royal Bank of Scotland Real Estate. The proposed hotel operator Rosewood plans to open its doors in 2023 if the scheme gets the go-ahead.
The old Royal High has had something of a chequered history. Hamilton’s building was abandoned in 1968, in part because the Calton area was regarded by some as ‘unsavoury’. The school transferred to leafy Barnton. The Calton Hill building was used for some time as the City Art Centre, and in the mid seventies was converted into a 150 seat assembly building by the government’s Property Services Agency in anticipation of the 1979 devolution referendum.
Apart from a few sittings of the Scottish Grand Committee, the old Royal High was left without a use after the yes vote failed to meet the referendum’s 40% threshold and it remained mothballed until 1994, when the UK Tory government proposed selling it off. The Scottish National Party at that point opposed the sale, declaring it ‘a national monument which should be kept for the people of Scotland [which] must not fall into the hands of private developers’.
The area by the entrance became the location for a non-party devolution vigil which lasted for a meaningful 1979 days and nights, by which time Labour had accepted the principle of Scottish devolution. Scottish Secretary Donald Dewar, however, opposed the use of the building on the specious grounds that it was a ‘Nationalist Shibboleth’, though a civil servant accompanying him on a visit to the building suggested that the moment he really lost the plot was when he spotted a ‘woman of achievement’ plaque to the radical Scottish patriot Wendy Wood.
Ownership reverted to the council and a plan for a Scottish Photographic Centre backed by Sir Sean Connery among others was launched, but failed to win support from First Minister Jack McConnell. In 2009 The council invited bids from potential developers, receiving over 50 submissions. The award went to DHP in 2010 for a £35 million ‘Arts Hotel’ – an outcome which mystified some, since DHP at that time were being much criticised for neglecting the listed Odeon cinema in South Clerk Street, which they wanted to replace with a student accommodation development.
Where ministers may hit an obstacle, however – with the benefit of specialist legal advice – is that the terms of the award were subsequently modified when the £35 million boutique ‘Arts Hotel’ somehow became a £78 million ‘international luxury hotel’ in a prima facie breach of binding European regulations which stipulate that ‘material amendments to a contract constitute the award of a new contract, which should be re-tendered.’ The founding contract, however, has been kept hidden by the council, even from Europe’s Internal Market Commissioner, Elzbieta Bienkowska, and the appeal reporters. A request to the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) in Washington DC has also been made to access the documents from the ‘due diligence’ file of Oakwood Capital Management in Los Angeles. The case has been registered on the SEC database.
On the face of it, the decision should be a no-brainer. A fully-funded proposal on behalf of 140 year old St Mary’s Music School, which accepts pupils from all backgrounds on the basis of ability, has consent and is ready to proceed. In addition to its educational facilities, the project will include a 280 seat performance hall – exactly the sort of mid-sized venue Edinburgh needs. It will be very much a public asset, with potential for jazz and traditional music, as well as classical recitals.
Bearing in mind the support which Scotland’s performing arts community gave to the 2014 Yes campaign, it might be seen by some as a mark of ingratitude if the St Mary’s proposal was to be dumped. The hotel scheme has also generated massive public opposition from such high profile figures as the violinist Nicola Benedetti, the author Alexander McCall Smith, the composer and performer Phamie Gow, the percussionist Dame Evelyn Glennie and many others, not to mention a public petition with thousands of signatures and around 1500 formal objections.
The reputational importance of St Mary’s is known internationally. During the 1970s it was remodelled on the Menuhin School for musically gifted children in Surrey, and for many years Yehudi Menuhin was a patron. The project’s cost is to be borne by the Dunard Fund which has contributed millions not only to Edinburgh Festival, the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, and Scottish Opera but also to the National Galleries of Scotland and such projects as the restoration of the ‘lost’ 18th century murals by Alexander Runciman in St Patrick’s Church in the Cowgate.
It even prompted a letter to The Times, from around a dozen leading US architects horrified at the damage the hotel scheme would inflict on a building which, according to the definitive History of American Architecture, was one of three major European neoclassical buildings which influenced the development of the first American ‘national style.’
The informed wisdom is that the reporters may be minded to give the hotel scheme a thumbs up, despite the opposition of every heritage body in Scotland, but that the ministers may not be entirely persuaded. One straw in the wind is that chief party strategist Andrew Wilson, who wrote a hard hitting pro-hotel Scotsman article in 2015 under the headline ‘Nimby threat to Edinburgh’s success’ is now believed to have changed his mind, and is a strong supporter of the music school. With a 2021 election looming, the SNP hierarchy may also be disinclined to tolerate the controversy as a running sore which might cost them ‘creative industry’ votes.
In down-to-earth Scotland we don’t really do sentiment, but perhaps we should allow ourselves an exception with the old Royal High, a building which, while it was originally a burgh school for Edinburgh, is also a critical element of the Calton Hill landscape, and so belongs to the entire nation. The first days of this architectural analogy for the ideals of the Scottish enlightenment were captured in a few words written by a visitor to the city which merit a moment’s reflection.
Picture the scene. It is July 1829, and a young German musician by the name of Felix Mendelssohn, leaves the ruins of Holyrood Abbey, where the first bars of a Scottish symphony have just entered his head. He climbs Arthur’s Seat, and looks towards the sparkling Forth estuary and Scotland’s Valhalla, the Calton Hill, with it’s newest addition, Hamilton’s masterpiece, a perfect Doric temple built in gleaming golden stone. ‘When God in heaven takes up panorama painting’ he would later write to his father ‘You can expect something terrific.’
The stone is no longer golden, but the Calton Hill today remains much as it was in Mendelssohn’s time. Later additions include a monument to Robert Burns and an obelisque to Thomas Muir and other martyrs transported under the sedition laws, both designed by Hamilton, a political radical. This unspoilt vista may not be with us for much longer, however, if a ‘luxury international’ hotel with ‘Mickey Mouse Ears’ extensions receives ministerial approval. Edinburgh, as Hugh MacDiarmid once said, is ‘a mad God’s dream.’ They really would be mad if this one got through!