The artist David Roberts was not a man for understatement; his Middle Eastern landscapes, from which he made a tidy sum, were appealing reconstructions of the great scenery of the testaments. He had started his career as an Edinburgh scene-painter and had an eye for uplifting drama. So his picture of Calton Hill in 1830 is appropriate. Its new school appears as a huge stonework lion, classical but also dramatic, flanked by lodges like paws, peering over its new esplanade to the antique conglomeration of history and ruin which is the old town, where its two predecessors of 1578, Baronial, and 1777, modest Classical, had flourished.
If any grand new building was an embodiment of 'By the arts does the public realm flourish,' this was it – as its 1780s pupil Sir Walter Scott surely noticed, passing it as a dying man in 1832.
In 1968 the school migrated to Barnton and co-education and the building fell vacant, home to vagrant exhibitions. In 1978-9 it almost became the seat of the Scottish Assembly. I addressed a BBC camera there in 1986: one of the few political speeches the place ever heard after the boys left, as the road to home rule inexorably reopened. It became to the city fathers as embarrassing as it was after 1830 when the burgh crashed into bankruptcy. But even the usual Scottish culture-cures – vandalism or explosive – are ruled out. Its Craigleith sandstone would resist thunderbolts.
Edinburgh is a tourist target, so slithering out from internationally-managed funds, come commercial gents eager for profit. PissPoor Properties have put forward a scheme to have Hamilton's building flanked by two five-storey black-glass towers, glaring out over the old town and to the west at Thomas Tait's resplendent art deco St Andrews House. New St Andrews House, constructed in the 1970s to contain the Scottish Office, proved to be a building so repellent it was tenanted for only 14 years, and demolished without ceremony or regret.
Below in the Canongate, the Miralles parliament has had its detractors but has held on, conjuring a remarkable range of vistas and experiences, far more resonant than many of the 'safe pairs of hands' who drone on in its chambers, and rarely consult its library. The Prince of Salina said in Lampedusa's 'The Leopard' (1957) that he could never live in a house where he had visited every room. Holyrood likewise. Its plan is so unpredictable that hidden places are certain to exist. But is Britain as a project any longer safe, being sapped through the cultural decadence embodied by PissPoor Properties?
Royal High's long-term future ought to be as housing for the British and Irish Council. So far, few have noted the BIC's existence, yet it possesses the potentially confederal resources that could serve a restructured British Islands, their coasts and waterways, which are a huge European resource. It's now evident that the Brexit referendum, far from strengthening Britain, is subjecting our 'elective affinity' to unbearable strain and the dissolution of the conventions which supposedly held it together. Brexit has unleashed an Addams Family with the all-too-obvious crackpots in charge, potentially lethal in its likely effect on the Irish truce.
There must be spielraum for diplomacy and ritual drama, and Pugin's crumbling Westminster cannot manage any longer to provide it, existing as it does in the half-lit, oligarchic, devious world of the City of London. Edinburgh and Scotland are no longer places set apart for gentlemanly transaction, let alone improvement, but for get-rich-quick, flog-it-off and damn the consequences. Tourism is the appropriate poisoned dressing.
Royal High critiqued such moralism. It was a classical school, though not in the mould of the 'liberal English' tradition and Oxbridge's alliance to the classics and the Church. The Scots literati of Walter Scott's youth revered Livy on the Roman Republic, and the popularity of Macaulay's 'Lays of Ancient Rome' (1835-8) derived from Bonn University's Barthold Niebuhr and his 'Romische Geschichte' (1827-8): the crown of the new German historical school and its concern with documentary evidence.
Niebuhr himself had been an Edinburgh student, and his disciple Leonhardt Schmitz, a working-class lad from Aachen, who had lost an arm in a factory accident, became rector in 1846 on the recommendation of his former pupil Albert, Prince Consort. When he left Calton Hill in 1866 it was to become head of the new International College founded by Liberal Europeans such as Richard Cobden.
Little of this washed over young Prince Albert Edward, whose consumption was female and French. But R B Haldane, the remarkable Edinburgh product who ushered in the redbrick universities, was an Academy man, and with his secular social-democracy (an early Fabian, he would be Labour's first lord chancellor), someone whose work was to be reckoned with in the 1960s. My own career which started with the Open University, really began with Scott and with Schmitz.
These days of hope are over. The OU is threatened; university principals parade their salaries like princes. In Edinburgh's streets the tourist tat is piled high and sold dear. The less said about the culture thus generated... but the better angels of our nature can still however be heard at choral evensong in St Mary's Cathedral, so that ought to prejudice me in favour of music and its 'salutary and reforming influence upon youthful minds' as Rector Schmitz had claimed in 1848. In place of tartanry, spectator sport, and the inane babble of the Satanic Kailyard, prop. Irvine Welsh, sure thing. But first we have work to do.