Opened to public acclaim on 23 June 1829, the Old Royal High School building on Regent Road in Edinburgh was the culmination of three years of painstaking but enlightened construction. Skirting Calton Hill, the Old Royal High commands a panoramic vista of the centre of 'Auld Reekie', with views stretching from the Palace of Holyroodhouse, through the new Scottish Parliament, across the spire of St Giles Cathedral to Castle Rock, and along Princes Street.
At its opening ceremony, Dr Alexander Brunton, a former pupil and a one-time Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, declared that the Old Royal High's construction should be the 'boast of our city', as Edinburgh's resources were concentrated on a building dedicated to 'the worship of our God and to the training of the immortal mind'. For Sir Walter Scott, a pupil at the school's previous home at the east end of Infirmary Street, a Royal High education allowed him to learn 'the value of the knowledge I had hitherto considered only as a burdensome task'.
After years of delay, obstruction and neglect, City of Edinburgh Council has now decided to sell the Old Royal High School on the public market, after cancelling an agreement with Duddingston House Properties and Urbanist Hotels Group to convert Thomas Hamilton's Athenian masterpiece into a '7-star' Rosewood Hotel. Although critics suggested that the renovation to a hotel would damage the historic fabric of the building and the construction of proposed 'bold contemporary' wings on either side would detract from its classical aesthetic, its supporters claimed that the Rosewood scheme would result in £75 million worth of investment in Edinburgh's economy and create 250 full-time jobs.
Perhaps one local man put it best when he suggested at a public meeting in February 2015 that the scheme – which let's not forget would take place in the middle of a UNESCO World Heritage site – was the equivalent of 'putting Mickey Mouse ears on the Mona Lisa
Furthermore, as David Black (one of three people who the previous quote has been attributed to) identified in The Times
on Friday 5 February, the 'effective owner' of one of Edinburgh's most iconic buildings is now a 'massive multinational conglomerate', made up of a Los Angeles-based Capital Management company and its owners, Toronto's Brookfield Asset Management.
Above all else, with the City having something of a monopoly on hotels (rivalled only by its seemingly never-ending construction of student accommodation), one wonders whether Edinburgh ever really needed a 'Rosewood'. As it stands, the most favourable regeneration proposal comes from the Royal High School Preservation Trust, which would work with St Mary's Music School to adapt the building to provide specialist teaching facilities and create state-of-the-art performance spaces. It is undeniable that the proposal – which has been endorsed by the likes of Nicola Benedetti, Alexander McCall Smith and Sir James MacMillan – would be true to the building's founding principle: to facilitate the 'training of the immortal mind'.
Whilst something must be done to stop the Old Royal High falling further into an increasingly bad state of disrepair, neither scheme is ideal as both would involve the destruction of the (admittedly dispensable) 1950's ancillary buildings but, more importantly, the Debating Chamber of the aborted Scottish Assembly, which occupies the Great Hall at the heart of the building. The Music School also wishes to create a new public entrance from Regent Road, beneath the Chamber, and replace the dilapidated ancillary buildings with contemporary living accommodation for its boarders.
The Council's decision may end the impasse which has resulted in the building standing empty for decades, but it almost certainly means that it will now not return to public ownership and will lead to irreversible changes to its fabric and layout. As I wrote in SR on 8 April 2020
, the building's current state of disrepair raises serious questions about how we treat our democratic heritage.
Although the former school never housed a Scottish legislature, it was, for many, a beacon of hope through the years of campaigning to bring devolution to Scotland. When six members of the SNP, including Jim Sillars, attempted to occupy the building in October 1981 in order to hold a debate in the Chamber on mounting unemployment, they declared that it was a symbol of 'Westminster's contempt for our democratic decisions' and was 'in waiting of a sovereign Scottish Parliament'.
Whilst the Scottish Office chose the Old Royal High School in 1975 for both its grandeur and its adaptability, as well as its proximity to St Andrew's House, the decision to house the Assembly in the former home of what was at one time one of Scotland's most iconic (and elitist) schools is perhaps testimony to a Scottish legislature's higher purpose: to elevate and enrich our public life. If Canterbury Cathedral is England in stone, then the Old Royal High School has a strong claim to be Scotland's closest likeness.
Perhaps a happy medium, therefore, would be for the Old Royal High to house a new 'Museum of Contemporary Scotland', which would chart our national story and the changing sights, sounds, smells and tastes of modern Scotland since the country's first devolution referendum. With support and the use of their extensive collections from a consortium of Scotland's most prominent public institutions (the Scottish Parliament, the National Library of Scotland, the National Records of Scotland and the country's many industrial museums come to mind), it could trace the renewal of our nationhood and chronicle Scotland's contribution to artwork, comedy, poetry and literature.
Since the Scottish Parliament's 20th anniversary two summers ago, charting the evolution of nationhood has been in vogue (with at least two BBC Scotland series dedicated to the subject) and such a national museum would be a physical and permanent manifestation of this story being told.
It could also chart the dramatic changes in our identity, class structure, religious observance and ethnic diversity, sketch out how rural and urban landscapes have changed over the last century and become a focal point for cutting-edge research. Non-partisan exhibitions, installations and events, which would bring together expert curators, academics, artists and the interested public, would be well placed to bring fellow-feeling and a sense of our collective destiny to the undoubtedly fractious public life of a 'Yes' or 'No' voting nation after IndyRef2.
A world-class auditorium, which would retain some of the aesthetics of the Assembly Chamber, would provide a forum for debate, musical recitals, dramatic performances and book launches, and could be shared with St Mary's Music School. It would also offer an uplifting, dignified and previously unseen setting for the Edinburgh Art Fair, the Fringe, the Book Festival, and the Scottish Parliament's Festival of Politics, as well as the City's many learned societies.
Whilst I think my quickly sketched scheme is highly unlikely to come to pass, I have a deep and sincere affection for the Old Royal High and its history, which is perhaps best understood, along with my support for West Ham United, as an indication of my quixotic pursuit of lost causes. If any particularly wealthy Scottish Review readers have a few bob going spare though, you know where to find me…
Tom Chidwick is a contemporary historian, who splits his time between London and Edinburgh. He is currently writing a history of the 1979 referendum on the creation of a Scottish Assembly