ByGeorge, it’s got tales to tell

The George Hotel in 1959
The George Hotel in 1959
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If WALLS could talk there would be more than 200 years’ worth of tales to tell.

Some juicy ones, undoubtedly, of the many A-list celebrities who have made the hotel their Edinburgh home, if only for a few nights at a time.

Tthe George Hotel, present day

Tthe George Hotel, present day

Others may offer insider information on those who lived and worked in the building before it became one of the city’s most prestigious establishments. Much sought after details perhaps of the well-to-do New Town family who first lived under its roof back in 1784.

In the absence of talking walls to help tell the history of The George Hotel, researchers from Edinburgh World Heritage, an eager hotel manager, and a team of his long-serving staff – armed with plenty tales of their own – have got to work.

The result? The first ever guide to the luxurious hotel on George Street, an establishment as popular today with society’s elite as it was when its building was first occupied in the late 18th century.

“Why now? Good question,” says David Hicks from Edinburgh World Heritage, who was involved in the project. “A big part of our job is to promote the World Heritage site and explain to people why Edinburgh is so unique. A large number of historic buildings [here] are privately owned, however, so we need to encourage people to see the value of the heritage they are proud of.

A busy lunch-time at the Balcony Bar carvery in 1987.

A busy lunch-time at the Balcony Bar carvery in 1987.

“The George Hotel is a great example of this, but its history has never been told before.”

The guide – a short illustrated leaflet – has just been completed and is now available for hotel guests to enjoy as well as residents of the city, who can access it online.

And it’s nothing short of fascinating, detailing how the hotel was created gradually out of five separate townhouses, how it served in part as a Navy, Army, and Air Force Institute (NAAFI) centre during the Second World War, and why the likes of Elizabeth Taylor – after whom a wooden restaurant chair was once scrawled with the words “Elizabeth Taylor sat here” – have made it one of the most fashionable places to be seen.

It all began in 1784 when a prominent city lawyer called James Ferrier, Scotland’s then Principal Clerk of Session, moved into number 25 George Street, recently built and among the most exclusive addresses in the country.

It was in his sophisticated town house that he would entertain the likes of Sir Walter Scott and Robert Burns, the latter taking a shine to his eldest daughter, although she was married.

Walter Scott would spend hours talking with Mr Ferrier’s youngest daughter Susan, a celebrated author whom he described as “Scotland’s equivalent of Jane Austen”.

The home would later become one part of what became The George Hotel, as we celebrate it today. The Victorian age brought great change to Edinburgh, the character of George Street shifting as shops and banks began to replace private homes. With that, the Caledonian Insurance Company moved into number 19 – now also part of The George Hotel.

Architect David Bryce, responsible for Fettes College, was asked to design an impressive facade, which remains the main entrance to the hotel today. In the neighbouring buildings - some of which would also become part of the hotel - well-off, middle-class residents lived, a teacher of music at number 17 and a wine merchant at number 23, for example.

“The story of how this street of buildings developed over time tells people an awful lot about how the city developed too,” says David. “Lots of shops were now serving the needs of the middle classes.”

In 1860, the first hotel on the site opened at number 23 and in 1879, the Caledonian Insurance Company expanded, buying numbers 15 and 17, improving the building to include a great banking hall, still used today by the hotel for banqueting.

The following year, expanding into number 21, the hotel was renamed The George Hotel, keeping the brand when it expanded in 1950 to include numbers 15 to 25, following the relocation of the Caledonian Insurance Company to St Andrew Square.

It wasn’t all straightforward though, as before development plans for the hotel could progress, the war had intervened and the ground floor was taken over by the NAAFI as a base to provide home comforts to serving troops at home and abroad.

Regional general manager David Welch says: “It’s been a fantastic opportunity to be part of this research and I think it was important for us to take the time to do it.”

As manager of the hotel for the past six years, David was involved in its complete refurbishment in 2006 – another entry in the establishment’s rich history. But he got more than he bargained for when a mummified cat was discovered hidden in the rafters above what is now the Tempus restaurant.

“We got quite a shock when the skeleton fell out of the ceiling,” he says. “As it did, though, the hotel alarm starting sounding for no reason and a workman drilled through a cable. Nobody was hurt, but it was strange that it all happened at the same time. The bones were about to be removed when we decided that maybe it was bad luck to do so. Instead we wrapped the cat in a blanket, and put it back when the ceiling was replaced – along with some rosary beads and a tin of food.”

Nicknamed Misty, on account of its mysterious arrival, hotel staff believe the cat may have been intentionally trapped in between two floors many years ago to catch mice. “Nothing bad has happened since we put Misty back – and hopefully it will stay that way,” David says.

David has had many opportunities to rub shoulders with modern-day celebrities, including Kylie Minogue and US rockers Kings of Leon. And his staff have more than a few stories to tell about the likes of Rolf Harris, Omar Sharif, Kenneth More and Elizabeth Taylor. It was on one of her visits in the 1980s that retired restaurant manager Barnaby Hawkes recalls in the history guide how, “as soon as she left, one of the waiters turned her chair upside down and wrote ‘Elizabeth Taylor sat here’ on it”.

Other members of staff recall the moment a Saudi prince with a penchant for fresh dates asked for them to be served to him in solid gold boxes, and the moment Dawn French’s daughter laughed when staff painted smiley faces on her boiled eggs at breakfast.

“I may be manager of the hotel, but I am genuinely proud to be part of its rich history,” says David.

n Download the history of The George Hotel on the Edinburgh World Heritage website www.ewht.org.uk

catherine.salmond@edinburghnews.com