John McLellan: Royal High row set to run

An artist's impression of the planned hotel. Picture: comp
An artist's impression of the planned hotel. Picture: comp
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The young man stepped out through the 10ft high windowless door on to the blackened stones, the austere columns framing the view ahead.

With a scroll in his hand, the Old Town laid out before him and Salisbury Crags climbing up behind, it truly felt that the world was at his feet.

This was the experience of boys at the old Royal High School before it shut its doors to the last pupil in 1968. Only on leaving were they allowed to step through the door beneath the famous portico overlooking Regent Road and the Canongate Kirkyard below.

This week I was able to do the same, except instead of walking off proudly clutching my leaver’s certificate and off to a bright new future, I picked my way through pigeon droppings which carpet much of the old building whose future is still very much uncertain.

Duddingston House Properties, the firm behind the plans to turn the school into a luxury hotel, is on the offensive to persuade the people of Edinburgh that its plan is the right one, which will respect the history and setting of the buildings and for the first time make it fully accessible to members of the public.

Bruce Hare, DHP’s chief executive, has been living with the dream of turning the site into a hotel for over five years. He was initially reluctant to get involved but ended up heading the bid which beat off 50 rivals to develop the site.

Even though it had been hoped it would open for business last year, he remains passionate about its potential as both a hotel and a showcase for Scotland to wealthy visitors.

“I am a proud Scot and I am fully aware of the significance of the site,” he says. “I want this to have the best of everything; the best design, the best service, and the best Scottish food.

“When people come here and are paying £400 a night or whatever, it needs to be the best and that includes having the best views.”

Having the best views means buildings with height, and much of the discussion – internally and publicly – is about the impact of the bedroom wings. Critics, including this column last week, have highlighted their dominance on the hillside suggested by recently released images.

It is a testament both to the difficulties of the site and of the meticulous approach of architect Gareth Hoskins that only now have the images become available and the chances are it could easily be another five years before the first guest gets the keys to one of the planned 150 bedrooms.

Hare was on site this week to give arts writer Tim Cornwell and me a guided tour of the complex, from the ugly extension to the gym block which still includes cells from its brief time as a court, to the single-storey dining hall (the accessible roof of which is regularly stripped of lead by thieves) and finally the rotting grandeur of the main building.

The cloying tell-tale pungency of water-penetrated neglect is everywhere and those people who picked their way through the debris to the public exhibition of the development proposals last week will have been left in no doubt these are buildings in need of rescue.

Hare, a man who has a passion for the restoration and reuse of historic properties, is convinced the hotel scheme is the right one, although he accepts there is much still to be done to tackle what could be the biggest conservation and heritage wrangle the city has seen.

“We are not there yet, but the important thing was to get something out so people could see for themselves and for us to understand what they are saying,” he says.

What they are saying was clear from the recent public meeting, attended by around 300 people, most of them voicing concern, and Hare was there to hear it all.

The latest outburst comes from filmmaker Murray Grigor who, with no lack of overstatement, claimed the conversion would make the old school look like “something out of Las Vegas”.

But over in his airy Glasgow studio, Hoskins presides over an atmosphere of quiet industry. He is quick to explain the visuals did not show the concepts at their best and instead points to other angles which he says give a more realistic idea of what it will all look like.

They will not reassure every critic, but closer detail does give a much better sense of the sophistication behind the plans and the care with which the surroundings have been considered.

The design team cannot be accused of attempting to minimise the impact of the new constructions, with impressions many will undoubtedly find hard to swallow made readily available.

The publicity already generated led to 600 people visiting the exhibition, even if many were just curious to see round a building which has only rarely been accessible to the general public since its construction in 1829.

“I don’t disagree with some of the comments,” says Hoskins. “We recognise the importance of the building but does that stop you doing something with it? While I don’t want design by committee, it’s important we listen. Public access is an important part of what we’re trying to do.”

The plans to open up Regent Terrace must be viewed as a major improvement, but Hoskins is well aware of the opposition in principle.

“The stumbling block seemed to be about a hotel but they will actually be encouraging people over the threshold. They want to sell cups of coffee and those sorts of things, after all,” he says.

The counter-argument about appealing to tourists is it is bringing a derelict building to life in a sustainable way. For Hoskins, bringing life back does not just extend to the school building but to the whole of the Waterloo Place/Calton Hill district which as locals know only too well has a reputation as a sleazy no-go area after dark.

Clearing the street of crash barriers, making Jacob’s Ladder a desirable and safe access to the Old Town and welcoming people to the hill are all part of the vision. Similarly, he is already working on the plans to transform Chambers Street from a car park to a popular open space to draw more people to the National Museum where he was responsible for the creation of new entrances and the opening up of the vaults.

In all Scotland’s cities, Hoskins believes civic leaders need to display much more leadership and vision about what kind of cities they want to see instead of what can often seem like piecemeal developments without relationships with each other.

“Look at what happened with Union Street Gardens in Aberdeen or George Square here in Glasgow. Where is the vision?” he asks.

Between Hare and Hoskins, there is no shortage of vision, but the question which could remain unanswered for some time is whether it is shared by enough Edinburgh people and their representatives.

Viva Las Vegas? Not if Murray Grigor has his way.

FOLLY REVEALED

Set to be uncovered in the redevelopment is Hamilton’s Tower, a folly built by architect Thomas Hamilton into the side of Calton Hill, but obscured by the extension to the gym block for decades. Overgrown with ivy and completely dilapidated, the folly will be restored and will once again become publicly accessible.

INTER-CITY LINK CANNOT BE BROKEN

It IS perhaps a tribute to years of inter-city rivalry that Network Rail can even contemplate cutting the link between Edinburgh and Glasgow for six weeks for upgrading work.

So what if it’s a relatively quiet time of year? Or indeed if things are going to be better afterwards? It feels like a return to the bad old days of British Rail when passengers could be treated as cattle who will meekly accept whatever is thrown at them.

But the need for improvements was starkly illustrated this week when on two consecutive days the Edinburgh-Glasgow main line ground to a halt

Never mind the Borders rail link, a reliable line between Scotland’s two biggest cities would be an idea.

INGLIS IS IDEAL FOR KEYNOTE SCULPTURE

New images of how Market Street will look when the New Waverley district, aka Caltongate, is completed feature a modern sculpture at its heart.

Looking rather like a model for the “Bog roll” hotel at St James, and sited just up the road from Everyman Joe outside the city council HQ, the area might be turning into a comedy sculpture park. Maybe the unlamented Kinetic piece from Picardy Place could come out of mothballs too?

But what about a genuinely inspirational monument to one of the many deserving sons and daughters of Edinburgh so far uncommemorated. How long have we been talking about an Elsie Inglis statue?