ARTHUR’S Seat sits proudly against the blue of the May sky. Edinburgh Castle’s flags are a slight fluttering in the distance. To the right there’s Blackford Hill, a gorse-covered mount rising above the tree tops.
It’s noon and this sun-lit view of the Capital can only be found in one spot – the orchard of the Craighouse parkland.
Turn your eyes north and stretched out in front of you is a sweep of daisy-strewn grass, the cherry blossom trees are in the pinkest of health, the shades of green in the wood dappled by rays of light.
There can be few finer places than the grounds of Napier University’s Craighouse campus. It’s just the sort of beauty spot where you’d want to have your wedding pictures taken – and indeed hundreds of couples have done just that.
It’s also the sort of place you could spend lazy afternoons, where children could fulfil woodland fantasies of tree climbing and butterfly catching, where students can take a break from lectures.
Yet, the site could well be about to change forever. Napier University, fed up with the high maintenance costs of running a campus of listed buildings, has sold it to a consortium of investors and developers, and has been moving out.
While strains of music can still be heard emanating from the windows of what was once the city’s lunatic asylum, it will soon be quiet – until the bulldozers move in.
However, just the idea of development has created a lot of noise. The plans by the Craighouse Partnership are for around 116 homes, some inside the listed New Craighouse but the majority will be new townhouses, mews homes and luxury apartments – and built on the grounds that are so loved by those who use them, that they’ve set up their own campaigning group, Friends of Craighouse, to save them.
On a beautifully sunny Wednesday afternoon it’s hard to imagine that in a year’s time it’s quite possible that Craighouse will have changed forever.
Of course it won’t have if Rosy Barnes and Andrew Richards have their way. The pair are spearheading the Friends campaign, determined to ensure that the open green space stays that way.
Their enthusiasm for the natural beauty of the place is understandable. It’s one of the city’s seven hills and a nature conservation site. Their fervour is also vindicated, they say, by the fact that the City Hospital development at Greenbank was over-built, and the area has also lost community land at Meggetland.
“This is just a wonderful amenity,” says Rosy. ‘It’s hard to believe anyone would want to build on this.”
On the other side of the argument is the Partnership headed by William Gray Muir, owner of Sundial Properties and an expert in restoring listed buildings.
He believes emphatically that without the building of new homes in the grounds, then the hugely significant listed buildings of Craighouse will become ruins. This development, he says, is the only way of preserving part of the nation’s heritage.
“Of course no-one wants to build on the land,” he says. “But we have to come up with a financially viable proposal, with the minimum of impact on the site, which will protect the buildings and the surroundings for the future. Without development the whole place will go to ruin – and very quickly – or someone else will buy it and something far worse will be developed.”
The Friends have heard the arguments before and believe that they are just scaremongering. “There has to be a better plan,” says Rosy. ‘I am not against all new-build but we’re talking about really excessive amounts on a site which is protected.”
Andrew adds: “The council’s local plan says there should be no building on this land, it’s a protected site . . . even back in 1992 there was a plan to build on here and the planning department said ‘no way’.
“This is a place which is well used by the public. The developers say that there will still be access and right of way, but it will be like walking in someone’s garden – and all these wonderful trees will go.”
Rosy adds: “Our group has been an organic thing. People were so incensed after the first exhibition of the plans that it’s grown from that. And we’ve had a petition signed by people in the area which numbers more than 5000.
“We just feel that if we weren’t asking the questions then no-one would be. But now we’ve got the support of the Morningside and Merchiston community councils and the Cockburn Association.
“The site is important to the whole of Edinburgh. If it goes, it could well be ‘where’s next?’”
William Gray Muir almost snorts at the suggestion that building at Craighouse could set a precedent for other such sites in Edinburgh.
“I think that’s nonsense,” he says. “We know this goes against the current local plan – but that’s only since 2010. Prior to that the plan included development of the Craighouse parkland. Also, we do believe that for the good of saving these wonderful listed buildings then the development of the land will be allowed.
“This is not an either the buildings or the land situation. Without development there will be neither. No-one will look after the land or the buildings. Residential development is the best way to save the buildings – which are already being affected by dry rot because they’re lying empty.”
Asked if he thinks there’s concern because part of the Partnership is Mountgrange, the developers behind the failed and controversial Caltongate plan, he denies it.
“It’s not a case of ‘I’m doing the listed buildings, they’re doing the new build’. This is one project. You can’t separate the elements out because they’re not feasible by themselves. We have to view the site as a whole.
“And I have to say that when we speak to residents’ groups, what they’re most concerned about is that the buildings don’t deteriorate and the site becomes attractive to vandals. We don’t want this to turn into another Bangour Village Hospital. That’s the stark choice.”
The Friends are also concerned that the new homes will be so expensive local people won’t be able to afford them – and that given the price the owners will pa,y the rights of way could soon be closed off.
Again Mr Muir denies any such suggestion. “Of course there will be some which will be expensive, such as in the tower but the rest will have to fit into the pricing of the local market. We’re not building them just for investment, like the flats at Quartermile.
“If there is a bandwagon to kick us off this site, then I think it will be a Pyrrhic victory. People have to think very carefully about what they want Craighouse to be in the future.”
So far no plans have gone into the council for approval, and at the moment both sides seem confident of winning.
“The campaign has had massive support and that support is growing all the time with voices really coming together and uniting against these excessive and unacceptable plans,” says Rosy. “The campaign really has the wind in its sails and we are confident and determined to save this precious site from excessive new build.”
‘I didn’t want to see the site filled with bungalows’
IT was April 1994 when Napier University bought Craighouse from Lothian Health as a new campus.
Napier spent £9.15m itself in refurbishing the buildings and restoring the gardens while there was grant from Historic Scotland of £373,800 and the Scottish Higher Education Funding Council offered £5.5m to help buy the building. The then principal, Professor William Turmeau, said that thanks to the SHEFC decision, Napier had an “unrepeatable opportunity to meet its accommodation needs and to serve the community well into the 21st century” and that any new building on the site will still allow the area to be preserved as a valuable “green” space.
The former head of mental health services in Edinburgh, Dr John Loudon, said at the time: “I was very pleased to hear it was becoming a campus because I really didn’t want to see the site filled with bungalows. It’s beautiful outside and a splendid building from the inside too.”
Last year Napier sold the site for £10m to a consortium of developers including Mountgrange Investment Management and Sundial Properties.
A historic house
IN 1565, Old Craig, the original mansion which is now painted pink, was built at the end of a great avenue of lime trees. The owner, John Kincaid, made the headlines when he abducted a widow from near the Water of Leith around this time – and only released her when the Earl of Mar, Sir John Ramsay, threatened to burn down the mansion.
By 1861 it had became home to one of Scotland’s most renowned historians, Dr John Hill Burton, who bought the house for his wife as a birthday present.
But only 17 years later the house and surrounding estate of 60 acres were sold to the Edinburgh Lunatic Asylum. A physician superintendent, Dr Thomas Clouston, drew up plans for the site’s development, which eventually cost £150,000 to realise.
In 1890 the foundation stone was laid for the new buildings, which included a massive red sandstone building called New Craig, and satellite villas interconnected by underground passages. And on October 26, 1894 it was opened by the Duke of Buccleuch as a centre for well-heeled mental patients.
The NHS took it over in 1948 and it ran as a mental health hospital until 1993.
The plans in place
THE Craighouse Partnership - of which Edinburgh Napier University is a part – wants to build 116 new homes at the Craighouse, including four-storey townhouses, mews homes and luxury apartments.
Old Craighouse would become a stand-alone home and New Craighouse and other buildings turned into flats. Some listed buildings, such as boilerhouses, are earmarked for demolition.
Mountgrange, which is one of the investors in the £300m plans, was also behind the controversial Caltongate scheme. It was mothballed after the company, then called Mountgrange Capital, went into administration.
Sundial Properties restores listed buildings as residential properties. Its chairman is Willie Gray Muir, who also sits on the board of the Edinburgh World Heritage Trust.