St Mary’s Music School confident of capturing old Royal High School

Headteacher Kenneth Taylor meets Willie Gray Muir, chairman from the Royal High School Preservation Trust. Picture: Lesley Martin
Headteacher Kenneth Taylor meets Willie Gray Muir, chairman from the Royal High School Preservation Trust. Picture: Lesley Martin
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NESTLED in a leafy enclave just five minutes’ walk from Haymarket station, St Mary’s Music School has something of the appearance of a scaled-back Hogwarts.

And there’s certainly something magical about the talent on display as you walk through its winding corridors and bustling classrooms.

On any given day you can expect to hear its 83 pupils engaged in everything from English lessons to virtuoso cello performances – all under the watchful eye of a host of staff at the top of their game.

As the country’s only independent music school, this is where the crème de la crème of Scotland’s musical youngsters come to learn their cadence from their cadenza.

But in recent months the school has hit the headlines for very different reasons.

In September, the newly formed Royal High School Preservation Trust made an offer of £1.5m to snap up the A-listed old Royal High School to turn it into a new home for St Mary’s, with architect Richard Murphy enlisted to draw up designs.

Early proposals include a “flexible performance space” in the main hall for up to 250 people, as well as the demolition of the eastern block to make way for new school buildings.

It’s a plan in direct opposition to a separate, controversial bid to turn the historic Calton Hill site into a £75m five-star hotel, set to be operated by the Texas-based Rosewood Hotels & Resorts and due to go before councillors next month.

Music school bosses argue their vision for the 19th century building will stay true to the Enlightenment spirit in which the structure was built, and offers a crucial, fully-funded alternative to the much-criticised hotel scheme.

For Dr Kenneth Taylor, headteacher of St Mary’s, the move also opens up exciting opportunities for future expansion. The school currently suffers from a lack of rehearsal space and cramped classrooms, leaving it unable to host events aimed at the wider youth ­community.

A move to the prominent Calton Hill site would throw open space and place the institution firmly in the spotlight. “I’ve been here for two-and-a-half years now, and one of the things I’m very clear about is we’ve got to make sure we are attracting the best musical talent Scotland’s got to offer,” he said. “And that’s about making us as visible as we can be.

“So in recent years, we’ve been doing quite a lot of work to make ourselves more visible. We’ve got a Facebook page, we’re tweeting regularly, and we have masterclasses.

“But rather than having these as internal events, now we’re opening them up. Two years ago we had a masterclass that we co-hosted with City of Edinburgh Music School. We had 60 cellists from schools all round Edinburgh and beyond all coming to that.

“Now that’s a great educational experience, but it’s also a way of showing what the music school can offer and making people aware of it. But to do these types of events we can’t bring people here, because there’s no space to have them.

“Obviously if we were to move to the Royal High School, we would suddenly have a space we could use – in fact more than one, probably.”

He added: “Moving from here to the site at the old Royal High School – the facilities would be more up-to-date, they would be custom-built, and having a central performance area would enable us to bring events to the school, which I think would make the school more visible. Really, it’s very exciting.”

But any attempt to take over Thomas Hamilton’s 1829 structure – often referred to as one of Scotland’s best remaining examples of neoclassical architecture – is set to be fraught with difficulty.

Detailed blueprints to turn the building into a luxury hotel will go before planners next month. If this is a battle for the soul of Edinburgh – with conservation groups arguing the hotel scheme could damage the city’s coveted World Heritage status – then it’s threatening to be a long, drawn-out skirmish.

William Gray Muir, chairman of the Royal High School Preservation Trust – and the main driving force behind the music school plans, insists it’s a case of finding a use “worthy of the site in cultural terms”. He said: “The building is an inconvenience to the hotel – it’s not actually at the centre of the hotel, it’s something that makes it hard to develop.

“Whereas actually, for our proposal, the school and the new public performance space simply inhabit the building as it was intended to be inhabited.

“There are moments when the obvious answer is the best answer. It really is pure luck that we happen to have the use, the money and the need all coming together with St Mary’s – we’d be mad not to take this opportunity as a city. I mean, how often does an opportunity like this come along? Never.

“This would be the biggest philanthropic gift to the city in generations.”

Mr Muir insists the music school bid has demolished the argument that building a hotel on the site is the only way to save Hamilton’s masterpiece. He argues the hotel scheme “runs totally contrary to all established planning policy in the city”.

“If it was a decision based purely on planning, it’s obvious it would get turned down. How could it possibly be anything other than turned down? The only way it could be [given the go-ahead] would be political. And I think that’s a very, very difficult thing for a politician to say: ‘We want a millionaire’s hotel on a site that was built as a monument to the enlightenment of Edinburgh.’

“That’s a pretty strange thing to say, and when you’re saying that the average room rate will be more than most people can afford – that’s a pretty odd way to treat something that was about the everyman.”

Mr Muir also rebuts claims by the hotel advocates that rejection of their scheme would mean the site legally had to be put back out to public tender, which could take years.

He said: “If they don’t get consent, the council is free to decide how it finds a new use for the building. It could decide whether to negotiate directly with us, which it is legally able to do if it can show best value and public benefit. If they decided to go through a formal procurement procedure, we would enter that.”

He said council buildings are often sold in a matter of months rather than years.

Music school bosses predict a move to the Royal High School would enable them to expand their operation to as many as 120 pupils – as well as giving them more space to run their popular Saturday morning classes for children outside the school. If their planning application was accepted, it would be six months before work began, with construction and restoration work lasting a further two years. A move could then be made in as early as three years.

The Royal High School Preservation Trust insists it will pay for the new building outright – allowing the school to sell off its current home and pocket the profit, reinvesting it into its pupils and staff. And Dr Taylor said the fee-paying St Mary’s is not in any way elitist.