Palace Hotel fire at 30: The day Princes Street's skyline changed forever

It was one of the biggest fires in living memory and it all unfolded on one of Europe’s most famous shopping thoroughfares.

Wednesday, 9th June 2021, 4:00 am
Updated Wednesday, 9th June 2021, 7:02 pm

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Cutting a fine silhouette, its imposing scale and distinctive twin pyramidal towers added considerable value to the roofscape of Edinburgh’s Princes Street, but sadly it would all come tumbling down following a disastrous June night 30 years ago.

Constructed in 1888 above existing Georgian townhouses, the six-storey Palace would never quite hold the prestige of later Victorian hotel rivals, such as the Caledonian or the North British, but it did have a couple of trumps cards.

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The Palace Hotel, at the corner of Princes Street and Castle Street in Edinburgh was demolished after a fire in June 1991,

Occupying the corner of Castle Street, and overlooking the lush West Princes Street Gardens and Edinburgh Castle, the hotel commanded arguably the finest vista of any hotel in Britain, and, prior to the changing of alcohol licensing laws, it had been one of the few places people could enjoy a drink in the city centre after 10pm.

The Palace Hotel fire started on the evening of June 9, 1991 after youths managed to break in to the building which was lying empty at the time.

Having reportedly set light to pieces of paper to help find their way around in the dark, the teenagers carelessly discarded their makeshift torches in a corridor before making a hasty escape.

A taxi driver raised the alarm just after 10pm as he spotted the flames bursting through the hotel’s windows.

The Palace Hotel, at the corner of Princes Street and Frederick Street in Edinburgh is demolished after a fire in June 1991,

Up to 70 firefighters descended on the scene but could do little to prevent the inferno, fanned by an elevator shaft within the hotel’s warren of narrow corridors, consume the Palace, plus street level retail units, and a neighbouring 18th century house on Castle Street.

Thankfully no lives were lost as both buildings were unoccupied.

However, the blaze and subsequent demolition a few days later had rendered one of Princes Street’s finest buildings to rubble.

One of the first on the scene that night for Lothian & Borders Fire Brigade was Eleanor Matthews.

She recalls a dramatic evening in which she made a new feline friend, as well as being told to steer clear of a jewellery shop in one of the stricken units below the hotel.

Ms Matthews: “I attended as part of the first response from Marionville. Attending appliances came from McDonald Road, Tollcross, Crewe Toll, Liberton and Sighthill.

"The station officer from Tollcross rescued some kittens which we took to the Cat and Dog Home. One kitten was claimed and named Cinders. I took a black and white one called Neko.

"I remember the windows falling out and the polis not letting us near the Gold Centre.”

Musician and former Rose Street resident Woodstock Taylor recalls there was a prevailing belief in Edinburgh at the time that the Palace Hotel fire may not have been an accident.

Architects plans drawn up in 1988 show there had been a desire to lose the Victorian edifice in favour of a new department store.

Ms Taylor said: “I lived just behind there, in Rose Street. I was on my way back from the King's Theatre that night and I think we had to wait a bit to be allowed back home.

"It was all very surreal. There was a feeling locally that it wasn't entirely unexpected.”

She added: “At that time there was a strong feeling that just maybe not all fires which ultimately benefited developers were pure coincidence.

"The loss of the Palace, which we used to enjoy as a music venue, had a feeling of dull inevitability about it, but nothing one could pinpoint as fact.”

The gap-site which was left from the Palace Hotel’s demise allowed for the construction of the first major development on Princes Street since the early 1970s.

The new office block “7 Castle Street”, featuring several retail units above, was completed in 1995 to an uncomplicated, modern design.

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