One of Scotland’s leading arts philanthropists has warned that turning Edinburgh’s old Royal High School into a luxury hotel is a “red line” that should not be crossed for commercial interests.
Carol Grigor, who has pledged to bankroll the creation of a new concert hall and music school in the Calton Hill landmark, has warned a looming decision on the proposed Rosewood hotel would “speak volumes” on how much value Edinburgh placed on culture, heritage and education.
In an open letter to Frank Ross, the city’s Lord Provost, Ms Grigor, who is one of the main financial backers of the Edinburgh International Festival, said a “wrong step” to back the controversial hotel would “threaten” the city’s world heritage status.
The letter, which has been made public ahead of a planning hearing later this month, says: “Does a hotel for elite travellers conjure up the same sense of pride or aspiration as a school for musical young people whose only benchmark for admission is sheer talent and potential?”
Ms Grigor, a former concert pianist, has pledged to fund the proposed relocation of St Mary’s Music School to the 19th century building through her Dunard Fund.
The open letter is also signed by William Gray Muir, chair of the Royal High School Preservation Trust, which Ms Grigor help set up in 2015, and music school chair William Moyes.
Councillors backed the trust’s plans for the building last year, but they cannot proceed as the local authority previously had a lease agreement with the hotel developers.
The letter states: “On August 31, the City of Edinburgh Council will decide the fate of one of Scotland’s most important buildings, when councillors determine the application to turn the old Royal High into a 127 room hotel, once and for all. This decision is monumental and goes far beyond the redevelopment of a single listed building.
“It will speak volumes about the value we place on our heritage, on our culture and on education. Indeed, it is viewed as such a significant decision internationally that a wrong step threatens the city’s hard won UNESCO status. This is a red line we should not cross for the sake of narrow commercial interests. Not when there is a better option.
“The Royal High School Preservation Trust, St Mary’s Music School and the Dunard Fund have come together to propose an almost universally admired alternative to the hotel.
"As developer, tenant and funding partner, we have the vision and the resources to create a centre of excellence at the Old Royal High that will significantly broaden and enhance access to music and musical education for all, as well as making this exceptional building a true public asset.
“Moving St Mary’s Music School to the Old Royal High represents a once in a generation opportunity to deliver a future for one of this city’s greatest architectural masterpieces in a manner which enhances Edinburgh’s heritage, culture and reputation for educational excellence.”
David Orr, chairman of Urbanist Hotels, one of the developers behind the proposed Rosewood project, said: "We have worked hard to create a proposal which reflects the building’s category A listed status and respects its location, combining the highest standards of design whilst restoring and protecting for generations the unique features throughout the building, not removing heritage fabric.
“The conservation of the Hamilton building is at the heart of our proposals, both by protecting it and making almost all of it publicly accessible for the first time.
“We understand and appreciate the importance of this building for Edinburgh and Scotland. During the process we have taken time to engage with heritage experts and stakeholders to ensure that our plans maintain the historic centrepiece of Thomas Hamilton’s original building and respect the setting by understanding it.
“I believe that when we present to councillors next week they will recognise that this is the best project to bring almost the entirety of Hamilton’s iconic Royal High School building into publicly accessible use.”