THE report in The Scotsman could not have been more unequivocal. “The suggestion that one of the finest Georgian buildings in the city should be altered for bureaucratic purposes can hardly be contemplated with equanimity.”
It was 1949 and there was a great possibility that the Royal High School on Calton Hill might be taken over by the government as St Andrew’s House was bursting at the seams.
At that time the building was still a school – it would take another 19 years before it ceased to be so – and the attempt to make it over into offices ultimately never happened.
Instead, the St James Centre was built and the rest is history; a history of moans about the hideous design of New St Andrew’s House and multiple schemes for how such a scar on Edinburgh’s beautiful architectural face could be removed.
The Old Royal High School has long been mired in controversy – even when it was moved from Infirmary Street to Calton Hill way back in 1829 it met with “much opposition”.
But at least Thomas Hamilton’s designs for the schools were warmly encouraged. It was the era of Greek revivalist architects and he was a master of the art. For the school he looked to Athens’ Temple of Theseus for inspiration and who better than the mythical man who slew the minotaur to inspire Edinburgh’s young boys to greatness?
So grand and monumental was the building that it was long considered a potential home for other great institutions – at one time even the National Gallery.
Without doubt then the Old Royal High as a building is one of the city’s architectural jewels; a building which – along with others on the hill – proudly declares Edinburgh as the Athens of the North.
It is a scandal that for so long it has remained more or less derelict. The plans for it to become the new Scottish Parliament were quickly kyboshed by Donald Dewar who opted for Holyrood instead; plans for a national photographic museum also came to nought.
And now, like most new developments which land in front of the council’s planning committee, it’s future could be as a hotel. The place which once developed the minds and talents of people like Thomas Stevenson, Alexander Graham Bell, Norman MacCaig, Eric “Winkle” Brown, Robin Cook, Richard Demarco, Ronnie Corbett and countless other lawyers, doctors, politicians, archbishops, writers and poets will become a haven for wealthy tourists who know the price of everything and the value of nothing.
Of course, I could be doing the future clientele a huge disservice – they will have enough nous to know that Edinburgh is a marvellous place to visit. And if the tourist tax gets the go-ahead then the city could be coining it in.
And I’ve nothing against a commercial enterprise moving in as long as it doesn’t become a gated community for the super-rich. After all, the people of Edinburgh who have long had it in their care should be able to, at the very least, have visiting rights.
What I do object to are the ridiculous “wings” to be built, overpowering the beauty of the building and destroying the very thing that the developers must prize – a classical building which sits appropriately in the setting.
There is a second scheme – that it could become the new home of St Mary’s Music School, which would be a wonderful continuance of its history of learning and perhaps prove the council doesn’t object to the teaching of music per se as it discusses cutting all free tuition in its schools.
Once again, it is up to the councillors to decide what happens. There have been thousands of complaints. They can ignore them and believe in the developer’s vision or they can remember New St Andrew’s House and proceed with a caution which was so obviously missing then – and even now with the approval of the appalling “ribbon” hotel on that same site.
They should be bold and tell the developers to cut their plans down to size. They could be even bolder and eschew commerciality and allow the site to be developed as a music school and concert hall.
Most of all, they should remember Hamilton’s genius and how long it has been appreciated since 1829. They would do well to remember, as a former Royal High School pupil said at the centenary of the Calton Hill school, “the works of great men live long after they themselves are dust”. They could make themselves great with this decision.
City education chiefs never learn lessons
AFTER years of denials, delays and refusals to accept responsibility, the council has finally admitted it was in the wrong in the treatment of a young boy with autism and chief executive Andrew Kerr, pictured, has personally apologised to the family involved.
They have been through hell at the hands of a headteacher and other staff at James Gillespie’s Primary School. Their son was treated abominably during P7, his and his parents’ reputations were besmirched and yet again a council investigation into the whole episode was not carried out properly.
Indeed, as the father involved said: “The council has accepted that our legitimate concerns were not properly investigated, and that appropriate action wasn’t taken following previous investigations. Investigations by the Ombudsman have also found a lack of proper investigation by the education department. There have been significant problems within this department in the past, and our family has suffered considerably as a result.”
An internal investigation is still ongoing – yet another within an education department where, ironically, lessons never seem to be learned. A root and branch review of the whole department is desperately required by Mr Kerr.
As for the parents, they have shown dogged determination in not allowing their treatment to be ignored as well as huge magnanimity in helping the council develop new plans for supporting children like their son, who is now happily getting the help he needs at James Gillespie’s High.