John McLellan: Council needs HMS Edinburgh study

HMS Edinburgh could prove a worthy addition to Leith Docks. Picture: Jane Barlow
HMS Edinburgh could prove a worthy addition to Leith Docks. Picture: Jane Barlow
Have your say

If there is one kind of attraction Scotland isn’t short of, it’s museums about the sea.

Want to know about the North Sea? Then head to the Aberdeen Maritime Museum. Captain Scott and Polar expeditions? Dundee’s Discovery is the place for you.

And if Clyde shipbuilding blows your foghorn then look no further than the Denny Tank at the Scottish Maritime Museum’s Dumbarton base or Glasgow’s magnificent Riverside museum with its very own tall ship, the Glenlee, and superb collection of scale models.

Here in Edinburgh, of course, we have the Royal Yacht Britannia, berthed in Leith since its decommissioning in 1997 and opened to the public the following year following a bidding process in which Edinburgh eventually pipped Manchester to the prize.

Some thought Leith was a strange choice, given Clydebank-built Britannia had no specific connection to the port. But the fact Forth Ports had a redevelopment plan for the Western Harbour and pledged to foot the bill for its new home meant there was no cost to the taxpayer.

That, plus the Royal Family’s clear association with Edinburgh and the Palace of Holyroodhouse, meant the bid was strong.

Britannia was the responsibility of the Ministry of Defence and it was no hindrance to have two Scottish MPs at the helm, Defence Secretary George Robertson and Armed Forces secretary John Reid.

But I also like to think the petition organised by the Evening News was crucial too, by demonstrating there was widespread popular support in Edinburgh while no such campaign was mounted by the rivals.

While it has no engine, it’s fair to say Britannia has not stood still since it opened for business 15 years ago, and since then it has been joined by the Royal racing yacht Bloodhound. You can also see the Royal Barge which the Queen used during the Diamond Jubilee Thames Pageant.

And for real sea-faring enthusiasts, Leith remains home to the sea-going steam trawler SS Explorer, the subject of much controversy over the years as its dogged Preservation Society bids to ensure its place in maritime history is recognised and maintained.

Now it seems there is a real chance for another attraction to be added to Leith’s list in HMS Edinburgh, the Birkenhead-built Type 42 destroyer which was decommissioned earlier this year.

With an apparent price-tag of anything between £200,000 and £2m it seems like an opportunity worth exploring, especially with all the well-documented problems facing the regeneration of the port since the collapse of the housing market.

Now that Forth Ports is in private hands and looking for non-residential uses for its land, an attraction like HMS Edinburgh might be just the ticket.

Of course buying the boat from the MoD is just the start of the costs. There is the refitting required to make the ship visitor-friendly and the infrastructure needed in and around the harbour to turn it into a modern amenity.

The first thing needed would be a feasibility study, but even getting that afloat seems to be causing some difficulty. Lord Provost Donald Wilson was said to be keen, but with city council finance strained it is only prepared to put up a quarter of the estimated £30,000 cost.

The key number which only a feasibility study can identify is how many additional visitors and cash HMS Edinburgh would generate.

The WW2 cruiser HMS Belfast might be a reasonable guide, with its prime location on the South Bank of the Thames. Even so, it had to be rescued from financial disaster seven years after it opened as a museum in 1971 and is now run as an arm of the Imperial War Museum. From a high of about 1.4m visitors soon after it opened, by 2007 its numbers had fallen to about 250,000. But it remains high on London’s list of attractions.

Of course competition in London is fierce but even so, it makes for an interesting comparison with the 296,000 who visited Britannia last year. The Royal Yacht’s high-water mark was around 400,000 just after it opened so its performance has been remarkably resilient and it has shown a steady income growth in recent years, from just over £4m in 2008.

The question then, is how many more people who wouldn’t venture to Britannia would be tempted by HMS Edinburgh?

Certainly there would be novelty value in the early period and plenty of Lothians people who have not been to the port for years would probably make the effort.

Direct comparisons between HMS Edinburgh and HMS Belfast are difficult; one a modern ship with a limited history of action, the other a symbol of the Senior Service at its heroic best, with the sinking of the Scharnhorst amongst its many battle honours.

But the kind of experience offered by Belfast (classes of schoolchildren can spend the night in its hammocks, for instance) if made available on HMS Edinburgh in Leith would bring something totally different.

And then of course there is Leith’s maritime heritage itself. A Leith Museum has long been talked about but seems as far off as ever.

So what’s to be done? Britannia was brought to Edinburgh by a partnership and popular demand so surely there must be an opportunity for all those with an interest in HMS Edinburgh to work together, at least to fund the feasibility study.

The city council will put up some cash, Forth Ports have identified harbour space, the Britannia Trust has the professional organisation to run an expanded business. And Ocean Terminal is desperate to give the shopping mall a new lease of life.

As with the Imperial War Museum and its five branches, maybe the National Museums of Scotland should get involved. After the huge success of the Chambers Street revamp and its experience of successfully running the Museum of Flight at East Fortune it’s not short of expertise.

Between all of those organisations, there is no excuse for not proving the case one way or another.

£40m of gold recovered from wreck

HMS Edinburgh in World War II was a sister ship to HMS Belfast, built in 1936 in Newcastle upon Tyne.

After many missions, including the hunt for the Bismarck, Edinburgh was put on convoy duty in the North Atlantic.

Returning from Murmansk in 1942 with a cargo of Soviet gold bullion to pay for war equipment, Edinburgh was attacked by U-boats, torpedo bombers and three destroyers.

Badly crippled, the ship was scuttled rather than risk the cargo falling into enemy hands.

The wreck was discovered in the 1980s and the gold, with a staggering value of over £40m, was recovered.

The modern HMS Edinburgh was a Type 42 Destroyer, built in 1983 by Cammell Laird in Birkenhead and saw service during the Second Gulf War in 2003.

She underwent a £17m refit only in 2010 before being decommissioned earlier this year.