Richard Austin: Music school deserves encore on grand stage

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St Mary’s Music School is special. It first opened in 1880 as a choir school to educate choristers for the newly built St Mary’s Episcopal Cathedral and while links to the cathedral remain strong, it has for the past 40 years and more educated young instrumentalists, composers and singers.

It is Scotland’s only independent specialist music school and exists to give gifted young musicians the opportunity to flourish. Entry is based entirely on musical ability and potential, regardless of personal 
circumstances, and its success can be measured not simply by an illustrious roll call of former pupils, but also by the prestige it brings to Edinburgh and Scotland’s cultural standing.

It is a national treasure but with a rising school roll its current location imposes serious constraints on necessary development. The school’s directors had been considering how to proceed when the fate of the Royal High School became the focus of public debate. As the debate continued it became clear that there could be a convergence of goals.

The old Royal High School is a national architectural treasure and the greatest wish of the recently created Royal High School Preservation Trust (RHSPT) is to conserve and adapt it to a fitting use for the greater good of Edinburgh and for Scotland.

The Thomas Hamilton building has long been recognised as “the noblest monument of the Scottish Greek Revival” and it expresses the great achievement of the Scottish Enlightenment in a way few buildings do. While few doubt its architectural importance, the lack of a permanent use has led to the old Royal High School ending up on the Buildings at Risk Register. Its conservation is now a matter of urgency.

The RHSPT is fortunate to be backed by philanthropic funds and for that reason we can take a unique position. It is our aim to secure the building’s long-term future by restoring its original use as a place for educating young people. By aligning the conservation of the old Royal High School with ongoing plans to find a suitable new site for St Mary’s Music School, we believe we can create a fitting and lasting legacy for the site as a focal point for cultural excellence in the Capital.

St Mary’s Music School is an independent school but its students, drawn from many different backgrounds and from all parts of Scotland and beyond, have access to the government’s Aided Places Scheme.

The school opens its doors to the public every Saturday through a popular programme of musical classes for local Edinburgh children with more than 100 taking part. It has an Outreach Programme ripe for development. It exists to enrich the lives of its students and others through music.

In every way it deserves to thrive in surroundings that match its aspirations.

Richard Austin is trustee for the Royal High School Preservation Trust.