Work on 'world-class' music centre in Edinburgh set to begin within weeks despite heritage concerns

A long-awaited transformation of Edinburgh's historic former Royal High School into a “world-class” music complex is hoped to start within weeks after new plans for the project secured the backing of council officials – despite concerns from heritage experts about their impact on the A-listed landmark.

The proposed £55 million National Centre for Music will include a new home for the city’s St Mary’s Music School and a 300-seater concert hall.

Councillors are being recommended to give the project the go-ahead next week in the face of protests from Historic Environment Scotland (HES) over a proposed new “entry pavilion” in its grounds.

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The Scottish Government agency claims the new temple-style structure will affect views of the west side of the original Thomas Hamilton-designed building, which dates back to 1829, but was last used permanently in 1968.

The former Royal High School on Edinburgh's Calton Hill is set to be turned into a new 'world-class centre for music education and public performance.' Image: Richard Murphy Architects

The Royal High School Preservation Trust, which was set up to pursue the project for the independent school, insists the new building is needed to ensure the safety and security of pupils. It has admitted the overall cost has risen due to the economic climate, but insists the scheme’s future is “secure”.

Plans lodged with the council say the new building will create a “clear threshold” in the grounds and help ensure the school is “carefully segregated” from artists and audiences when performances are on, and from the general public, who will have access to a new landscaped garden garden to the west the site.

In its latest submission to the council, HES states: “It can be clearly seen that the portal structure would obscure the significant approach to, and visibility of, the main building from the entrance gates and from further within the site. We do not consider that the scale of this gatehouse building, with its roofed covering to the inner entrance gate, is necessary.”

However, the report for councillors states: “The proposed extension will result in a significant increase in the footprint of the original building on its northern and eastern sides. However, the new structure is low-lying and designed in a ‘quiet’ contemporary style to ensures it appears subservient in scale and appearance in relation to the Hamilton building.”

The former Royal High School on Edinburgh's Calton Hill is set to be turned into a new 'world-class centre for music education and public performance.' Image: Richard Murphy Architects

Trust chair William Gray Muir said: “We are delighted that the council’s planning department has recommended approval of our amended designs. The changes reflect many months of collaborative work with all of the consultees and stakeholders in the project, and we are grateful for the considerable time, effort and thought which has gone into this process.

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“The amended application has sought to introduce a greater distinction between the spaces that will be enjoyed by the public and those areas that will be used by the music school.

"Our goal throughout has been to balance the protection of this precious building, the need to ensure as much accessibility as possible for the public, and the need to safeguard pupils by providing them with their own distinct spaces.”

A trust spokeswoman added: “It is hoped that the project will get underway in January. Costs have clearly risen as a consequence of the economic environment, but it is too early to put a new figure on the works. Nonetheless, the board of trustees remains confident that the future of the project is secure.”

The former Royal High School on Edinburgh's Calton Hill is set to be turned into a new 'world-class centre for music education and public performance.' Image: Richard Murphy Architects
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A new 'entry pavilion' is proposed to be created next to Edinburgh's former Royal High School under plans to turn the site into a National Centre for Music. Image: Richard Murphy Architects
The former Royal High School on Edinburgh's Calton Hill is set to be turned into a new 'world-class centre for music education and public performance.' Image: Richard Murphy Architects
The former Royal High School on Edinburgh's Calton Hill is set to be turned into a new 'world-class centre for music education and public performance.' Image: Richard Murphy Architects