New campaign to turn old Royal High School into world-class concert hall

Pupils at St Mary's, Scotland's only independent specialist music school, launched the campaign for a new home at the old Royal High School.
Pupils at St Mary's, Scotland's only independent specialist music school, launched the campaign for a new home at the old Royal High School.
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A nationwide campaign to turn one of Edinburgh's most prominent landmarks into a music school and performing arts venue was launched today - months before the fate of a rival hotel scheme is decided.

More than 120 public concerts a year are hoped to be staged in the proposed new home on Calton Hill for St Mary’s, Scotland’s only independent specialist music school.

More than 120 public concerts a year are planned to be staged at the old Royal High on Calton Hill under the St Mary's vision.

More than 120 public concerts a year are planned to be staged at the old Royal High on Calton Hill under the St Mary's vision.

The former Royal High School, which would have a capacity of around 280 for classical, folk, jazz and world music concerts, could reopen as early as 2020 if St Mary’s fends off competition from a rival bid to create a luxury hotel at the site, which has been largely empty since the late 1960s.

The "Perfect Harmony" campaign claims its proposed cultural and education use would be worth around £110 million to the city’s economy over the next 30 years. It aims to rally support from “everyone in Scotland who cares about the nation’s cultural and educational future.”

MSPS, MPs and councillors across Scotland are being urged to support the drive to help “preserve Edinburgh’s world heritage status.”

Pupils at the school will be taking part in a special campaign rally due to be held at the Canongate Kirk, which the old Royal High overlooks, next month, while supporters are being encouraged to wear specially-created t-shirts to post campaign “selfies” on social media.

The former Royal High School on Calton Hill has been lying largely empty since the 1960s.

The former Royal High School on Calton Hill has been lying largely empty since the 1960s.

More than 3000 objections have been lodged against the latest plans for the proposed hotel development, which has attracted international opposition and sparked concerns from the world heritage body UNESCO about the way major schemes were being handled in the city.

American arts philanthropist Carol Grigor, whose Dunard Fund has been one of the main backers of the Edinburgh International Festival over the last decade, is one of the key players in a charitable trust set up to pursue the £35 million project, which will allow the number of pupils to increase by 50 per cent to 120.

Violinist Nicola Benedetti, percussionist Evelyn Glennie, author Alexander McCall Smith and former Scottish Arts Council chair Richard Holloway are among those to support the music school scheme.

The school and the property developer it has joined forces with to pursue the project have called on people across the country to throw their weight behind the case for the A-listed building becoming the school’s new home instead of the Hong Kong-based Rosewood chain’s first hotel in Scotland.

William Gray Muir, chairman of The Royal High School Preservation Trust, which the Dunard Trust, has funded since it was set up two years ago, said: “When you are trying to find good new uses for old buildings what you often hear is anger.“We’re trying to take things away from the whole planning discussion and highlight the very positive future this building could have.

“The hotel development was originally put forward on the basis that there was no alternative for the building. We’re demonstrating that there is one, which has planning consent and is funded.

“This building is one of the highlights of Edinburgh in architectural and cultural terms. This is about pulling that together with the musical education that St Mary’s provides.

“This is an unprecedented opportunity to protect our heritage and support Scotland’s cultural future, made possible by one of the most magnanimous charitable gifts that Scotland has ever received.

“Our project will preserve and restore the building without compromising its classical beauty, while enhancing public access through the provision of a splendid concert hall and public garden.”

The school’s vision won the backing of the city council last August, but is unable to go ahead because the local authority has a long-term lease agreement with developers behind the hotel project, who won a design competition seven years ago.

Duddingston House Properties and the Urbanist Group suffered a huge blow in December 2015 when the hotel vision was rejected by the city council due to the impact of two large extensions envisaged for either side of the building.

New scaled-down plans, which involve 20 fewer hotel rooms, were lodged with the local authority earlier this year, but sparked a new campaign from leading bodies like Edinburgh World Heritage, the Cockburn Association and the Architectural Heritage Society of Scotland because they still require multi-storey extensions.

Critics fear the hotel school will ruin classic views of Edinburgh, both to and from Calton Hill.

Dr Kenneth Taylor, headteacher of St Mary’s, said: “We don’t know when the council hearing for the proposed hotel is going to be.

“We simply want to highlight the wonderful opportunity that the scheme represents for the school, the city and the whole country.

“We want to enlist as much support as we can from the general public, as well as musical and educational figures, and seek to influence as best we can people who are in public office.

“We want to emphasis the very positive aspects that the school could bring to the building, in terms of maintaining it in its current form, and the things that we could do in it.

“It provides us with the rehearsal space we need coupled with an exciting performance space, which both in turn will allow us to develop our musical partnerships and extend our outreach programmes.

“It also provides the perfect stage for further international recognition for the performing arts in Scotland and enhances our credentials as a destination for cultural education and tourism. The opportunity to move to the Old Royal High is too good to miss.”