IT IS a majestic and unique building full of history, character and opulence. Edinburgh’s grand old lady, the Caledonian Hotel, fully merits its prominent position in the capital’s city centre.
The Caledonian Hotel opened in December 1903 as part of Princes Street Railway Station. Its creation was a direct response to the North British (The Balmoral) Hotel which had opened on the opposite side of the city centre the previous year. Grand railway hotels had been appearing all over Britain for over quarter of a century but up until 1902 Edinburgh was struggling to keep the pace.
The Caledonian Railway Company, had first extended a line into the city in 1848 when a temporary wooden station was built on Lothian Road. The small Lothian Road terminus persisted until 1870 when the line was extended further towards Princes Street and a slightly larger wooden structure put in place. This latest station was badly damaged by fire in June 1890. According to an article in the Scotsman published one week after the event, the structure was not greatly missed and had been earmarked for removal for quite some time.
A new station with an elegant stone-built exterior and featuring a shed with a colossal 850ft long roof span began to take shape over the next three years. The façade was built using red sandstone delivered directly along the Caledonian railway’s own line from Locharbriggs and Corncockle quarries in Dumfriesshire.
Following its remodelling, Princes Street Station (or “the Caley” as it affectionately became known) was at its peak, handling more than 250 trains a day over 7 platforms.
As the 19th century came to an end railway companies across Britain were under enormous pressure to provide their passengers with convenient on-site accommodation. Glasgow had led the way ahead of Edinburgh many years earlier when the St Enoch railway hotel opened its doors in 1879. An equivalent in Scotland’s capital was deemed an absolute necessity and plans were drawn up by the city’s two major railway companies to each build a luxurious station hotel.
Construction began on the Caledonian Hotel in 1899 and was complete by 1903 - a year after the Caledonian’s bitter rivals had opened the North British to serve Edinburgh Waverley. The Caledonian Hotel was built directly above the existing V-shaped station building and towered high over the main shed.
Access to the hotel and station could be gained by entering through one of the three main entrance arches: Rail passengers to the right and hotel guests to the left. The hotel’s sheer size dominated the West End junction and cut as equally an impressive figure as its counterpart located on the opposite side of Princes Street Gardens. The Caledonian boasted 205 luxuriously appointed bedrooms in Louis XV-style decor and fine dining with exquisite views overlooking Edinburgh Castle.
As a result it soon became the hotel of choice for the rich and famous on visits to Edinburgh. During the 20th century thousands of well-known faces would reside at the Caledonian including film stars, entertainers and royalty from across the globe. The hotel’s main restaurant, the Pompadour, has long been regarded as the grandest dining room in Scotland and is notoriously pricey.
In 1965 nationalisation of Britain’s railways forced the closure of Princes Street Station. The giant terminal was demolished allowing for the hotel to be extended over the former concourse. Today the hotel is the only part of the old station to have survived along with the cast iron entrance gates on Rutland Street which now lead to the hotel car park. Hilton Hotels took over the ownership of the Caledonian in 2000.
An extensive £24m refurbishment began in 2011 to transform what had admittedly become a tired looking hotel into a Waldorf Astoria. The Caledonian is now a part of an elite band of Hilton properties worldwide.
Despite the overhaul, guests can still gain a real sense of history as they wine and dine in the stunning surrounds of the hotel’s airy lounge, Peacock Alley, which was once part of the old station. There’s even the original station clock by Hamilton & Inches sitting proudly in its posh frame fixed against the red Locharbriggs sandstone.
Miraculously, the timepiece is still with us after surviving the terrible fire of 1890 and to this day it’s still set 5 minutes fast to help passengers catch their trains. A nice touch.