Brian Ferguson: Battle brewing over Royal High School

The old Royal High School reopened temporarily for an Edinburgh Art Festival show. Picture: Neil Hanna
The old Royal High School reopened temporarily for an Edinburgh Art Festival show. Picture: Neil Hanna
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I’VE convinced myself my seat in The Scotsman office offers one of the best panoramas anywhere in Edinburgh, such are the range of fine buildings that can be seen on a good day from the seventh floor of Orchard Brae House.

Last week I had the pleasure of rediscovering one which I visited for the first time as the Edinburgh Festival was bursting into life last summer. The old Royal High School on Calton Hill reopened temporarily for an Edinburgh Art Festival show. It was an eerie and somewhat emotional experience wandering around the main “debating chamber” in the parliament building that never was.

Back then, plans to create a luxury hotel in the A-listed landmark – which have triggered a flurry of uncomfortable headlines for the city over the past week – seemed a distant memory. More than five years had passed since Edinburgh City Council launched a competition to find a long-term use for the building. The announcement pulled the plug on long-held hopes of a national photography centre there.

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Now the local authority and the iconic building are suddenly at the centre of a gathering storm already threatening to become as controversial as the capital’s ill-fated tram project.

Despite being courted by the hotel scheme’s developers before their plans were made public, heritage watchdogs have already discarded their gloves.

Organisations like the Architectural Heritage Society of Scotland and the Cockburn Association are not as timid as they once were. These bodies are also fully aware of simmering public anger over handling of major developments in the city, in particular Caltongate, the scheme that triggered an investigation from Unesco into the city’s world heritage status in 2008.

Some experts are not looking for another probe this time – they simply want the city to be stripped of its title. The hotel plans, finally launched after financial backers and three potential operators were brought on board, are seen as the final straw.

Critics are looking around the city and asking why the same council has allowed a large chunk of St Andrew Square to be demolished in the name of progress and what the finished budget hotels and office blocks in the Caltongate development, now taking shape beside the council’s headquarters on Market Street, are really going to look like from Calton Hill.

Worryingly for those involved in the old Royal High School development, some of whom have a deal with the council signed in 2010, many people are only just waking up to their plans.

Despite their hopes of work getting under way on the hotel within a year, I fear they have a long hard fight ahead of them.