‘Culture quarter’ for Edinburgh Royal High site

Developers have unveiled plans to transform an A-listed “Athens of the north” landmark in Edinburgh’s world heritage site into a new culture quarter for the capital.

An artists impression of how the former Royal High School will look after it is developed
An artists impression of how the former Royal High School will look after it is developed

The former Royal High School on Calton Hill would become home to new gallery and exhibition spaces, sculptures and other outdoor works of art, as well as regular live performances, if it is turned into a luxury hotel, its backers claim.

Scottish literature, philosophy, culture, science, sport and politics are all expected to be celebrated in the cafes, bars and lounges of the building, as well as its main reception hall.

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Artists would be asked to help design new landscaped grounds and entrance points to both Calton Hill and Jacob’s Ladder, a set of steps linking Regent Road with the Old Town and ­Holyrood areas.

The developers said parts of the hotel would also be available to Edinburgh’s festivals, with plans to instigate a new celebration of “art and architecture”.

It would be held between the Beltane Fire Festival, which is held on top of Calton Hill at the end of April, and the Fringe in August.

The two companies behind the £55 million project, which is facing huge opposition over two major extensions being built on either side of the existing landmark, say it will have “arts and culture” at its heart.

Rotating exhibitions, artistic celebrations of key figures linked to the building and Calton Hill, and formal partnerships with leading artistic bodies and festivals are all envisaged.

However developers have dropped the description of “arts hotel” which was announced in 2010 as the winner of an international design competition by Edinburgh City Council, which attracted more than 50 entries.

Ever since, there has been hostility over the prospect of the building, long-regarded as a symbol of the Enlightenment era, being handed to the private sector amid fears that changes to the building and the planned extensions will put at risk Edinburgh’s world heritage status.

Opponents want to see the council seeking an alternative cultural use for the building, which dates back to 1829, with an art gallery, photography museum, a “centre for the Enlightenment” and a music academy among the ideas put forward.

However the hotel developers – Duddingston House Properties and the Urbanist Group – said at least £7 million would need to be spent on the building simply to reopen it.

David Orr, co-founder of the Urbanist Group, said: “Our vision has expanded from the original concept of an arts hotel in the old Royal High School to providing a world-class hotel which will have pro-active relationships with arts and culture at its heart.

“Showcasing the very best of Scotland’s produce, culture, arts and creative talents is fundamental to what this hotel is all about. This means developing close relationships with a range of national and local arts and cultural institutions and organisations to develop a programme of initiatives.

“Edinburgh is a festival city and we will ensure the hotel is engaged with these activities.”