'˜Demarco and Devine may be too late to save historic Catholic school'

Popular campaign to save former St John's Primary School building in Edinburgh got off the ground too slowly and needs money and a coherant business plan quickly if it is to stand any chance of success, writes John McLellan.

The former St John's Primary School building in Edinburgh is scheduled for demolition (Picture: Neil Hanna)

Edinburgh University historian Sir Tom Devine is moving inexorably towards the position of “National Treasure”, a sort of unofficial keeper of the Nation’s Soul, so when he weighs into a debate people tend to sit up and take notice.

Recently he has brought long-needed balance and analysis to the mythology of the Highland Clearances, but now he has trained his focus on a much more parochial affair, the future of the now-defunct St John’s Roman Catholic Primary School on Edinburgh’s Duddingston Road, and his intervention this week received extensive coverage in Glasgow’s Herald newspaper.

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Also taking notice was another national treasure of even greater vintage, the unofficial keeper of the Edinburgh Festival’s soul, the inimitable arts impresario Richard Demarco who at 88 still has an eye for publicising the vast Demarco archive which documents his life at the heart of Scotland’s arts establishment, due to be housed in the National Galleries’ £75m National Collection Facility in Granton, currently being designed by Glasgow-born architect John McAslan. To that archive can be added his surprise attendance at Thursday night’s Northfield & Willowbrae Community Council, where he was one of about 20 locals hoping to persuade the meeting to support their belated campaign to halt St John’s demolition to make way for a new park.

Devine’s interest centres on its historic place as the first purpose-built Catholic school after the state took over the running of the Church’s education service in 1918. Officially opened in 1926, it was designed by Reid & Forbes, the same architects responsible for the Royal High Primary a couple of miles away on Northfield Broadway. And as fate would have it, Demarco was not only one of its first pupils but its Dux.

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It was still in use as recently as May, since when the school has moved to new facilities on the adjacent site of the old Portobello High and reports are that the improvement for both teachers and pupils is considerable. The old building still looks solid, but its sad end goes back to the fight to prevent the new Portobello High being built on Portobello Park. Like one of those children’s puzzles with one square missing to move others about, when the High School moved to the park, the primary school moved to its new site and the old primary grounds were to be given over to a new park to replace the lost park space. Therefore two thirds of the job is done and the last piece of the puzzle, Treverlen Park, will be created when Old St John’s is razed.

The plan has been discussed for years but permission to bulldoze the school was granted last November when there were 27 supportive comments and just eight against, and neither Historic Environment Scotland nor the Catholic Church objected. Without vocal local opposition, the council couldn’t be blamed for getting on with the job so site developer Graham Construction signed up sub-contractors who carried out damaging pre-demolition testing, severed the utilities and is now stripping the interior.

The campaign to save the building sprang to life six weeks ago and now has a 900-name petition amidst claims that previous consultations were inadequate, but the council estimates calling a halt will cost it around £200,000 in compensation for broken contracts, never mind the cost of refurbishment.

Devine’s issue is mainly with Historic Environment Scotland which has not listed the building, despite its place in the history of Catholic education, on the basis that with the listed Royal High Primary a mile away there was no need to add another local example of the same 1920s school architecture.

The new campaign believes the school would make an ideal home for the Edinburgh Palette arts charity, which has provided cheap studios for creative businesses and other community organisations in St Margaret’s House in Meadowbank, whose owners gave the Palette notice to quit this year after agreeing to sell the building for redevelopment.

To applause on Thursday night, Demarco boosted the arts centre concept by offering it the part of his archive, covering his early life in pre-war Portobello, which he said would give the area a National Galleries link. Probably news to the National Galleries, but Demarco said he was “worried sick” about the building’s fate because of its importance to Catholic education and his upbringing.

The problem is that while an arts centre set in a small park sounds a great idea, the St Margaret’s House sale hadn’t happened when demolition was approved and the campaign didn’t exist when the Palette team found alternative facilities at Crewe Toll and Stanley Street in Portobello. The Palette’s plans are well-advanced and it has little interest in changing direction now.

Even with Devine and Demarco’s interventions, the campaign is still essentially a group of local people with an idea, but what is needed is a proper organisation with a coherent business plan and the finance to pay off the demolition contracts, bring the building up to scratch and guarantee future viability. The Summerhall Centre, formerly the Royal Dick Vet School which also houses some of the Demarco Archive, was bankrolled by millionaire Robert McDowell, for example, but it took McDowell years to prepare. This campaign only has days before the school is flattened.

£5m retiral whipround
An old colleague from The Scotsman’s advertising department is retiring and his close associates are having a whip-round to make sure he’s not on his uppers, a touching gesture given how tough the media world is these days.

Except this is ex-advertising director Richard Scudamore, the same Richard Scudamore who has been paid £2.5m a year as executive chairman of the English Premier League whose clubs are giving him a £5m golden goodbye. Fancy investing in an Edinburgh arts centre, Richard?