The under-the-radar benefactor who has gifted £80m to Edinburgh

She is not a household name and has deliberately kept a low profile on her way to becoming one of Scotland’s most generous benefactors.

Carol Colburn Grigor speaks onstage in Los Angeles

While Dr Carol Colburn Grigor may not be as familiar as the likes of Sir Tom Hunter, Sir Ian Wood, or Sir Brian Souter and Dame Ann Gloag – who are all known for their charity work as well as their success in business – she has quietly taken a centre-stage role in fostering Scotland’s arts scene by upping her contribution to two key music projects in Edinburgh to the tune of £80 million.

The American businesswoman’s Pitlochry-based Dunard Fund has pledged £35m to relocate St Mary's Music School to the former Royal High site on Regent Road plus a £10m endowment, and a further £35m to help bring to life the mooted Dunard Centre, a concert hall next to the new St James Quarter.

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It comes as the fund – which as of March 31 last year had funds of £72.3m, according to Companies House – has donated more than £100m to the UK arts sector.

But who is Dr Colburn Grigor – who some say could be seen as a modern-day version of Scottish-American industrialist and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie – and how transformational has her help been to Scotland?

She is described as a passionate and highly knowledgeable devotee of classical music, obtaining qualifications including a Master of Musical Arts degree from Yale University School of Music, and having performed extensively as a concert pianist.

She grew up in Chicago, the daughter of the late Richard D Colburn – who in addition to building up a vast business empire in electricals was a viola player and major donor to the arts. This included backing the Colburn School in Los Angeles – described as one of the world’s most important music schools.

But he kept away from the limelight, citing his own father telling him that “fools’ names and fools’ faces often appear in public places”.

That ethos seems to have been inherited by his benefactor daughter, who is married to Scottish film-maker, writer and exhibition curator Murray Grigor, former director of the Edinburgh International Film Festival – but she has had to leave her adopted homeland of Scotland for Ireland for tax reasons.

Described by one associate as a kind and modest woman, she has said she was born with the “giving gene” – evidenced by the lengthy list of beneficiaries of the Dunard Fund, in Scotland alone including the RSNO, Scottish Chamber Orchestra, East Neuk Festival, Edinburgh International Festival, and Scottish Opera – in addition to, say, Glyndebourne and the Royal Opera House south of the Border.

Dr Colburn Grigor has been recognised with the likes of a CBE, being admitted as a Chevalier into France’s Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, and awarded an honorary doctorate of music from Edinburgh Napier University.

She was also garlanded with the Association of British Orchestras’ 2020 ABO Award, saying she was “somewhat astonished that I am celebrated for my philanthropic activities which, for me, are in themselves the long-lasting pleasure and the spiritual rewards of giving”.

It follows her appointment in 2013 as honorary vice-president of the Edinburgh International Festival (EIF) with her support of the arts deemed “simply astonishing”.

Fergus Linehan, the current director of EIF, says the Dunard Fund is a “long-standing and generous” supporter of the festival, enabling many of its major artistic achievements.

That is a view held by many, including Dr Kenneth Taylor, head teacher of St Mary’s Music School. "There’s no doubt that her giving has specifically broadened the scope and range of artists that have been able to perform [in Edinburgh] over the last 15/20 years,” he says.

He also calls her an “incredibly passionate supporter of the arts,” and an active concert-goer both in Edinburgh and around the world.

As for the bid to move the school into the Royal High building, Dr Taylor says it would be “a real shot in the arm” for the arts in Scotland, and would represent one of the largest philanthropic gifts ever given to the nation. “I would say she's a very determined woman. She loves music, and she wants to support music and see it flourish.”

Also praising the enthusiasm of Dr Colburn Grigor is William Gray Muir, chair of The Royal High School Preservation Trust. He says the proposed project fuses her passion for both music and conservation – and she has been instrumental to it getting off the ground, rather than simply signing a cheque.

“We've had well over 20 board meetings since the trust was funded, and she's attended every single one of them in person, despite having an incredibly busy schedule, which takes her right across the world. She just clearly loves the city of Edinburgh, loves its cultural life, loves Scotland.

"She is a fierce protector of the highest standards of conservation and of culture... she's been a passionate supporter of the Scottish cultural world, and she wants to ensure that it can fulfil itself in the best possible manner. She's never allowed us to seek anything other than the best possible result [for the proposed music school at the old Royal High].”

He adds that her support of the music school project is “extraordinary” – and she is adamant about providing the highest quality of education to people regardless of their background. And by fostering their talent, “we the broader public, as an audience, are the beneficiaries in the long run, so keeping that circle going where new talent is getting developed and fed into the system is what supports the musical life of the country”.

Bringing in the music school to the disused building would “fill it with life, fill it with joy, fill it with music and fill it with talent” in a powerful combination. “It would be easy to turn the building into some kind of museum. It's so much better to turn it into a cultural engine, something that can really drive forward the country”.

He also makes the point that the extent of Dunard Fund’s positive impact isn’t fully understood by the people of Edinburgh.

“We're enormously lucky to have a private individual who has chosen to support parts of our culture and heritage that would otherwise be very difficult to fund. She’s had an incredibly important role in the development of Scottish culture over the last 20/30 years.”

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