Cowgate Fire ten years on: Bright future for Edinburgh’s devastated heart is finally on horizon

An artist's impression of the redeveloped site
An artist's impression of the redeveloped site
Share this article
Have your say

THICK smoke and the heavy scent of smouldering timber had barely lifted from the scorched remains of the Cowgate, but the scale of rebuilding the city district was already abundantly clear.

Despite the immense task of removing the rubble from 11 structures around the Cowgate – some of which were still to come down – thoughts had already turned to how to plug the gap which now stood at the heart of the Unesco World Heritage Site.

Ten years on, work on the site is finally under way, with full-scale construction scheduled for this spring and a completion date of late 

But the questions on the minds of residents across Edinburgh are what took so long, and what went wrong along the way?

Evolving over several decades, the area had become a bohemian quarter for students and the city’s arts community, which was always going to be difficult to replicate.

The Gilded Balloon, La Belle Angele nightclub and the Bridge Jazz had been among the buildings swallowed up by flames which burned for 52 hours between December 7 and 9, 2002.

Within one month, however, a bid to begin rebuilding was brought to the table, together with the owners of the ruined buildings, by award-winning architect Malcolm Fraser.

By May 2003, bulldozers had completed clearing the area and the same month control of the site was handed over from Edinburgh City Council to the nine property owners who had lost their businesses.

By summer 2004, a shining new vision of the future Cowgate had emerged, with a £20 million scheme to build nightclubs, bars, restaurants, offices and shops, funded in part by insurance cash from the disaster.

But the project stalled. The start date of summer came and went and the gap site remained unfilled.

“There was a difficulty getting the project off the ground, in part due to the multitude of owners,” recalls one figure with a knowledge of the project.

“Malcolm Fraser had worked with all the owners and got agreement to get the project going, but ultimately it stalled and then was bought over by Whiteburn.”

Developer Whiteburn, which specialises in challenging regeneration projects and produced the Pizza Express clock tower and The Tun at Holyrood, teamed up with Edinburgh architect Allan Murray in 2006 to come up with a second comprehensive scheme for the complex site, including a new 200-bedroom hotel, a festival venue and dramatic glass walkways.

Dubbed Soco – South Bridge/Cowgate – the £40m plan also featured shops, a restaurant and bar, a cafe, a business centre, a new home for the former La Belle Angele nightclub, an extension to the Chambers Street jazz cellar, and two new pends and 

But the controversial design led to Edinburgh author Alexander McCall Smith and seven other prominent figures – including Sir Timothy Clifford, former director general of the National Galleries of Scotland, and arts impresario Richard Demarco – to send a letter to The Times voicing their concerns.

McCall Smith and his fellow objectors referred to the masterplan drawn up by famous 18th-century Scottish architect Robert Adam for the southern approach to Edinburgh, and claim the proposed building “destroys the rhythm and elegance of Adam’s street front”.

Whiteburn began looking for a developer and, between January 2009 and June 2011, a new firm, Jansons Property, had created a new, arguably realistic, vision for the site, which 
remains today.

Featuring a 257-bed Ibis hotel, a Sainsbury’s at ground level on South Bridge and associated shops, restaurants and bars, work is finally scheduled to get under way this coming spring.

The current plans have had their critics, not least over proposals to attempt to design the building on South Bridge in a mock-Georgian style, known as a “pastiche”, which divided opinion.

But developers, residents, the Old Town Association and the heritage community admit the process has been long and drawn out, but few are reluctant to see the gap site finally being filled.

The new district will sustain more than 200 jobs, and it is hoped the quality of the public realm – walkways, street furniture and the type of premises – will be improved and that the new development will greatly increase the number of visitors and shoppers to the area.

“I am very optimistic for the future” says Donald Anderson, the former council leader and now director of a public affairs firm which represents developers at the site.

“Remember, I worked on the new proposals, but I genuinely believe that the new hotel, shops and restaurants will strengthen South Bridge as a local high street, and will help 
improve the Cowgate from being just a drinking den.

“Blair Street is still a mess – I do feel for Des Brogan [director of Mercat Tours] trying to run a business from there, but it will become a busier pedestrian route from the High Street to Chambers Street, especially during the Festival.

“Blair Street should improve, it 
certainly needs to, and South Bridge will benefit from the extra footfall and visitors that the restored site will generate.”

To date, Sainsbury’s and Ibis are the sole firms to be announced, but restaurant and cafe operators are expected to be attracted.

As difficult as it must have seemed ten years ago, as the embers of the fire still glowed at the devastated site, few could have imagined the controversy and drawn-out process that followed, and the wait that residents and businesses have endured.

With that now in the past and work under way with completion due in late 2013, the Old Town may finally, at least in part, get its heart back.

Flames, fury and false starts

December 7, 2002: A fire started by a faulty fuse box begins to spread through buildings around the Cowgate shortly after 8pm. More than 150 fire appliances tackle the fire as it rages over 52 hours. The Gilded Balloon, La Belle Angele nightclub and Edinburgh University’s School of Informatics are among 11 buildings destroyed.

May 2003: More than five months of demolitions land council chiefs with a £1 million bill, passed on to insurers and building owners. The site is finally cleared and handed over to nine owners of the properties destroyed in the fire.

August 2004: A £20m scheme, backed by renowned city architect Malcom Fraser, to build nightclubs, bars, restaurants, offices and shops is announced for summer 2005. Again, work never begins.

August 2006: A £40m hotel and leisure complex scheme on the corner of Chambers Street and South Bridge is announced by developer Whiteburn and drawn up by Allan Murray Architects. Work is controversial for departing from the original design of the Old Town, and criticised by author Alexander McCall Smith. While planning permission is granted, work never gets under way.

January 2009-June 2011: Jansons Property takes on the site, aiming to create a 250-bed Ibis hotel plus shops, restaurants and bars as part of a £35m scheme. Approval is granted and initial construction is under way, with completion scheduled for late 2013.


THE developers behind the scheme for the Cowgate site insist it will “stand the test of time”.

Andy Jansons, managing director of Jansons Property, said the development was both a huge challenge and an exciting opportunity.

“We had to design something that reflected hundreds of years of local history, connected well to South Bridge, Chambers Street and the Cowgate and that took on a range of views from within the heritage communities. And it had to make money in a challenging economic climate,” he said.

“I am immensely proud of what we have achieved, and I feel that our development will help regenerate the local area to help make it more attractive and vibrant. I genuinely believe that SoCo will stand the test of time and be seen as one of Edinburgh’s most successful developments in the World Heritage Site.

“I would also like to place on record our appreciation for the support of former city development leader Tom Buchanan and Jonathon Guthrie in the council for all their help and support.”