Luxury hotel developers ask for three more years to revamp iconic Edinburgh landmark

Luxury hotel developers have asked to for up to three more years to revamp Edinburgh's iconic former Royal High School – as they warned the building was now at risk of being “sold off to the highest bidder”.

The former Royal High School on Calton Hill has been lying largely empty for more than half a century. Picture: Scott Taylor
The former Royal High School on Calton Hill has been lying largely empty for more than half a century. Picture: Scott Taylor

They have promised councillors that “a global recognised five-star boutique hotel” will be created at the 19th-century site on Calton Hill if they are given another chance to pursue a project that was instigated by the local authority 11 years ago.

However the developers, who have already had two schemes rejected by councillors, are effectively asking them to extend a long-standing contract to pursue a luxury hotel at the site until 2025. Campaigners want the existing deal, which is run to expire next year, cancelled by the authority.

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The prospect of the building being “put out to the commercial real estate market” has been revealed by the developer in a 17-page dossier that describes such a move as “inconceivable”.

Duddingston House Properties and Urbanist Hotels are instead proposing to ditch one of two “wing” extensions and scale back the other one, which would reduce the number of rooms down 125 to around 75. They say the new proposals would be focused on attracting “fewer but higher spending customers”.

The developers, who are lobbying the council for a reprieve after the Scottish Government threw out previous plans for the site, claim refusal would “add to the decades of uncertainty, risks the building and exposes the council to further costs”.

However, they have also warned that a rival scheme that would see an independent music school and new concert hall for the city created inside the building is “fraught with risk”.

The dossier, which has just been sent to councillors, claimed the proposed new home for St Mary’s Music School would involve “radical remove of heritage fabric” from the A-listed landmark and the “hollowing out” of rock to create space for new facilities.

Councillors have already backed plans to turn the Old Royal High School in Edinburgh into a specialist new music school and concert hall.

The dossier states: “We accept that the scale of the hotel needs to be significantly reduced and will do so and request that the council reasonably allow the contract to be adjusted in this post-Covid world to accommodate that.

“We have demonstrated our ability to deliver a feasible proposal. We have already spent considerable time and resources understanding all of the many complex issues associated with the site, and we have proposals that can be taken forward quickly.

“Elected members have a big decision to take. Any other decision than continuing with the endorsed and contractual partnership for the old Royal High School and deliver a new up-scale hotel is fraught with risk.

“Prioritising the proposals for a government subsidised private music school is the least attractive option.”

The 'west wing' of the proposed Royal High School hotel development is being dropped to try to persuade councillors to back the new plans.

David Orr, co-founder of Urbanist Hotels, said: "The definitive guidance we now have gives for the first time ourselves and the council a clear way ahead to reduce the scale required yet deliver all the other benefits. We will move away from building on the western playground, whilst reducing building mass on the eastern playground.”

William Gray Muir, chair of the Royal High School Preservation Trust, which was set up to pursue the music school project, said: “Our scheme had the support of every major heritage stakeholder, including Historic Environment Scotland, the Cockburn Association, the Scottish Civic Trust, the New Town and Broughton Community Council and the city's own planning and listed building department. It was unanimously granted consent by the planning committee.

“If asked to proceed, we have everything in place to create a new cultural asset for the city and its residents, with public gardens and concert facilities, at no public cost.”

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