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Towards continuity & stability

Charlie Ellis gives us a year in the life of the old Royal Edinburgh High School and a possible future


A cultural and architectural catastrophe was narrowly avoided in Edinburgh in June 2022. Fire spread rapidly across Calton Hill and seemed about to engulf the Old Royal High School. The historic building was fortunately unharmed despite the flames coming within a few metres of its rear, warming the faces of those who looked on.

The Royal High School was to have been the site of a new Scottish Parliament. While that didn’t happen, the building remains emblematic in other ways. It is evidence of the way in which aspects of the public domain in Scotland have been poorly maintained.

Exploring the building in the summer was, initially, a bit disheartening. With the exception of its elegant Debating Chamber, the building looks dishevelled.

Many walls are bare and even the decorated areas are full of peeling paint. Floor coverings, where they exist, are threadbare. The mothballing of the building hasn’t been particularly effective. More positively, the building can be seen as an example of the way in which culture and art can rejuvenate unused physical spaces.

During the summer the school was the venue for the Hidden Door Festival and later on the Pianodrome. This cultural cacophony is hopefully merely a prelude to reawakening as the new home for St Mary’s Music School. If this does happen then it will be a very welcome example of finding new uses for old buildings.

This is a trend that has, thankfully, become more common in recent decades. Many of Edinburgh’s most prominent cultural centres are in buildings that were not purpose built. The reuse of places such as Summerhall and Castle Mills (by Edinburgh Printmakers), and the Ingleby Gallery (The Glasite Meeting House) epitomises the creativity and imagination required.

As Serban Cantacuzino put it in a 1972 essay on the theme, we derive a sense of ‘continuity and stability’ from the process of adaptation and finding new uses. It’s a way that a place evolves in an organic way, connecting the past to the future.

Hidden Door specialises in finding ‘forgotten spaces’ for art. Its remit has been finding creative ways to reimagine places which have, for too long, been neglected and undervalued.

Transforming the former Scottish Widows office complex on Dalkeith Road is their next project. The Royal High School Building was undoubtedly the star of Hidden Door in 2022. Considered by some architectural historians to be the defining Scottish Greek Revival Monument, its original inspiration was the Temple of Hephaestus (and the Propylaea) in Athens.

Calton Hill’s collection of diverse monuments is given unity and coherence by it. Originally conceived as a Scottish temple devoted to democracy and learning, with a commanding position in the city, its glory is faded but unceasing. The Hidden Door intervention hopefully presages a reawakening of this jewel.

Later in the summer, the Pianodrome took over the building. Their programme of events included free lunchtime concerts. I saw the solo pianist Philip Sharp perform in early September. The amphitheatre, built out of unwanted and subsequently deconstructed and reconstituted pianos, provided an atmosphere very different from most venues.

The ‘playable, community-centred sculpture’ almost seemed alive during the performance, with the sound radiating through the antique timber, and creaking sounds audible during the quiet moments. Sharp played with intensity and radically changing tempos and the audience became increasingly absorbed. Any initial apprehension transformed into a thorough engagement. Sharp is a teacher at St Mary’s Music School and will hope to be part of the building’s rebirth.

Rough and ready it remains in many places, it’s clearly going to be sometime before the school returns to its former glory. However, the Hidden Door Festival and the Pianodrome last year gave us more than an inkling of its cultural potential.

For many years the building was almost hidden in plain sight, occupying a prominent position in the city but virtually unvisited. Culture has brought it back into the spotlight.

The building survives and now seems to have a secure future. Its conversion into a hotel having twice been rejected by the Edinburgh Council planning committee, it is hopefully a future that will involve a long-term prominence in Scotland’s cultural life.

While public access will be fairly limited once the school has opened, it will be far greater than if it had become a hotel. Concerts and events will hopefully be held in the building’s performance spaces.

A walk up Leith Walk in winter sunshine led me, eventually, to Calton Hill. I took the little path up from Royal Terrace, clambering up the steps and pausing for breath at the ‘Vigil for the Scottish Parliament Monument’.

Powerful sunlight accentuated the beauty of this spot, especially the views of Holyrood Park. As I walked round the back of the Old Royal High School, the burnt foliage was still very evident. The destructive power of the fire in June was clear to see. Thankfully, this architectural gem now emits cultural energy rather than fire.

Info: Charlie Ellis is an Edinburgh based researcher and EFL teacher who writes on culture, education and politics. ■

Richard Murphy Architects ambitious plan to turn the old Royal High School into a national music school were initially rejected

Many of Edinburgh’s most prominent cultural centres are in buildings that were not purpose built



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