New home for national music school for Scotland comes a step closer

Pupils of St Mary’s Music School outside the former Royal High School. Photo © Mike Wilkinson

Hopes have been raised for Scotland’s specialist music school to move to one of Edinburgh’s most historic buildings following the rejection of a hotel plan.

Since Thomas Hamilton built the Old Royal High School in 1825, the neo-classical building has stood proud on Calton Hill in the New Town, exemplifying Edinburgh’s sobriquet as The Athens of The North. But despite its Category A listing as part of the city’s UNESCO World Heritage Site status, it has lain empty for half a century.

Various proposals were made for the building. At one point, it was considered for the site of the Scottish Parliament but in 2010, Edinburgh City Council held an architectural competition to redevelop the site and awarded the prize to a partnership between Urbanist Hotels and Duddingston House Properties to build a luxury hotel.

Plans were submitted in 2014, including two substantial, stepped accommodation wings set back and to either side of the main building. The city’s planning officers recommended rejection because it breached the planning rules of the World Heritage Site, causing a, ‘significant adverse impact on the architectural integrity, composition, setting and special character of the building.’ The council voted nine to six against the plan.

Meanwhile, a rival proposal to move St Mary’s Music School to the site was put forward, fully backed by arts philanthropist Carol Coborn Grigor’s Dunard Fund. It gained planning consent and wide popular support from the public and heritage societies, including the Royal High School Preservation Trust. However, Urbanist Hotels held the lease until 2022, so nothing more could be done until it expired or was terminated by Scottish Ministers.

Urbanist submitted a more modest plan, but that was again rejected on 26 October this year with the Scottish Government announcing that the case was closed and ‘planning permissions and listed buildings consents refused.’

Heritage groups and St Mary’s Music School have been celebrating the decision and are pushing forward with their plans.

Dr Kenneth Taylor, Headteacher at St Mary’s Music School, said, ‘Everyone at St Mary’s Music School is heartened at the very welcome news that we are a significant step closer to securing the Old Royal High School as our new home.

‘Thanks to the wholehearted support and generosity of Dunard Fund, the funding is in place and a future on the world stage for a cultural hub for music education and outreach in Scotland has now opened before us.’

St Mary’s claims to be the de facto national music school and is the only one in Scotland to offer a chorister programme through its heritage as the Song School of St Mary’s Episcopal Cathedral. Its students are chosen by audition and a series of bursaries ensures no-one is excluded by their economic statues.

The school has long since outgrown its current site on Grosvenor Crescent, which has neither performance nor rehearsal space. If the Old Royal High project goes ahead, it wants to expand its current cohort of students from around 80 to 120, and to build a state-of-the-art public concert hall and garden, turning the school into a cultural hub for Scotland’s capital.

Dr Kenneth Taylor
Dr Kenneth Taylor

Dr Taylor added, ‘We would congratulate Scottish ministers for making this possible. We also thank everyone in the world of arts and education, as well as the general public in Edinburgh, who have backed us and wished us well with our plans over the last two years and hope that they are as thrilled as we are.’

Fully funded, it is one of the largest philanthropic gifts ever offered to the city. However, although the planning permission and listed building consent for the school was granted in 2015, it expires the same year as Urbanist’s lease, and there are fears that the hotel company could keep the project under appeal to keep the lease extant.

William Gray Muir, Chairman of the Royal High School Preservation Trust, said, ‘Scottish ministers should be congratulated on this considered and sensible decision. Their recognition of the importance of the building reinforces our belief that it is the perfect place for Scotland’s national music school.  Doing so will bring together two of Scotland’s national treasures.  We hope that the City Council will now be in a position discuss how we can jointly make this happen.  With their agreement we would be able to start work immediately, with the necessary planning consents and funding already in place.’

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