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Classical building in bidding tug-of-war

Battle lines drawn as music school offers to buy Royal High

William Gray Muir, Ken Taylor, St Mary's Music School

The battle to revive the derelict Royal High School in Edinburgh has stepped up a gear after new plans were submitted to convert the building.

The Royal High School Preservation Trust (RHSPT) has declared its intent to move St Mary’s Music School into the famous neoclassical Thomas Hamilton buildings on Calton Hill.

Its move pitches it against Rosewood Hotels and Resorts which has been signed up by a rival developer and has submitted  its own planning application.

Backed by the philanthropic Dunard Fund, the Trust has made a formal legal offer to buy the building and has appointed renowned architect Richard Murphy to develop designs to restore the site as a school, alongside conservation architects Simpson & Brown.

The Trust says it has overwhelming community support for its initial plans following two public consultation events and now intends to submit a detailed and fully funded application to the council as soon as possible.

William Gray Muir, the chairman of the RHSPT, confirmed that a bid to purchase the Old Royal High School for £1.5m had been made, exceeding the council’s value.

He said this is a small part of a substantial funding pledge which has been made to the trust to underwrite the cost of a conservation and conversion “that respects the buildings’ original character, historic significance and location to secure their long-term future”.

The project “will represent one of the single largest philanthropic arts gifts in modern Scottish history.”

Royal High School hotel 3Gareth Hoskins, the architect behind the £75 million hotel plan (left – click to enlarge), said its new designs respond to concerns expressed by heritage organisations and the public during the comprehensive consultation process earlier in the year.

Two new wings would contain the hotel’s bedrooms and are planned in what is described as an “organic shape” with landscaped terraces and an undulating copper façade, inspired by the layered volcanic landscape of both Calton Hill and nearby Salisbury Crags.

Speaking for the music school proposal, Mr Gray said: “The Old Royal High School buildings are crucial to the character of Edinburgh and part of the architectural heritage that attracts people to this wonderful city. The Trust was set up specifically to conserve and protect this masterpiece for the long-term and what better way than to restore it to its original purpose as a school?

“St Mary’s Music School needs a new home and if we are successful, not only will this move ensure the School will have more teaching and performance space but as a new venue and destination for talented musicians it will also create opportunity to add to Edinburgh’s cultural economy.”

The trust says responses received as a result of a pre-application public consultation process so far suggest a very high degree of public and community support for the RHSPT’s proposal. All respondents surveyed to date agreed that they welcomed the RHSPT’s proposal to locate St Mary’s Music School in the old Royal High School building and 99% supported the proposed design concept and layout, while 97% thought the RHSPT’s proposals will improve provision of public performance space for concerts and events in Edinburgh.

Mr Gray added: “We are delighted to have persuaded Richard Murphy to take on this project. Richard’s architectural practice is vastly experienced in both arts and education buildings and is the ideal partner for such an important project.

“The community response that our proposals have so far received has been phenomenal, with almost 100% of people surveyed at two public events telling us that they support the Trust’s vision for the old Royal High School.  We will continue to consult as part of this process and plan to present an update on our designs within weeks.”

Richard Murphy Architects was involved in conversions of the category A listed Tolbooth in Stirling, the Eastgate theatre in Peebles and the John Muir Birthplace Centre in Dunbar. It is also involved in the conversion of the category A Donaldson’s School and building apartments in the grounds. Other projects include the extension to the listed Carnegie library in Dunfermline to form a new arts and heritage centre.

Mr Murphy said:  “This is a wonderful site, an exceptionally important building and a delightful client and brief; what architect could not relish such a prospect? We look forward to working closely with the Trust, the School and the rest of the design team.”

Simpson & Brown has advised on the conservation of some of Scotland’s most prominent historic buildings including the National Portrait Gallery, Register House, Old College Quad and the National Galleries.

John Sanders, partner at Simpson & Brown said:  “We have enjoyed working together with Richard Murphy on previous projects and the Royal High School project is a wonderful opportunity to combine creativity with scholarship.”

Dr Kenneth Taylor, headteacher at St Mary’s Music School, said: “This is an exciting and wonderful opportunity for us to further develop Scotland’s only independent specialist music school. Moving to the former Royal High School building would provide us with the performance and rehearsal space we aspire to and would enable us to broaden and extend the outreach activities we currently offer to the wider community.”

The Royal High School Preservation Trust was formed in 2015 to seek to purchase the former Royal High School, for restoration to use as a music school. The Trust has sufficient funds committed and underwritten from private benefactors to ensure both the restoration of the listed buildings and the creation of world class facilities for the music school.

Other Trustees include: Richard Austin, a trustee of the Architectural Heritage Society of Scotland and a former pupil of the Royal High School; Ray Entwistle, chairman of private bank Hampden and Co; Carol Colburn Grigor, an American philanthropist and former concert pianist; Colin Liddell, an accredited specialist in charity law; Peter Thierfeldt, a trustee of Dunard Fund and Edinburgh World Heritage Trust.

St Mary’s Music School is Scotland’s only independent specialist music school offering a world class standard of musical and academic education to musically gifted children aged 9-19 years in an inspiring, inclusive and supportive environment.

It is also the Choir School of St Mary’s Episcopal Cathedral in Edinburgh.  It is co-educational, non-denominational and has day and boarding pupils from across Scotland and beyond – England, Wales, Northern Ireland and internationally.

Photo: William Gray Muir and Kenneth Taylor outside the Royal High

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