The Royal High School, Thomas Hamilton 1825-29

Background and Significance

The Cockburn Association has had a long involvement with the Thomas Hamilton Building, and with Calton Hill more generally.  Lord Cockburn highlights the Royal High School in his 1849 A Letter to the Lord Provost on the Best Ways of Spoiling the Beauty of Edinburgh as a building “of the greatest excellence”, it then only 20 years old.

The Statement of Special Interest that accompanies the formal Listed Building description held by Historic Environment Scotland states, “The former Royal High School is of great architectural, cultural and historical significance. One of the finest examples of Greek Revival architecture in Scotland and designed by a leading architect of the early 19th century, its unique and powerful combination of setting, massing and masterful use of classical architectural language cemented Edinburgh’s reputation as the Athens of the North, and also alluded to the academic aspiration and achievement of both the school and Scotland as a nation.”

Image Credit: Doug Vernimmen

When the decision was made to move the High School from its historic site at Infirmary Street south of the Old Town, the City Authorities asked the architect Thomas Hamilton to produce designs.  Originally planned for a site overlooking the New Town by the Mound (the Bank of Scotland beat them to it), a site on the southern slopes of Calton Hill was accepted as the alternative.  In 1825, Hamilton prepared a new scheme, proposing a Greek Doric building which fully exploited the picturesque potential of the site.

The Statement of Special Interest notes that the design was “inspired by the dramatic setting, and the backdrop of the unfinished National Monument (based on the Parthenon at the Acropolis in Athens) on the hill above, Hamilton created a monumental composition based on the temple (e.g., the Propylaeon at the Acropolis), the lesser temple (e.g., that of Unwinged Victory in relation to the Propylaeon) and the stoa or market colonnade. In doing so he [Hamilton] strongly reinforced the similarities between Calton Hill and the Acropolis, and thus between Edinburgh and Athens. The order of the central temple-style pavilion is based on the Temple of Theseus, illustrated in Stuart and Revett’s Antiquities of Athens, published in 1794. The outer pavilions are loosely based on the monument of Thrasyllus. Earlier drawings show that Hamilton had experimented with various details such as carved wreaths to the parapets of the outer pavilions, a sculpted tympanum to the central pediment, and oculus windows to the projecting basement of the central pavilion.”

The RHS was not designed as a single building to be seen in isolation. It was conceived as part of a much wider project to extend the New Town to the south, linking it to the valley that separated it from the Old Town, taking full advantage of the picturesque possibilities afforded by Calton Hill, and to create a new main road from the east linking Calton Hill with Princes Street.

The RHS thus must be seen as a key part of a major transformation of the eastern side of Edinburgh between 1815 and 1835. It was both a gateway to the national monument on top of Calton Hill with its illusions to the Parthenon and the Acropolis, but also an intellectual gateway to the city. These associations would have been well understood at the time of its creation.

Image Credit: Terry Levinthal

Image Credit: Doug Vernimmen

Alternatives and Proposals

Although the High School operated from this site for 139 years, finally decanting to new buildings in Barnton in 1968, it was subjected during this time to several alternative proposals.

Scottish National Gallery

In 1904, a new Scottish National Gallery and School of Art was proposed for the Hamilton building.  The Report by Council of the Cockburn Association to the 28th Annual Meeting noted “great difficulty has been experienced in finding a solution of the problem satisfactorily to the various parties interested in the matter.”  The Council felt that the conversion of the building into a Picture Gallery might involve some external alterations and “they felt that no alteration of addition could be made without inevitably destroying the harmony of the present design.”

A dedicated Committee was convened and reported to the Cockburn Council.  They concluded, “looking at the smallness of the superficial are of the High School, the Committee feel that extension would be required, if not now, at least in the future.  The building, as it stands is one of the finest in the City, and the Committee recommend the Council, that, unless a guarantee be given that alterations for the lighting and possible extensions will be carried out so as in no way to address the present line of the building, the Council should express its strongest disapproval of the Scheme. The Committee further recommend to the Council to state, in their opinion if an Art School, or any other building, is placed on the west playground of the School, it would, by interfering with the fine prospect of the buildings from the west, most injuriously affect their beauty.”  They also suggested that a new building in the immediate vicinity of the Hamilton Building as it would be “endangered”.

In 1905, the Report of Council to the 29th Annual Report recorded that the proposals had been dropped.

There is no record in the Association’s archive of the immediate impact of the move to Barnton in 1968.

Scottish Assembly

In November 1975, the Association’s Newsletter reported on the government’s decision to ask the District Council for Hamilton’s building to house the proposed Scottish Assembly, subject to the successful outcome of an upcoming referendum.  There were other contenders for the honour, not least Donaldson’s School for the Deaf at Haymarket.  The newsletter outlines possible issues with access and associated development, which could easily have been accommodated in Donaldson’s.  Furthermore, it reports, “the other factor in the RHS choice which naturally concerns the Cockburn is the acceptability of alterations to the building. The exterior is untouchable, except with a careful cleaning agent.  There is scope for improving the immediate surroundings and the main hall must be treated with respect.  Fortunately, politicians of every colour have come to the defence of the oval seating plan which… ideal for four party competitions.  Apart from the hall, rooms are undistinguished and could readily be altered to provide lobbies, committee rooms, and an office for the Gentleman Usher of the Tartan Rod.”

In the Minutes of the meeting of Council on 24 August 1976, “Council members were generally impressed by PSAs proposals, both because the alterations were minimal, respecting Hamilton’s masterpiece, and because they were imaginative.”  The minutes highlighted suggestions to Property Services Agency [the government’s modern equivalent of the Office of Works] for consideration including the widening of the Regent Road north pavement, outside the ‘strangers’’ [i.e., visitors] entrance.

Minutes from 30 November 1978 report on a site visit to the buildings, where it was recorded that the Cockburn Council was, “very impressed by the general high standard of conversion work.”

The Scottish referendum of 1979 recorded 51.6% supporting the proposal, but with a turnout of only 64% of the electorate, which represented only 32.9% of the registered electorate.  The referendum conditions stipulated that if less than 40% of the total electorate voted “Yes” in the referendum, it would not be accepted.  Which is what happened.

Thus, this potential new life for Hamilton’s masterpiece failed.

Image Credit: Terry Levinthal

Surplus to requirements

With the Scottish Assembly no longer on the cards, the building lay empty with no real purpose.  In February 1994, the Cockburn newsletter reported that Crown Estates, to whom responsibility for the buildings fell, declared that the building was no longer needed for government purposes.  The then Secretary of State for Scotland, The Rt Hon Ian Lang MP suggested it might be disposed on the open market.

Fortunately, before the “For Sale” could be erected, the City of Edinburgh District Council stepped in, arguing that the requisition of the buildings for the purposes of the Scottish Assembly stipulated that if this should not come to pass, the buildings would revert back to their ownership.  There can be no doubt that this was done gleefully by powers that be.

A decade of informal Council use ensued.

Scottish National Photography Centre

In 2004, the Cockburn supported in principle the proposals to convert the Hamilton building into the Scottish National Photography Centre.  With patrons such as the late Sir Sean Connery and Carol Grigor (of the The Dunard Fund), this looked like a sure winner.  Receipt of a Heritage Lottery Fund Project Planning Grant enabled the preparation of a Conservation Management Plan for the Hamilton Building and the development of plans to convert the former Royal High School buildings in a centre of excellence including galleries, educational facilities and a centre for research.

Regretfully, the project did not pass this development phase.  It was felt that the business case was overcooked and did not represent the realistic prospects of the venture.

Image Credit: Doug Vernimmen

A Scottish Parliament?

Following the 1979 referendum, the Scottish Constitutional Convention was formed to debate the devolution of powers.  In the run up to the 1997 UK elections, the Labour Party (“New Labour”) included a manifesto commitment for creating devolved institutions in Scotland. In late 1997, a referendum was held which resulted in a “yes” vote.  Almost before the ink was dry, the location for a new Scottish Parliament building was announced to be Leith, next to the government’s main office buildings at Victoria Quay. This resulted in a public outcry – the new Parliament needed to be a centre stage in the city.  The Cockburn Council believed strongly that a City Centre location was essential.   Various ideas surfaced including Donaldson’s (again) and moving it outside Edinburgh. The Cockburn supported the RIAS’s calls for an international competition noting that the temporary accommodation at the General Assembly buildings in the Lawnmarket were more than adequate for the time-being.

One suggestion, promoted by the City Council’s development arm EDI Ltd, was to use of the Royal High School as the main debating and Parliamentary chamber but link it with nearby St Andrew’s House (the Scottish Offices’ HQ) and with the use of the largely vacant buildings in Waterloo Place as Scotland’s equivalent of Whitehall.

The use of the Royal High School for the Scottish Parliament was dismissed from the outset by the first First Minister, Donald Dewar MSP as a “nationalist’s shibboleth”, in reference to the Campaign for Scottish Democracy’s presence at the buildings since the failed referendum of 1979.  On 9 January 1998, Donald Dewar MSP announced that the former HQ of Scottish & Newcastle Breweries at the foot of the Canongate was the new home, signalling the death knell for yet another proposal for these iconic buildings


in 2018, the Cockburn Association attended a major Public Inquiry to consider proposals to convert and extend Thomas Hamilton’s 1825 Royal High School. Planning and Listed Building Consent was refused twice for the proposals, once in 2015 and again in 2017.

This most recent saga began in 2009, following a Council-led competition to find a sustainable use for this site.  The selected developer proposed converting the building into a “6-star Art Hotel”.  As the scheme began to unfold, the scale of additional buildings required to make the proposals viable emerged.  A total of 147-beedroom in two massive bedroom wings flanking the main building would have swamped the careful composition of the Category A-listed former Royal High School buildings, and seriously affect the setting of not only this building, but of Calton Hill, one of the most important landscape features in the City.  The Cockburn objected in the strongest terms to this intervention in 2015 when the planning and listed building consent applications were made.  Widely opposed by residents and heritage organisations, the scheme was recommended for refusal by Planners and was only narrowly rejected to the Council’s planning committee.

Image Credit: Gareth Hoskins Architects

Image Credit: Gareth Hoskins Architects

A second set of proposals were lodged for consent in 2017, this time for a two slightly smaller wings housing 127-bedrooms, which the developers Duddinghouse Properties and Urbanist Hotels argued was the minimum amount to make the scheme viable. The Cockburn objected again, and in August 2017, the Council’s Development Management Sub-Committee unanimously rejected the proposals.

An 8-week Public Inquiry commenced in September 2018, with the Cockburn joining forces with Edinburgh World Heritage and the New Town & Broughton Community Council to represent local concerns about the development.  A Crowd-sourced fundraising campaign was put in place, raising almost £40,000, which helped secure professional services from Fred Macintosh QC.

In 2020, Scottish Ministers accepted the recommendation from the Department of Planning and Environmental Appeals to reject all the appeals and formally refuse planning and listed building consents to the proposals.  The principal reason was the impact to the Hamilton’s iconic Greek Revival masterpiece as well as the impact to the setting of the building and its position within the World Heritage Site on Calton Hill.  It was for these reasons that the Association formally objected to the proposals 5 years previously.

Image Credit: Terry Levinthal

A Music School?

In 2016, at the same time as the hotel proposals were being developed, the Royal High School Preservation Trust submitted a planning application to establish a new Music School on the site.  The existing St Mary’s Music School in the West End of the city had been looking for a new home.  The opportunity was seized, and the RHSPT with the support of a dedicated committee and The Dunard Fund proposed an alternative vision for the RHS.

The Cockburn considered in detail the proposals by Richard Murphy Architects and supported the proposals as a viable use, and as an alternative to the hotel scheme.  Planning and Listed Building Consent was granted by the Council, including the unprecedented decisions to offer planning consent for 7 years as opposed to the statutory 3-year limit in order to future proof the permission in case the hotel proposals were ultimately rejected.

What next?

In 2021, the Association lobbied the City of Edinburgh Council asking it to terminate the agreement with the hotel developers.  The rejection of the scheme by Scottish Ministers ended any hope of advancement, so it would be best to clear the route for other proposals, most notably the RHSPT’s Music School proposals, to advance.

The Council partially agreed, making the decision to end of the agreement with hoteliers but deciding to go back to the open market to see if other proposals would be forthcoming.

The control of the Thomas Hamilton’s Royal High School has formally reverted to the City Council.   A clear path to a sustainable long-term use remains elusive despite options remaining on the table.  A scheme of repair and preventative maintenance needs to be put in place urgently to prevent damage and decay.

Image Credit: Terry Levinthal

Image Credit: Terry Levinthal

Image Credit: Doug Vernimmen

The control of the Thomas Hamilton’s Royal High School has formally reverted to the City Council.   A clear path to a sustainable long-term use remains elusive despite options remaining on the table.  A scheme of repair and preventative maintenance needs to be put in place urgently to prevent damage and decay.