An alternative use for the old Royal High School

Submitted by Editor on Sun, 16/08/2009 - 13:28

Dr Costas Dikeos – an Edinburgh University alumnus and former resident of Eyre Crescent – may now live in Komotini, Greece,  but his thoughts are often with the capital. He sent Spurtle this article on 17 June, and asked us to circulate it.

 Defunct buildings that remain empty and unused become at best archaeological sites, and at worst relics of the past. Moreover, when they have been associated with political and indeed national aspirations, but then linger without any function or the presence of humans, they become sorry ghosts of their past, present and alas future!

 News of an ongoing debate and the exchange of ideas about future use of the (old) Edinburgh Royal High School on Calton Hill brought joy to someone who still feels affection for the capital. However, if the premises are indeed going to be converted into a shopping mall, a luxury hotel and some lavish apartments, my joy doesn’t last. Edinburgh has seen quite a number of changes or proposed ‘developments’ in recent years (e.g. converting the Scotsman headquarters into a hotel, and Caltongate). It is clear to former residents who now return as tourists that these changes jeopardise the latent character of Edinburgh, its charm and its functions. However, while it is certainly easy to reject a proposal, such a reaction remains hollow if no alternative is offered.

 My alternative is based upon the recent historical aspirations for the building as the centre of Scottish political life. It takes into account that modern politics is not just party politics but entails listening to civil society. My suggestion tries to be low-cost, and to offer a different perspective in the use of this landmark buildings to the mainstream commercial one. Lastly, it hopes to acknowledge the vast Scottish (and indeed British) experience of non-governmental, non-profit, charitable associations and organisations.

 The former premises of the Royal High School could become a centre accommodating under one roof the main Scottish NGOs. Old classrooms (unfortunately I do not have a floor plan) could be divided into ‘offices’ of 40–60m2, for use as bureaux/headquarters of the respective organisations and associations at low rent. The debating hall would remain as such. Such a change would – I think – be much cheaper than creating a shopping mall and hotel. Additionally, NGOs might be able to achieve economies of scale in the use of infrastructure (e.g. printing facilities) and perhaps auxiliary personnel.

 I can foresee significant benefits in bringing physically closer public entities such as the Red Cross and Save the Children, at the end of corridor with Oxfam and just opposite Medicines Sans Frontiers, the National Life Boat Association, Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth, the SSPCA or the Saltire Society and Scottish Heritage, or other cultural organizations such as Friends of the Scottish Orchestra, or entities dedicated to the care of refugees, the Salvation Army ... my list is indicative not exhaustive. Each association or organization would have use of its (rented or given) premises, and the opportunity to use the Debating Hall for important functions such as Annual General Meetings, keynote speeches and presentations etc. There could be an annual General Assembly of all NGOs in the Debating Hall as well.

 Bringing various NGOs under the same roof would enhance their functions through a daily informal exchange of ideas, hopes, aspirations and experiences (we all tend to talk to our nextdoor neighbour in the coffee-room during breaks), in addition to the official annual (or six-monthly) assembly. The proposal would strengthen civil and civic society which is a new form of democratic participation, and thus pay tribute to those who wished to see the Debating Hall as the Scottish Parliament. It would also remind us of Scottish Enlightenment and communitarian ethics.

 Finally, it could serve as an example to other European cities seeking uses for their defunct buildings.