Over 100 guests assembled in the Scottish Parliament building at Holyrood last night in a reception aimed at pushing the cause of the Perfect Harmony campaign.

Perfect Harmony promotes the interests of St Mary’s Music School and the Royal High School Preservation Trust which, together, want an expanded St Mary’s to move into a conservation-led redesign of Thomas Hamilton’s building and adjacent spaces on Regent Road.

This proposal already has planning permission, but Duddingston House Properties and the Urbanist Group’s legal arrangement with the Council means that they have until 2022 to secure their own planning permission for a rival hotel proposition.

Last night’s event was an acknowledged effort by Perfect Harmony to make friends and influence people in the run-up to DHP/UG’s appeals to the Scottish Government against the Council’s refusal of planning permission for its proposals so far.

Present in the room were MSPs and ward councillors, figures from the worlds of built heritage and architectural conservation, education, the arts, the media, and sundry influential éminences grises.

It was an evening to explain, network, and showcase the talents of St Mary’s pupils in a range of musical genres.

Muir pulls no punches

After a brief welcome and introduction from Lothians MSP Gordon Lindhurst, RHSPT’s chair William Gray Muir summarised St Mary’s as the de facto national music school for Scotland.

It reflects, he said, Scotland’s traditional emphasis on providing excellent education to people regardless of their social background. Support for its expansion into a state-of-the-art and accessible cultural hub was growing, the arguments were moving decisively in its favour, and construction + first 30 years' operation would bring £110 million to the capital.

By contrast, Muir characterised DHP/UG as having been incapable of presenting a scheme that is viable in planning terms. He criticised their intransigence, which he said appeared to serve little purpose other than tying the City up in legal knots. He pointedly suggested elected representatives might care to delve into the detail of the developers’ commercially confidential contract with Edinburgh Council.

Muir said that, at this stage, politicians have the power to break the log-jam. They face political choices between private profits and public benefits, planning compliance and architectural damage, commercial gain and inspirational education.

‘We urge our politicians to become involved and intervene to bring this regrettable and unworkable situation to an end,' he said. 'This is no longer a local Edinburgh matter, but a national issue. It is a once in a lifetime opportunity with an iconic building, philanthropic funding and the chance to create a major cultural and educational hub coming together for the whole of Scotland.’

Bloomer on value of music education

The leading Scottish educationist Keir Bloomer spoke next, enthusing about the potential to expand the number of pupils at St Mary’s by 50 per cent, from 80 to 120, and to further improve the school’s outreach and community involvement. He cited research which links musical education to better cognitive abilities in all other disciplines, and claimed that the economic benefits of cultural excellence are clear to see.

The Scottish Government should think creatively in formulating its strategy for the expressive arts (scheduled for 2018). The strategy for sport offers a good example of how to proceed, linking promotion of simple enjoyment to higher levels of achievement and ultimately global excellence.

St Mary’s headteacher Dr Kenneth Taylor described the potential move into the old Royal High School as a ‘wonderful opportunity’, before introducing pupils to perform for guests. Two of them were afterwards interviewed by stand-up comedian Susan Morrison who likens herself to the Royal Yacht Britannia – ‘built on the Clyde and now berthed in Leith’. She burns, she said, ‘with the zeal of a convert’, and is a firm supporter of the Perfect Harmony campaign.

Macpherson behind St Mary's

Ben Macpherson, MSP for Edinburgh Northern and Leith, was present at the event. He is fully behind the music-school campaign, and told Spurtle he has already written to the Scottish Government to express his backing for it.

‘I’ll continue to do all I can to support the proposals,’ he said, ‘and strongly believe that it is in the common interest for this iconic building, in the heart of our capital city, to be turned into a major cultural, educational and international hub, as is envisaged.

‘The creation of such a state-of-the-art facility, while also preserving the integrity of such an historic building, would not only benefit all of Edinburgh but the whole of Scotland.’

What next?

The struggle between competing visions for the future of the old Royal High is far from over.

If Duddingston House Properties and the Urbanist Group hold a similar reception soon, invite Spurtle to it, and provide musical interludes with free nibbles in abundance throughout, we will certainly drag ourselves along to report it. 

[Holyrood image above, Andrew Cowan at Wikimedia Commons: Keir Bloomer image, from Reform Scotland.