Even though most of central Edinburgh is within a UNESCO World Heritage site, the city is adapting and changing as any modern urban centre would. Within this evolving environment, some important Edinburgh buildings that provide identity and character to the city, most of them listed and protected by law, are awaiting news on modern uses, while others remain abandoned and neglected.
Old Royal High School
New Parliament House, 5-7 Regent Rd, Edinburgh. Thomas Hamilton
Many are aware of the Old Royal High School’s case, a Thomas Hamilton’s 19th-C Greek Revival building that straddles Calton Hill. This magnificent structure is a particularly sad example of disuse, due to its prominence in Edinburgh’s landscape, the style and size of the building, as well as the scenario of events that led to its abandonment.
In 1968, the Royal High School that the building was designed for, was moved to a new site in Barnton to make space for a devolved Scottish Parliament that never moved in, as devolution was not approved by Scottish citizens at the time. Complete with carpets, seats and microphones, it has only been used to a very limited extent by the City Council (possibly due to high running costs).
Upon the recent proposals of conversion and extension of the building for a new 5 star hotel, a scandal ensued, grounded on the inappropriate nature of the extensions. The public, UNESCO, and Edinburgh’s heritage bodies deemed them too disruptive for the protected skyline of Edinburgh’s World Heritage Site. Cockburn Association campaigned relentlessly to make sure citizens were aware of the development.
Consequently, the hotel project application was rejected by the Edinburgh City Council and an alternative scheme proposed by Richard Murphy Architects emerged to a popular support. However, the hotel application appeal has now been escalated to the Scottish Government and is currently awaiting decision.
As we stand now, Royal High School’s semi open exterior spaces are infested with pigeons, vegetation is taking over the cornices, and smell of mould and damp takes one aback upon entering what was designed as the debating chamber in the 70s. The experience truly reminds an apocalyptic film scene where the population had to suddenly flee the city.
122 High St, Edinburgh. John Mylne
Tron Kirk on the High Street was designed by royal mason John Mylne in the 17th century after contemporary examples of Dutch architecture. A home to one of two Scotland’s hammerbeam roof structures, after serving several purposes, the Tron now serves as a souvenir shop, a pop up exhibition space, on lease to Edinburgh World Heritage Trust. The future is looking bright as the trust is currently in the process of recommending this landmark Edinburgh building for a long term reuse as a Word Heritage Site visitor centre.
Imperial Dock Grain Elevator & Warehouse
Imperial Dock, Leith. Alfred H. Roberts
A structure that can be spotted from afar in Edinburgh’s skyline, this example of monumental industrial architecture from the early 1930s is a category B listed building. The grain elevator ceased functioning in 2006 due to high running costs, but the original machinery still survives. Due to its redundant function it was under the threat of demolition several times. Today this building is in fair condition, but its level of risk is still high as demolition has not yet been discarded as an option.
There are numerous cases of industrial buildings that were abandoned due to the obsolescence of their original function. Some are easier to convert than others, their potential for subdivision often being the main factor. 20th century industrial architecture has been despised for decades, and only recently people have begun to appreciate these mighty examples of combined machinery, design and engineering, that were once so celebrated by modernist architects like Walter Gropius.
Many recent conversions have proven that old industrial buildings can be reused and given new functions. Edinburgh Printmakers is a great local precedent. This heritage building used to be a rubber factory and brewery complex, while today it stands as a centre of printmaking and visual arts in Fountainbridge.
Former Police Station
55, Abbeyhill, Edinburgh. Robert Morham
A peculiar 1896 building by Robert Morham, B listed and currently in poor condition due to rising damp. Its risk level is moderate after being used as an infamous Armenian restaurant and later abandoned. Its unique architecture and privileged setting in the city centre makes this building a great opportunity for reuse, where a variety of different new purposes could be applied to this peculiar structure. Due to its proximity to the Royal Mile, the Scottish Parliament and Holyrood Palace, it has great potential as an asset in Edinburgh’s tourism infrastructure. As it stands now, works like pigeon droppings removal appear to happen inconsistently, about once a year.
The adjoining building, probably built as part of a foundry at Abbeyhill 51, has recently been successfully restored and extended into a writer’s residence/ holiday apartment by Craig Amy Architect. The property has since been sold but is occupied.
29-30, Ferry Road, Edinburgh. Bradshaw, Gass and Hop
This neoclassical Edinburgh building was erected by Bradshaw, Gass and Hope in 1929-32. The interior of the theatre is in a poor condition due to the lack of use since the 1980’s. The Leith Theatre Trust currently runs it as a pop up event venue. The trust has an intention of restoring the theatre and using it as a flexible performance space, which will provide the area of Leith with a large venue for entertainment which is much needed. If you would like to donate and support the restoration of the Leith theatre, you can do so here.
Considering the damage Leith’s historical fabric has suffered since the 1960s, it is important to highlight the significance of undertaking any project under strict guidelines regarding the protection of its character and neoclassical features.
Former Clydesdale Bank
29-31, George Street, Edinburgh. David Bryce
This neoclassical A listed bank designed by David Bryce in 1841-2 is in a fairly good condition. The ground floor is still in use and not at risk. Here you can find bars and restaurants with the old bank aesthetic. However, the upper floors are moderately neglected, remaining unused ever since the bank moved away in the 1980’s. The space was available to let as offices in 2011 but remains empty to this date, which is surprising considering the fashionable address.
The building’s location in the city centre on one of the main streets of Edinburgh makes it a perfect spot for office or commercial development. This being said, whatever changes shall be made regarding its use, these should not alter the outstanding architectural composition that characterises this building’s exterior and interior.
These neglected but not forgotten buildings are waiting for someone to give them a new purpose and a fair place as part of the City of Edinburgh’s historical fabric once again.
Hopefully new uses shall soon provide these beautiful structures with maintenance and a sustainable future, which are both necessary for their survival.
To hear more about conservation work within Edinburgh World Heritage site, book a private tour for your group.