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October 18, 2011

A school worth saving

One of Edinburgh’s most controversial property deals in recent years – many believed it threatened the city’s status as a World Heritage Site – fell victim to the credit crunch. Little has happened since in this historic part of Edinburgh’s Old Town although the council remain ever hopeful of reviving the project. In the meantime, the Old Town Development Trust has been working up alternative plans for a number of sites across the area. One building in particular has great social and historic significance

Scotsman, 14th October 2011

Campaigners trying to bring a neglected former school building in Edinburgh’s Old Town back into public use have published a major study shedding new light on its little-known key role in the history of education.

It is hoped the research will boost a campaign to rescue the listed building on New Street from demolition and have it turned into a new literary and publishing hub. 

The building was brought back into use for the first time in four years in August when it played host to a major Edinburgh Art Festival exhibition. 

But its future has been thrown into doubt after the city council, which owns the building, confirmed it is in talks with a prospective new owner which would see it demolished.

The former North Canongate Infant School, on New Street, where some of the poorest youngsters in the capital were taught, helped shape the crucial Children’s Act of 1908, according to the new research. 

Its long-time headteacher, Andrew Young, who later became an MP, was a key witness to a House of Commons study which led to the ground-breaking legislation being introduced.

The study has also found that the building was designed by Edinburgh’s celebrated schools architect John Alexander Carfrae. 

The building was turned into a vegetable market in 1938 and later became home to a crafts centre, offices and workshops before being vacated by the council in 2007. 

It was due to be demolished, along with a nearby listed building, to make way for a five-star hotel and conference centre. 

Although the development was approved by the council and the Scottish Government, the plans collapsed after the developers plunged into administration. However, the council still harbours hopes of reviving the development and is in talks with a potential buyer about taking on the previous scheme. 

A conservation study on the former school carried out by Adam Dudley Architects, for the Edinburgh Old Town Development Trust, which wants the council to keep the building in public use, states it is “in danger of being demolished” despite being in “generally sound” condition and calls for action to be carried out as soon as possible to “ensure its long-term survival”. 

Sean Bradley, chairman of the trust, said: “It is clear from this study that its historical significance is much greater than was previously known and it even appears to have been downplayed over the years. 

“The idea we’re exploring is to bring it back into use as a publishing hub combined with a literacy centre, which would become a vital part of the jigsaw for a vibrant literary quarter in this part of the city.” 

Edinburgh architect Neil Simpson, a board member of the trust, said “The school building is firmly embedded in the social history of the Canongate and will always remain a potent symbol of community focus.”

However, Tom Buchanan, economic development leader at the council, said any new owners would likely want to avoid going through a new planning process He said: “The most important thing for us is to avoid having a huge gap site in one of the most historic parts of the city.” 

A council spokesman said: “We are currently looking into various options regarding the future use of the Caltongate site.”