In 1784 the foundation stone for Nelson's monument was laid by Provost Drummond, the Nor'Loch was drained following the 1752 'Proposals for Carrying Out Certain Public Works in the City of Edinburgh', and in 1767 work was started on the building of Edinburgh's New Town.
Designed by Thomas Hamilton ( 1784-1856 ) a leading architect of the Scottish Enlightenment, the new Royal High School was completed in 1829. Modelled on the Hephaisteion in Athens in the Greek Revival style the building is considered to be of international architectural importance.
By 1939 the old Calton Jail had been demolished and replaced with New St Andrew's House designed by Thomas Tait in a symmetrical plan form fronting onto Regent Road. The building’s visual dominance is broken by Calton Cemetery and the Governor’s House from the south.
Classic depiction of 'Edinburgh's Acropolis' from Salisbury Crags showing the National Monument completed with the old Royal High school to the fore. The image shows a horizontal layering of buildings, terraces and walls forming a continuation of Playfair’s Regent Terrace.
Although Hamilton never visited Greece, Charles Cockerell, who worked on Edinburgh's copy of the Parthenon, brought back artefacts and drawings which influenced the old Royal High school design and Hamilton's obsession for the Greek Revival style and classical symmetry.
Detail of a painting of the old Royal High school completed by Hamilton in 1831, two years after the building was finished showing an emphasis of the central Greek temple and its importance to the overall design. Note the carved stone reliefs and statue embellishments which were never completed.
A classic view of the building painted by Hamilton moves the Burns Monument so as to obscure Calton Jail and enhance the picturesque composition. His rigorous adaption of the Greek temple to create a working school without windows is very much a feature of the building.
Hamilton's competition entry in the 1840s for the extension to the National Gallery strongly supports his passion for a symmetrical and rational plan focussed on Knox church and with an emphasis on horizontal designs to provide a setting and clear panoramic view of the Castle.
Earliest known image of the old Royal High School dated 1825 from the south east close to where the Burns Monument is located. The engraving depicts Millers Knowe which was a rock outcrop near the west pavilion left after blasting Calton Hill to form a new site for the school.
One of the few early photographs showing the school's western elevation from a point close to the top of Jacobs Ladder. The curvature of Regent Road is embraced by Hamilton placing identical pavilions adjacent to the road but at angles to the main building composition.
The wider site and setting of Calton Hill have played out a game of pure symmetry with freestanding temples, monuments and memorials, dedicated to science and distinguished men in the Arcadian manner, by adopting the picturesque qualities inspired by a site like the Acropolis.
No obvious entrance to the front of the school exists resulting in a formidable barrier to accessing the central building. The precise role of the small gates on Regent Road seems unclear although it is known the single door at portico level was used by pupils during special occasions.
Part of Hamilton's design genius was to make a functional building without the addition of windows to the principal elevation from an adaption of the Greek temple model. The library wing demonstrates how top lit octagonal roof lanterns ensure no requirement for traditional windows.
For nearly 140 years the central 'temple' with amphitheatre acted as the school Assembly hall. Daylight comes from clearstory windows to avoid having any openings other than the ceremonial single door to the south. Vaulted coffered ceiling and timber balconies are prominent features.
Extensive alterations to accommodate the Scottish Assembly in the early 1970's has done much to undermine the authenticity of the original design and offers the opportunity to restore spaces through a new use and reversal of the damage through exemplary conservation measures.
In 1994 the City of Edinburgh Council acquired the building from the Scottish Office and although there have been various attempts to find a new use for the building, including military and photographic museums, none have proved to be commercially viable or sustainable.