On the snowy morning of 2 March 1979, Ronald Fraser, a retired civil servant, sat down in New St Andrew's House, the Brutalist administrative centre of the Scottish Office in Edinburgh, opened five years earlier. Dubbed the 'man who has to get his sums right' by Glasgow's resident tabloid, the Daily Record
, Fraser had been appointed Scotland's Chief Counting Officer in November 1978. He was tasked with overseeing the Scottish people's decision on whether or not to enact the Scotland Act (1978).
Introduced to the House of Commons by James Callaghan's Labour Government, the Scotland Act was the result of a decade of frenetic debate about devolving power to Scotland. It was intended to counter growing Scottish National Party (SNP) support and reinvigorate an increasingly stagnant Union. Described by a Dumfriesshire bookseller as 'the world's worst seller', the Scotland Act contained the provisions for the first ever referendum to be held on whether Scotland should have a devolved Assembly to sit in Edinburgh.
As the morning progressed, it became clear that, as Jim Callaghan later wrote of Wales, 'the valleys were deaf to the sound of our music and rejected the blandishments by a huge majority'. Whilst Scotland had voted 'Yes' with a small majority (of just over 77,000 votes) in support of an Assembly to sit in the Old Royal High School on Edinburgh's Calton Hill, it was clear that the project had been torpedoed by failing to reach the conditions of the 'Cunningham Amendment', a turnout threshold which stated that 40% of the overall electorate must vote 'Yes' for it to take effect.
In doing so, the Scottish people helped to deliver what Roy Hattersley once called the 'last rites of "Old Labour"' and allowed the SNP to support a motion of no confidence in Callaghan's administration. Had Labour convinced the Scots of the merits of its Assembly and placated its critics in the SNP's parliamentary ranks, the ever-pragmatic Callaghan could have entered the forthcoming election having just fundamentally re-engineered the United Kingdom. Alas, it was not to be.
In spring 1975, the Scottish Office commissioned a study of a number of historic and recognisable buildings that could potentially house its Assembly. Centring on Edinburgh, the search took in the Church of Scotland Assembly Hall (which eventually housed the Scottish Parliament while Holyrood was being constructed) and Donaldson's School for the Deaf in West Coates. In a characteristically acerbic intervention, one member of the House of Lords suggested that a School for the Deaf appeared to have 'certain merits' which qualified it to house a Scottish Assembly.
Whilst the Scottish Office had also briefly considered housing the Assembly in the headquarters of Strathclyde Regional Council, where Glasgow's St Vincent and India Streets meet, it settled on the Royal High School's former home on Edinburgh's Regent Road, believing it to be inherently more 'adaptable' than its competitors. Built between 1826 and 1829, it had stood empty since Scotland's most prestigious and celebrated school had moved in 1968 to modern, purpose-built accommodation in Barnton. As Scotland's ancient capital, Edinburgh was a natural home for a new legislature, with the previous Scottish Parliament having resided in the buildings now occupied by the Court of Session, just off the High Street, until its dissolution in 1707.
After the Old Royal High was purchased by the Scottish Office, the Property Services Agency (PSA) of the Department of the Environment was commissioned to make essential repairs to the building and to St Andrew's House, the Art Deco home of the Scottish Office on the opposite side of Regent Road. Costing nearly £4m, the PSA were tasked with shoring up the dilapidated Grade A listed former school building and creating what the Glasgow Herald
described as 'workable and dignified accommodation' for the Assembly, whilst 'fully respecting the character of an outstanding historic building'.
Despite the Scottish Office's considerable investment in the Assembly's prospective home, the passing of the referendum and the repeal of the Scotland Act in June 1979 condemned Thomas Hamilton's Athenian masterpiece to remain abandoned on Calton Hill. In the 40 years since, it has become an ever-present, decaying reminder of Scotland's struggle for a legislature of its own.
There is something rather melancholy about entering the Old Royal High today. Distinctly 'foosty' and littered with the detritus from its time as temporary offices for the City of Edinburgh Council, this great landmark of Auld Reekie's skyline stands empty, almost surrendered to the Buddleia that self-seed in its 19th-century stonework.
The chamber itself, dominated by oval-shaped benches of mid-brown leather seats, is a remarkable relict of a devolution scheme that failed to materialise. Somewhere between the adversarial layout of the House of Commons and the semi-circular chamber where the Scottish Parliament now meets, the chamber embodies the Government's vision that the Assembly would not have been 'forced to be a carbon copy of Westminster' and would instead have been able to 'develop their own ways of working as they judge best'. Like today's Scottish Parliament, the Assembly would have been a unicameral legislature with no revising chamber akin to the House of Lords but would have been allowed to appoint 'a distinguished person, or one with special expertise… who is not an Assembly member' to its Executive.
With decorative pillars supporting the visitors' balconies and a remarkably ornate decorative ceiling, the Chamber dominates the centre of the building and was carved out of the magnificent double-story room which had served as the School's Great Hall. Whilst the lecterns that would have served as despatch boxes have been removed, propped up in a nearby corridor, the Chamber furniture remains largely intact. Even the Philips microphone system, bolted to the brown benches, still splutters into life, all controlled from an instrumental panel on the clerks' table, directly below the Speaker's chair.
The Old Royal High School's current state of disrepair raises serious questions about how we treat our democratic heritage. Whilst the former school never housed a Scottish legislature, it was, for many, a beacon of hope through the years of campaigning to bring devolution to Scotland. The most devoted of pro-devolution campaigners conducted a vigil at the site from 1992 to 1997 and the famous 'Bus Party' tour of artists and writers, led by William McIlvanney, departed from the Old Royal High during the 1997 referendum on the creation of a Scottish Parliament. It is a significant and little seen part of Scotland's national story, and the only surviving legacy of a decade-long effort by both Conservative and Labour Governments to reconfigure the United Kingdom. Notwithstanding the decay, the most poignant element of a visit to the Old Royal High is the sense of purposelessness that hangs over the building.
Overlooked at the turn of the millennium, when the Scottish Office was house hunting for the new Parliament, the Old Royal High has now stood watch over Edinburgh for 40 years, a deserted symbol of a different, and undeniably feebler, devolution scheme.