History of the house: North British Hotel

Standing at the East End of Princes Street is the imposing building known today as The Balmoral Hotel. Owned by Sir Rocco Forte since 1997, the building has been completely refurbished and now enjoys a worldwide reputation as a luxury hotel.

But this has come at end of a long and interesting journey. Let us go back in time to explore the history and development of the building.

Edinburgh New Town development took place from 1760 until 1830 with the Nor Loch being largely drained in the 1760s and the remaining West Gardens by the 1820s. The Mound formed from the earth and rubble of the New Town construction work was started in 1781 and hard surfaced and landscaped by 1830.

Princes Street looking east, probably taken from Scott Monument, c1858. Image from Edinburgh Museums and Galleries collections.

In the 1840s three stations were built on the site of the hotel and the present Waverley Station. The first was the terminus for the North British railway from England; the second, the Edinburgh Perth and Dundee Railway was routed via a tunnel under Princes Street and the New Town to meet the ferry at Granton to cross the Forth and then on to Perth and Dundee; the third and last, was the Edinburgh to Glasgow Railway which after much debate ran through the Gardens via a tunnel under the Mound and on to Glasgow. In 1854 the name Waverley, after Sir Walter Scott’s novel applied to all three stations. The North British Railway Company took over the other two and from 1868 gradually transformed the structure of the site as demand for travel and accommodation increased.

Waverley Station and Princes Street, c1882

The building and improvement of the North and Waverley Bridges between 1892 and 1902 made for easier access from the Old to the New Town and contributed to the East End growth, as did the significant railway developments.

Waterloo Place looking towards North Bridge, showing the buildings on the site where the Balmoral Hotel now stands, c1885

The drainage of the Nor Loch encouraged the building of properties at the junction of  North Bridge and Princes Street, i.e. the current site of the Balmoral. There were early disputes as owners who had built on the North side protested that their view was being spoiled which was only settled after many court cases. The agreement allowed for properties already built or nearing completion to remain but any others further West had to be below street level to protect the view across to the Old Town. To gain some insight into the previous occupants of the Balmoral site, we’ve turned again to the old Edinburgh Post office Directories which show a history of hotels and travel companies on the site:

1846-1847
No 1  Steam Packet and Coach Office and Kerr, Wine and Spirit Merchant
No 2 Morrison City Tavern and Jas Campbell Coach Office
No 3 A Murray Turf Hotel
No 4 Croalls Coach Office (also at No 10)

1865-1866
No 1 W Kerr Wine and Spirit Merchant
No 2 John McLaren Refreshment Room
No 3 John Donald Hotel
No 4 Croalls Coach Office

1881-1882
No 1 Thomas Johnston and Alex Mctavish Bridge Hotel
No 2 A John McLaren Refreshment Rooms No 2 Wm Crawford and Sons, Bakers
No 3 Gladstone Hotel Thos Jardine
No 4 North British Railway Office

1891-1892
No 1 Thomas Johnston Bridge Hotel
No 2 Refreshment Room
No 4 NB railway Office and NB Steam Packet

1902-1903
No 1 Thos Cook and Son Waverley Station Hotel buildings
No 2 Waverley Station Hotel

A photograph in our collections, dated 1895, shows the former buildings where the Hotel now stands and shows the offices of Thomas Cook Travel Agents.

In 1889 to raise finance, The North British Railway Bill came before a committee in the House of Lords. There were objections to part of the capital raised being used to build a hotel. The main opposition to the scheme came from those who already owned or had some interest in existing hotels on Princes Street and some of the exchanges are reported to have become very personal. When all sides had presented their case the Lordships after a few minutes deliberation announced that they had decided to allow the Bill to proceed.

In 1895, an open competition to design the new North British Station Hotel was won by W. Hamilton Beattie and A.R. Scott. William Hamilton Beattie specialised in designing hotels. The son of George Beattie an architect and builder in Edinburgh. William designed the Clarendon Hotel Edinburgh (1875), the Braid Hills Hotel (1876), and in 1893, was commissioned by Charles Jenner to design a replacement for Jenners Department Store on Princes Street which had been destroyed by fire. This was opened in 1895 and is modelled on the Bodleian Library at Oxford University.  He did not live to see the new North British Hotel as he died in 1898.

North Bridge showing North British Hotel under construction, 1901

Following William Beattie’s death the task of completing his North British Hotel design fell to his assistant Andrew Robb Scott.

North British Station Hotel, Princes Street, 1937

The new hotel opened in October 1902 as the North British Railway Hotel and started a tradition of setting their clock three minutes fast so that people would not miss their train.

Over the years the Railway Company changed structure and name but The North British Railway Hotel remained unchanged. However, in 1983, Gleneagles Hotel Company acquired the famous hotel and in 1988 closed it for major refurbishment. In 1990, it was acquired by Balmoral International Hotels who completed the refurbishment and in 1991 reopened as The Balmoral Hotel.

In 1997 the building was bought by the present owner Sir Rocco Forte to start his Rocco Forte Collection and there have been changes and refurbishments to the building since.

Large Dining Hall in North British Station Hotel, 1902

Over the years the hotel has played host to many important and famous visitors.

In 1918 the Prime Minister, Lloyd George, was a guest at the hotel whilst in Edinburgh to receive the Freedom of the City and an honorary LL.D from the University.

On 24 July 1919, HRH The Prince of Wales (later Edward VIII and Duke of Windsor) came to Edinburgh to receive the Freedom of the City. The Scotsman newspaper reported that he used the Hotel as his base until his departure the following morning.

In July 1932, Hollywood legends Laurel and Hardy stayed at the Hotel whilst on a promotional tour and their movie ‘The Music Box’ sceened at the Playhouse.

King Haakon of Norway was in residence for a few days in 1942 during which he opened Norway House, a residential club for Norwegians.

During the 1960s, glamorous celebrities such as Sophia Loren,  Elizabeth Taylor and Paul McCartney stayed at the hotel.

The Queen Mother was a regular visitor during the 1970s. Prime Ministers Edward Heath and Harold Wilson also visited.

And in 2007, J K Rowling completed the final novel in the Harry Potter series while residing at the hotel for a few months. This was a well kept secret and the author signed an antique bust in her room.

View from the Scott Monument of the Balmoral Hotel, Waverley Market and Calton Hill, 2010

Are you interested in discovering the history of your home? The Edinburgh and Scottish Collection at Central Library has a vast collection of material which can help you.

Read more articles in this ‘History of the house’ series:
History of the house: King’s Wark
History of the house: Bowhead house
History of the house: Nicolson Square and Marshall Street
History of the house: White Horse Close
History of the house: 94 and 96 Grassmarket
History of the house: Stockbridge Colonies
History of the house: Milne’s Court
History of the house: Melbourne Place
History of the house: Falcon Hall

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