The term "North British" was a
curious snobbery left over from the early days of the union which bound Scotland and
England into a United Kingdom. The "best" families had headed notepaper marking
their address at North Britain, not Scotland, and in choosing the name the railway company
deliberately selected their clientele, seeing Edinburgh not just as a provincial capital
but as the centre of a much larger world.
You can see that extraordinary sense of
confidence and competition in the building itself. Now it has been restored to the
original golden sandstone it is a bold ebullient place, bursting with towers and balconies
and topped with a crown. A pugnacious building firmly planting a mixture of European
styles - French Renaissance, Dutch dormers - right in the middle of the Scottish capital
where, when it opened, cows were still milked in the closes of the old High Street just a
few yards across the North Bridge. With the paradoxical juxtaposition of progress, the
poor died of cholera in overcrowded slums within a sniffing distance of the palatial
bathrooms of the grand cosmopolitan hotel. But the North British was a sign of the future
heralded by the railways, the newly opened Forth Bridge and the electric lights switched
on in Princess Street just seven years earlier.
Growing prosperity was celebrated in the number
of important organisations which liked to be seen celebrating at the North British Hotel.
While international celebrities arrived at Waverley Station, local VIPs went in through
the front door. Anyone who was anyone automatically went to the hotel which could cope
with dinner for 450. The Cockburn Association, which had been horrified by the general bad
taste of the building, came to accept it as a "friendly monster". The North
British clock acted as a focal point for generations of the hurrying public and by
tradition was kept a few minutes fast to give them time to catch their trains.
As a railway hotel the North British settled
down for a long comfortable reputation of being taken for granted: part of the city