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The Edinburgh Balmoral


Roots in the Railway

To see how deep the hotel roots lie in Waverely Station you have only to stand at Platform 19 where trains leave on the hour for Kings Cross, London. The journey time has almost halved - from eight hours to four-and-a-half - steam has given way to electricity and trains now compete with aircraft and the motor car rather than (as yet anyway) a rival railway service. But in the arches of the station wall you can still see the place where trains delivered coat to feed the insatiable boilers of the hotel. In return, from the same standpoint the boilers pumped steam to start the heaters of the sleeper carriages. The railway brought people and provisions and the hotel fed and watered the trains in a partnership of mutual dependence which was to last 80 years.

View from North British Hotel from the tower looking North-East
View from North British Hotel from the tower looking North-East

Long before the North British Railway Company began blasting into the wall of rock behind Waverley Station, however, a warning was issued to shareholders. "Large hotel traffic does not mean profit", wrote D. Hill Murray to the Evening News in 1885, "the hotel will be constructed in most sumptuous manner regardless of cost to shareholders". Besides, he pointed out, "The Caledonian have a much better site and they will follow suit".

Both statements proved to be prophetic. No expense was spared in creating the new hotel and it would be a long time before the flow of 40,000 visitors each year even covered the costs of running a construction which devoured coal and coke by up to 200 tons a month. But Mr Murray had missed the real point. The North British Station Hotel was never intended to be merely a hotel, it was to be a monument to the railway company, the grand eye-catching "station" they had never been permitted to build above ground. It would be their equivalent of the St Pancras or York Central Station that the ancient laws of Edinburgh had never allowed them to build in the sensitive Waverley site within view of the powerful Governor and Directors of the Bank of Scotland on the Mound. Every time a signal box or office reared its ugly head 30 feet above ground level the Bank ordered it to be removed.

View from North British Hotel from the tower looking west along Princess Street
View from North British Hotel from the tower looking west along Princess Street

So the hotel, strategically situated out of the Bank's firing line, was a physical and political achievement. What's more the NBR beat the Caledonian to it - the rival hotel opened at the other end of Princess Street in 1903 and even now the sense of rivalry lingers, a legacy of fierce competition between two railway companies who sometimes literally shoved each other off the line in the determination to get there first.

George Wieland was the man who saw the potential of a hotel in Princess Street. An NBR company secretary who "retired" to the board in 1890, Wieland threw himself into developing what was then called Waverley Station Hotel - not just for the capital of Scotland but as the centre of a European network.

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