September 19, 2011


David Ellis

ONCE they were slums that those down on their luck would wait agonising months, often years, to get out of – today the most affluent wait up to nine months to get into them.

They are the-now just-eight suites in an extraordinary boutique hotel in Edinburgh, Scotland called The Witchery by the Castle. Almost in the shadow of Edinburgh Castle, it is a near-fantasy creation of entrepreneur James Thomson, who a half-century ago would look down from his schoolroom on these derelict once-slums and daydream some day of rejuvenating them back to their former magnificence.

James Thomson was a pupil of the George Heriot's School, an equally extraordinary place that was founded in the mid-1600s through a grant of GBP25,000 (tens of millions of dollars in today's terms) by-then royal goldsmith, George Heriot for Edinburgh's "puir fatherless bairns" – "poor, fatherless children."

Heriot died in 1624 and although construction started in 1628 it was not until 1659 that his school opened with just thirty boys. It later became fee-paying, and is now co-educational with 1,700 pupils including free places still for a large number of orphans the school calls "Foundationers;" scholastically it is possibly Scotland's most successful institution.

After leaving as a student in the middle of the last century, James Thomson entered the hospitality industry and set about bringing to reality his dream for the now-derelict 16th century tenement slums – known as Boswell's Court – that his old alma mater once looked down on.

He bought one of the ancient buildings and on Halloween in 1979 opened a restaurant there that he called The Witchery by the Castle. With much of its interior restored to its original 16th century grandeur, furniture hand-crafted to refIect its ancestry, and with exceptional Scottish fare of Angus beef, lamb, game, briny-fresh seafood platters and even haggis, it was an instant success

So much so that VIPs from not only Scotland and England were soon beating a path to its door, but so too were others from around the world. Within a decade, and with so many diners being constantly turned away by the House Full sign, Thomson decided to build a second restaurant within the schoolyard and classrooms of a one-time school adjacent to The Witchery.

He called it The Secret Garden and it too became another instant success – inspiring him to go one further and buy-up more of the ancient tenements and create what he calls "a restaurant with rooms, rather than hotel rooms with a restaurant."

His boutique hotel is an extraordinary architectural masterpiece described by Cosmopolitan Magazine as "one of the seven wonders of the hotel world," its eight suites each a melange of the dark and gothic, the theatrical and romantic, the indulgent and the quirky...  magnificently luxurious repositories for James' constantly growing collection of antiques.

And theatrical. The Heriot suite, for instance, named after James Thomson's old school is entered through a black and gold hallway that opens into a sitting room with oak panelling, a giant bedroom with four-poster adorned with green and gold velvet hangings, walk-in wardrobes, and a bathroom that resembles a chapel with gothic ceiling and mirror-clad walls.

The Library Suite features a gothic oak bookcase, part of which opens as a secret doorway into a bathroom whose walls are bookcases filled with antique tomes, while the Old Rectory Suite – once James' study – has a separate bathroom with red and gilt leather walls, and a polished silver bateau bath for two…

And the Guardroom Suite, one of the largest with views in four directions across Edinburgh Old Town and to the hills of Fife in the distance, features a great tapestry-hung bed, a marble-floored bathroom, a panelled dining hall and hidden kitchen, a sitting room complete with open fire – even a centre-piece red and gold Guardsman's uniform on a stand complete with bearskin hat.

Then there's the Inner Sanctum, Sempill, Vestry, the Armoury…

Little wonder you can wait nine months to get a suite at The Witchery for a weekend – and that they're the most-photographed hotel rooms in the UK.

Suites cost from GBP325-350 (AU$495-534) per night including a bottle of Champers on arrival, mineral water, a lavish breakfast hamper delivered to your suite with the morning paper, and taxes.

For details go onto


 Photo captions:


[] ONCE slums, the simple entrance to The Witchery by the Castle belies the wonders that await inside.


[] THE Guardroom Suite – for acting-out your fantasies?


[] THE Secret Garden restaurant: finest Angus beef, lamb, game, and briny-fresh seafood platters…


[] NOW this is a bathroom.


(Photos: The Witchery by the Castle)


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