Fate of old Kelso High

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Fictional detective Hercule Poirot and exotic Mayan temples were referred to during a discussion on the fate of Kelso High School.

Last week’s meeting of the town’s community council saw members briefed on possible options for the existing school buildings, soon to be replaced by a new £21.8million secondary on land off Angraflat Road. At the latest meeting of Scottish Borders Council planning committee, officials said the proposed new school would provide “a statement of quality and presence” in Kelso.

However, it seems the new structure will be hard placed to top the sense of quality and presence of the current central building which dates from 1939 and is a classic example of the influence of the art deco movement on Scottish architecture and the design of public buildings of the period.

Community councillors heard SBC’s preferred option for the site once it is no longer needed as a school was for a private developer to transform it – but retaining the original central B-Listed 1930s building – into a 62-home mix of houses and flats.

“You can almost see the present building being apartments, with a sweeping drive up to it – it would be very Poirot-esque,” said Andrew Drummond-Hunt from SBC planning department, referring to author Agatha Christie’s famous Belgian sleuth of the 1930s.

Members heard that the architects’ practice which designed the current main school building, Reid & Forbes of Edinburgh, had been greatly influenced by the art deco movement, as evidenced not just by the school’s exterior, but also by the detailing of the interior, including decorative fixtures and fittings such as metal staircases.

Kelso High School.

Kelso High School.

The practice also designed the iconic Chirnside Primary School, another art deco property, but one with an A Listing from Historic Scotland.

Reid & Forbes is also widely believed to have been influenced by South American architectural styles such as those of the Mayan and Aztec civilisations.

In the conservation statement on Kelso High School, put together by Simpson & Brown Architects back in 2012 for SBC, the school’s important features were documented.

And Simpson & Brown says there are clear North American influences – the late Charles McKean, a former Professor of Scottish Architectural History at the University of Dundee as well as a former chief executive of the Royal Incorporation of Architects in Scotland, suggested the pioneering Frank Lloyd Wright in particular – and curiously, the South American-inspired detailing.

Kelso High School.

Kelso High School.

This, according to the statement, is variously described as Mayan or Aztec, but there are also hints towards Scots Baronial or Gothic Revival in the various niches, pinnacles and half columns.

Meanwhile, empty statuary niches suggest a reference to the Scottish Reformation, and perhaps the ecclesiastical history of Kelso.

Reid & Forbes designed a number of other schools in the Borders, including ones at Innerleithen, Jedburgh, Morebattle, Trinity Primary in Hawick and Hobkirk.

Historic Scotland has endorsed housing as a suitable use of the site, although Mark Douglas, SBC principal heritage and design officer, told the community council there would need to be some discussions with the adjacent rugby club on coach parking and access issues.

Community council vice-chair Dean Weatherston asked how long it would be before the old high school was put on the open market.

“Some disused high schools have been sitting empty for a considerable length of time,” he said.

Mr Drummond-Hunt replied, saying that at the tail end of the worst global recession for decades, the Borders was one of the last areas of Scotland to witness any strong signs of recovery.

“But we have had approaches from developers for schools – someone is interested in developing the old Earlston High School for example – so hopefully things are beginning to turn round,” he said.

“I’d imagine the Kelso site going on the market sometime in spring or summer of 2015, based on it being 18 months before the new school opens,” added Mr Drummond-Hunt.

Mr Douglas pointed out that any developer taking on the old school site might opt for a phased development.

“That could mean the site being developed over a five or 10-year period – it’s unlikely a builder will come along and build all 62 units at one time. And it has to be remembered all these options are only indicative of what could be done on this site,” he explained.

Local Scottish Borders councillor Tom Weatherston said the local authority’s favoured housing option was also the one he was most enthusiastic about.

“Although I wouldn’t kill the hotel idea stone dead,” he said referring to another option for the location.