With its grand neoclassical columns echoing the Athenian Temple of Hephaestus, the architectural gem occupying the south face of Edinburgh’s Calton Hill opened its doors to a massive celebration.

It was June, 1829, and as the clouds parted, the sun shone on a winding procession of 700 Royal High School pupils led by magistrates, professors, ministers, High Constables and gentlemen of the city making its way from the Old Town to the beat of military bands and cheers.

Built at a cost of £34,000, Thomas Hamilton’s Greek Doric style vision would give the city its proud title “Athens of the North”. Even its centenary in 1929 sparked city-wide celebration and praise for “one of the brightest gems in Edinburgh’s richly jewelled crown”.

Now, unoccupied for 50 years and costing around £250,000 a year to keep it watertight, it appears that - finally - Edinburgh’s former Royal High School building is on the brink of a new beginning.

The long-running and at times bitter saga that saw bold plans by joint developer Urbanist Hotels and Duddingston House Properties to turn the building into a £75 million luxury hotel rejected by Edinburgh City Council followed by a lengthy and expensive planning appeal, appears within touching distance of being resolved.

“Reports on the planning and listed building consent appeals relating to the former Royal High School were received from the Scottish Government’s Planning and Environmental Appeals Division on 2 June,” confirmed a Scottish Government spokesman.

“The reports and recommendations from the reporters are being considered in detail, and decisions on the appeals will be issued in due course.”

However, its timing has sparked speculation over whether pressure to kickstart the economy by pushing ahead with major development projects may influence the final decision – or if concerns over the collapse in the tourism sector might push the hotel plan off the agenda completely.

Terry Levinthal, director of Edinburgh heritage watchdog, the Cockburn Association, said the impact of Covid-19 on the tourism sector has diluted the argument for turning Hamilton’s architectural gem into a hotel, even further.

“The utter devastation of the city’s tourism and hotel sectors as a result of the covid-19 pandemic is hugely distressing and has seen the virtual collapse of the industry as we know it today,” he said.

“In late 2019 the Edinburgh Hotel Association reported that there was an over-supply of hotel beds based in the city, creating challenging trading conditions for all operators.

“I think it’s fair to say that these changes in the market and the huge impact of Covid-19 changes the business case supporting the proposed conversion of the royal high school into luxury hotel.

“We advocate for Scottish ministers to actually recognise the potential damage to not only the buildings but to the reputation of the city as a world heritage city that these proposals represent and to refuse consent.”

On the other hand, David Orr, Chairman of Urbanist Hotels Ltd, said: "‘We remain ready to progress this long-awaited and significant development and are hopeful for a positive outcome."

The controversial hotel proposals for the building once mooted as a possible base for the Scottish Parliament, first emerged ten years ago after a council-run design contest to determine the future of the building was won by a proposal to create a 150 room ‘arts hotel’.

The move followed seven years of limbo as The Hill Adamson Trust, backed by Sir Sean Connery, desperately tried to raise money to turn it into a photography centre inspired by pioneers David Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson who developed their skills at a studio at Calton Hill.

However, within weeks of the council’s decision, loud criticism emerged of the design’s potential impact, with fears over the risk altering a key historic building placed on Edinburgh’s UNESCO World Heritage Site status, and complaints that it was "fatally flawed" and "insensitive".

One planning chief went so far as to suggest it was “one of the most abhorrent and the most ugly buildings that I’ve ever seen”.

The plans were later revived to curb the size of the extensions and cut the number of hotel beds, however the city council again refused planning permission and listed building consent in August 2017.

Meanwhile, plans emerged from the Royal High School Preservation Trust and St Mary’s Music School to restore the building as the new home for an expanded national music school, with public concert hall and garden.

Backed by figures such as author Alexander McCall Smith and violinist Nicola Benedetti, and with funding by Dunard Fund - believed to be one of the largest philanthropic gifts to Scottish arts and education - the plans received Edinburgh City Council approval in 2016.

Despite the approval, the council’s agreement with the hotel developers means the school would not be able to take over the building until 2022.

According to Cliff Hague, chair of the Cockburn Association, more delays could cause further deterioration of the fabric of the building.

“There are significant question marks over just how the hospitality sector and international tourism are going to fare,” he said.

“I think we have a strong case, but it’s whether the minister will see this as a stepping stone towards economic recovery. There’s also nothing to prevent the developer coming forward with another application, modifying the design in light of changing circumstances.

“It is conceivable that the music school could have been operating by now, and if a further period of delay will be to the detriment of the fabric of the building.”

Meanwhile, Scottish ministers’ decision over the future of the old Royal High School will have a direct impact on hopes to create a world class music school in the city.

A statement from the Royal High School Preservation Trust said: “We could start tomorrow, except for the intransigence of the hotel developers and an unseen contract they have with CEC which gives them the lease on the Old Royal High until 2022. This contract is not publicly available.

“As far as we know, as long as there is an appeal process ongoing, the contract remains in place, unless it is terminated by Scottish ministers.

“We want the Government to support the aspiration to proceed with our plans without further delay.

“This is no longer a local Edinburgh matter, but has become a national issue,” it added.

“This is a once in a lifetime opportunity with an iconic building, philanthropic funding and the chance to create a major cultural and educational hub coming together for the whole of Scotland.”