Ailsa Sheldon met veteran hotelier and restaurateur James Thomson at Prestonfield House in Edinburgh.
For over 40 years, James Thomson has been setting the stage, and the standards, for fine dining in Edinburgh. A love of history, art and drama has provided enduring inspiration for the career of this most imaginative restaurateur. Thomson, speaking to Best of Scotland at his flagship Prestonfield House venue about his career, the changes he has witnessed in Scottish hospitality, clearly hasn’t lost any of his passion for his industry.
His introduction to hospitality was in the least glamorous section – the pot wash – but that was enough to whet his appetite: “Even working in a little tearoom washing dishes, I loved the drama and theatre of the whole thing. I decided at the age of 12 that I was going to go into hospitality, much to my parents’ disgust.”
This wasn’t the career his parents had envisioned for him as “they saw hospitality as a dead end, but I ignored that”. Thomson added: “They sent me to a hotel in Jersey when I was 17 hoping that it would kind of sicken me. I worked there in the school holidays, and I loved it.”
His schooldays also inspired his love of Gothic architecture. Studying at George Heriot’s in Edinburgh it was the architecture that most captured his imagination. “I loved the building and the history of the building, and the setting in the shadow of the castle.”
Heriot’s and Prestonfield House were both designed by Sir William Bruce, and Thomson fondly recalls visiting Prestonfield as a young child while his father entertained clients.
By the age of 18, Thomson was catering for friends’ birthday parties and at just 20 he opened The Witchery, becoming Scotland’s youngest licensee. “I was the chef with three staff, and I worked up from there,” he explained. “As I made a bit of money I bought up more of the property and employed a chef so I could go out front.”
The hospitality scene in the late-1970s was unrecognisable from today’s vibrant food landscape. “Most people ate in hotel restaurants, there weren’t many independent restaurants, and the licensing hours were pretty archaic,” he said. “Most businesses closed at Hogmanay for five or six days. In those days Edinburgh didn’t have a conference centre, or the tourist trade we have now. The Old Town was quite rundown.”
Thomson launched The Witchery murder-mystery tours, the first ghost tours in the Old Town, to enhance the visitor experience and help bring diners in during winter months.
As The Witchery expanded, Thomson renovated more of the building with a firm commitment to restoring and honouring the its history and style. Passing trends never swayed him from this vision. He recalled: “When I opened the Witchery in the 1970s it was all suede walls and smoked glass and cocktail bars, that kind of era. Instead, I had some antique furniture and I just loved the craftsmanship of old things, not the value. I loved the fact that somebody had made it properly to start with and somebody had looked after it over the years.”
In 2003, the opportunity came to acquire Prestonfield House. “I used to attend meetings here and sit and think about the potential – it was always special but it just needed a bit of love, a bit of polish and bringing back to life. The Stephenson family approached me to run it – they liked what I’d done at The Witchery. Captain Stevenson was 85 and wanted it to go into good hands, somebody who would love it, and keep it going and restore it.”
Prestonfield was built in 1687 for the Lord Provost of Edinburgh by Sir William Bruce, and many artists who worked on Holyrood Palace then came to Prestonfield to complete the mouldings and plasterwork – much of which remains today. The house remained a private home until the 1950s though it hosted many visiting dignitaries and Enlightenment figures, including Benjamin Franklin (a thank-you letter and poem written after his visit is in the archive). “Lots of amazing people visited the building and it’s nice to think that not an awful lot has changed,” said Thomson.
The restoration of Prestonfield has been a labour of love, coupled with a strong sense of stewardship. As Thomson explained: “You’re only ever the keeper of these things for your lifetime, and whenever I’ve made money I’ve tried to plough it back into restoring paintings and panelling, and buying bits of furniture that would enhance it. I’ve always wanted to leave the world a better place than I found it.”
Hospitality has had a turbulent time over the last two years and is currently suffering with significant staffing shortages. Thomson said: “We don’t have international staff available so I think that’s going to have to change.” He believes the pandemic has affected people’s perceptions of careers in hospitality: “People have experienced a different life during the pandemic and they want a better work-life balance. Hospitality can still offer that – the conditions are better now than they’ve ever been. One of the most exciting things about hospitality is that it’s a real melting pot of cultures, all nationalities coming together with skills that are transferable. People will see hospitality again as a great career.”
James Thomson is as enthusiastic about hospitality as he was when he started off on his career journey. “You meet people from all walks of life, people you would probably never have a chance to meet – everyone from people saving up to come for a first date, to world leaders, creators, inventors and scientists. You just never know who’s going to walk through the door.”
The creation of experiences is a key theme for Thomson – he is proud of how many families return to mark significant occasions. He also loves being able to introduce the city to international visitors and inspire many to travel further in Scotland.
He still has more ideas to realise, adding: “I hate being on the limelight or any stage but at school I loved doing props and stage design so that was my creative side. I’ve always got to be creating another suite or thinking about my next project.
“Good hospitality is like going to the theatre as you can escape from the world you live in – and for that period of time you are in this different world. It’s the whole experience, not just of what’s on your plate, but the whole theatre of it – the surroundings, the atmosphere, the service.”
James Thomson was awarded an OBE in 2005 for services to hospitality and tourism in Scotland, and became a Deputy Lieutenant of the City of Edinburgh in 2018.
Priestfield Road, EH16 5UT
The Witchery by the Castle
Castlehill, The Royal Mile, EH1 2NF