Ailsa Sheldon met veteran hotelier and restaurateur James Thomson at Prestonfield House in Edinburgh.
For more than 40 years, James Thomson has been laying the groundwork and setting the standards for fine dining in Edinburgh. The love of history, art and theater provided lasting inspiration for the career of this most imaginative restaurateur. Thomson, speaking to Best of Scotland at his flagship venue in Prestonfield House about his career and the changes he has witnessed in Scottish hospitality, has clearly lost none of his passion for his industry.
His introduction to the hotel business took place in the less glamorous section – washing the pan – but that was enough to whet his appetite: “Even working in a small tea room washing dishes, I loved the drama and the theater of the ensemble. I decided at the age of 12 that I was going to get into the hotel business, much to my parents’ disgust.
This was not the career his parents had envisioned for him because “they saw hospitality as a dead end, but I ignored it”. Thomson added: “They sent me to a hotel in Jersey when I was 17, hoping it would make me sick. I worked there during the school holidays and loved it.
His school years also inspired his love for Gothic architecture. Studying with George Heriot in Edinburgh was architecture that captured his imagination the most. “I loved the building and the history of the building, as well as the setting in the shadow of the castle.”
Heriot’s and Prestonfield House were both designed by Sir William Bruce, and Thomson fondly remembers visiting Prestonfield as a young child while his father entertained customers.
At the age of 18, Thomson was dealing with friends birthday parties and at only 20 years old he opened The Witchery, becoming Scotland’s youngest license holder. “I was the chef with three employees and I worked from there,” he explained. “As I was making some money, I bought more of the property and hired a chef to be able to move forward. ”
The hotel scene of the late 1970s was unrecognizable in today’s vibrant culinary landscape. “Most people ate in hotel restaurants, there weren’t a lot of independent restaurants, and the licensing hours were quite archaic,” he said. “Most of the businesses in Hogmanay closed for five or six days. At that time, Edinburgh did not have a conference center, nor the tourist trade that we have now. The old town was quite run down.
Thomson launched The Witchery Murder Mystery Tours, the first ghost tours of the Old Town, to enhance the visitor experience and help bring in diners during the winter months.
As The Witchery grew, Thomson renovated more of the building with a firm commitment to restore and honor its history and style. Temporary trends have never distracted him from this vision. He recalls: “When I opened the Witchery in the 1970s, there were only suede walls, smoked glass and cocktail bars, that kind of era. Instead, I had antique furniture and just liked the craftsmanship of old things, not the value. I loved that someone did it right to start with and that someone has taken care of it over the years.
In 2003, the opportunity arose 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 little love, a little polish and getting back to the basics. life. The Stephenson family approached me to run it – they liked what I had done at The Witchery. Captain Stevenson was 85 and wanted him to fall into good hands, someone who would love him, maintain him and restore him.
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 moldings and plasters, much of which remains today. The house remained a private home until the 1950s, although it hosted many visiting dignitaries and Enlightenment figures, including Benjamin Franklin (a thank-you letter and poem written after his visit are in the archives). “A lot of amazing people have visited the building and it’s nice to think that not much has changed,” said Thomson.
Restoring Prestonfield has been a labor of love, coupled with a strong sense of stewardship. As Thomson explained: “You are the keeper of these things only your whole life, and every time that I have made money I have tried to put it back into the restoration of paintings and paneling. and in buying pieces of furniture that would improve it. I’ve always wanted to leave the world in a better place than I’ve found it.
The hotel industry has experienced a turbulent period over the past two years and is currently suffering from a serious shortage of staff. 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 hospitality careers: “People lived different lives during the pandemic and they want a better work-life balance. The hotel industry can still offer that – conditions are better now than they have ever been. One of the most exciting things about hospitality is that it is a real melting pot of cultures, of all nationalities brought together with transferable skills. People will see hospitality as a great career again.
James Thomson is as passionate about hospitality as he was when he started his career. “You meet people from all walks of life, people you would probably never have the chance to meet – everyone, from people saving to come for a first date to world leaders, creators, inventors and scientists. You never know who will walk through the door.
Creating experiences is a key theme for Thomson – he is proud of the number of families who return to mark important occasions. He also enjoys being able to introduce the city to international visitors and inspire a lot to travel further to Scotland.
He still has other ideas to come up with, adding: “I hate being in the spotlight or on any stage, but at school I loved doing props and sets, so that was my creative side. . I always have to create another sequel or think about my next project.
“Good hospitality is like going to the theater because you can escape the world you live in – and during that time you are in this different world. It’s the whole experience, not just what’s on your plate, but the theater of it – the environment, the atmosphere, the service.
James Thomson received an OBE in 2005 for services to hospitality and tourism in Scotland, and became Deputy Lieutenant of the City of Edinburgh in 2018.
Priestfield Road, EH16 5UT
The witchcraft of the castle
Castlehill, The Royal Mile, EH1 2NF