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The Hot Scots Power 40: James Thomson, the Witchery by the Castle

21 February 2013
The Hot Scots Power 40: James Thomson, the Witchery by the Castle

Ranking: 2

James Thomson - Snapshot

James Thomson OBE is one of Scotland's best-known restaurateurs, with an envied and distinctive portfolio of restaurants, guest suites and, in recent years, a five-star luxury hotel. His first restaurant, the Witchery by the Castle, has become an integral part of the social and hospitality scene in Edinburgh and is credited with revitalising the city's neglected Old Town; while Thomson's trademark opulent and atmospheric design style, sitting alongside great food, wine and service, has garnered many awards and accolades for all his businesses over three decades.

James Thomson - Career guide

Born and raised in Edinburgh, Thomson attended the George Heriot's School in the Old Town where he fell in love with his 17th century surroundings. Despite his parents' initial misgivings, at a young age he settled on a career in hospitality and returned from work experience in Jersey to acquire a series of run-down 16th century tenement buildings near the city's iconic castle. In 1979, on Halloween, he launched the Witchery by the Castle. He was only 20 years old.

By 1989, the Witchery had acquired a worldwide profile that could no longer keep up with customer demand, so Thomson opened a second restaurant, the Secret Garden, in adjacent buildings. At this time, he also created eight individually styled guest suites to complement his restaurants.

Edinburgh's only rooftop restaurant, the Tower, opened in 1998. Housed within the contemporary lines of the modern Museum of Scotland, Thomson has nonetheless stamped it with his quintessential lavish style. Over the years, the Tower has since garnered a raft of awards and accolades including an AA Wine Award for Scotland, a Good Food Guide listing and Wine Spectator Award of Excellence.

In 2004, Thomson bought the Prestonfield House Hotel, where he had worked as a teenage waiter. He embarked on a detailed multi-million-pound refurbishment of the building and in the same year the decadently styled building was relaunched soon making it as an AA top 200 five-star hotel. Rhubarb, his fourth and most opulent restaurant to date, is housed within the hotel.
In 2009 Thomson won the Independent Restaurateur of the Year Catey at Caterer and Hotelkeeper's prestigious annual industry awards.

This year, 2013, will see Thomson enhancing his first venture, the Witchery, by opening of a ninth suite at the restaurant with rooms - and he's planning a 10th as a future development

Since the tender age of 20, when he opened the Witchery and became Scotland's youngest licensee, Thomson has been a significant player on the Scottish hospitality scene. He has successfully designed and managed four of Edinburgh's most talked-about restaurants, building a worldwide reputation for great Scottish food, wine and service, but he has been credited with regenerating Edinburgh's neglected Old Town into a vibrant tourist destination.

Having restored several A-listed buildings, Thomson won the Sunday Times RAIS Regeneration award for his work on the Secret Garden design, its judges citing his sensitive and imaginative use of a historic site. In an effort to continue promoting the Old Town area, Thomson also supported the creation of the Caddies and Witchery Tours, costumed walks to bring tourism to the Old Town streets.

His growing empire means his first year's turnover back in 1979 is now exceeded by that of one day from his present businesses - a testament to his continued creation of opulent, unique dining experiences for his fiercely loyal local and international clientele. Yet, despite the heavy demands of everyday business, Thomson continues to be a proud ambassador for his town and country, involving himself in charitable initiatives and education at all levels.

He supports and funds a number of educational schemes and establishments, including his old school, George Heriot's, and the Liberton High School (also in Edinburgh) - via competitions, culinary training with his chefs and work experience. He's a passionate ambassador for the Prince's Trust in Scotland.

Thomson is just as heavily involved with the hospitality industry across the UK and is a member of the BHA/Restaurateurs Association committee. He is a founder member and past chairman of the Edinburgh Restaurateur's Association, the Scottish Enterprise Innovation Group, the BHA's Scottish Executive Committee, the Scottish Borders Tourist Board and the National Museums of Scotland.

As a director of Springboard Scotland, he is a regular sponsor of the VisitScotland Thistle Awards and, in 1999, endowed the James Thomson Award for Excellence in Customer Service to assist students at Edinburgh's Telford College.
In 2005, James Thomson was awarded an OBE for his services to Scottish hospitality and tourism, and in 2009 he won the Catey for Restaurateur of the Year - Independent.

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