James Thomson Biography
James Thomson, Scotland’s best-known restaurateur in now enjoying the fourth decade of his first restaurant, the renowned the Witchery by the Castle. Opened on Halloween 1979, the Witchery is probably now Scotland’s most famous restaurant and restaurant-with-rooms.
Over the decades the Witchery has become a favourite haunt for celebrities in the city, visitors to Edinburgh and its fiercely loyal local clientele. It has been joined by a growing collection of distinctive hotel and restaurant properties including the rooftop Tower Restaurant, opulent Rhubarb and the startlingly decadent five star hotel at Prestonfield. All share the Thomson hallmarks of magical experiences – created with passion and delivered with style!
The restaurant he founded in a historic but near-derelict basement in the Castlehill was a huge boost to a neglected area. The Witchery has since seen prestigious neighbours including the Scottish Parliament, Edinburgh International Festival, the Scotch Whisky Heritage Centre and the Edinburgh Military Tattoo establish their headquarters there in an increasingly vibrant and historic district. Established with a staff of just three, a team of over 250 now work with him across his collection and his first year’s turnover is exceeded each day.
James was born and educated in Edinburgh, attending George Heriot’s School. It was here it Heriot’s magical seventeenth-century surroundings that James saw and grew to love the historic Old Town of Edinburgh, from which the core of his business would grow. Daydreaming at Heriot’s gave James a prime view of one of the derelict sixteenth century tenements that he would later restore and transform into one of the world’s most distinctive restaurants. He is now proud to be a Governor at Heriot's.
In his teens, a Saturday job at the legendary Edinburgh Crawford's Tearooms was his introduction to the hospitality industry, an alternative to a paper round (those early mornings didn’t suit!). Hospitality (or catering as it was then called), was held in low esteem, but it quickly became a passion for James. Despite initial parental misgivings, they arranged for James to gain some experience abroad and shortly after he became Scotland's youngest licensee with the creation of the Witchery by the Castle in 1979.
The Witchery by the Castle 1979
Established by James in 1979, the Witchery quickly grew into Edinburgh's best-known restaurant developing a worldwide reputation for exceptional Scottish food, wine and service within the most unique and atmospheric of settings. Always a favourite haunt of celebrities and visitors to the city, the Witchery is highly regarded by its fiercely loyal local clientele and must rank as one of the most photographed restaurants in the world. Over successive years James has lavished time and investment on the historic Witchery building, with major external refurbishment to the historic A-listed stonework of the Witchery building taking place in 2002, a project that restored the Castlehill frontage of this charming 16th century building.
Creating the Secret Garden 1989
The unique concept of creating magical dining experiences within unique and atmospheric settings was popular and soon the Witchery’s following was such that guests were frequently turned away. By 1989 it became obvious that demand from guests to dine at the Witchery was so great that it could not be accommodated, so James commissioned a second restaurant to be built on a derelict schoolyard adjacent to the Witchery.
Incorporating a wealth of salvaged architectural material, including an early sixteenth century doorway from the Duke of Gordon's House and a spectacular sixteenth-century Scottish vernacular painted ceiling, the Secret Garden soon won The Sunday Times RIAS Regeneration Award for it's sensitive and imaginative use of an historic site. Rapidly becoming one of the most popular restaurants in Scotland, the Secret Garden was described as the prettiest restaurant ever by Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber and was named the Domecq La Ina Most Civilized Dining room in Scotland. The Secret Garden and Witchery continue to be among the most popular destination restaurants in Scotland with tables frequently booking up weeks in advance.
Costumed Walking Tours
James was aware that visitors to Edinburgh were frequently looking for more information about the historic but often neglected Old Town, so he supported the creation of the Caddies & Witchery Tours. These were Scotland’s first costumed walking tours. Three decades later they still lead tours that leave from outside of the Witchery every evening and have become a memorable part of thousands of visitors Edinburgh experience. They have been instrumental in establishing similar costumed tours in locations throughout Britain and beyond.
Creating the Witchery Suites
Demand for the Witchery’s unique style led to the creation of a growing series of uniquely luxurious, quirky and sumptuous suites allowing guests to fully revel in the Witchery style. Located in historic buildings above and adjacent to the Witchery, they satisfy guest's demand for a longer experience in such surroundings and create a home for James' growing collection of antiques.
Starting with the atmospheric Inner Sanctum, then later the Old Rectory, Vestry, Library, Sempill, Guardroom and Armoury were added. There are now eight in this fascinating collection of unique suites - the Heriot was the latest addition in 2010. They have become the ultimate destination for visitors to the city who are keen to avoid the bland uniformity of hotels and regularly become the Edinburgh residence of visiting celebrities. Such is the demand for these spectacular and opulent suites that guests frequently book a year in advance in order to stay on the date of their choice!
Such is their uniqueness that they have generated a mass of worldwide publicity for Edinburgh and Scotland, on TV, the web and in many publications including Cosmopolitan, Vogue, Hello, Elle and the New York Times. Named as one of the seven wonders of the hotel world by Cosmopolitan Magazine, as Scotland's Most Romantic Hotel and by Men's Health Magazine as the most romantic destination in the UK, they have been judged the sexiest hotel suites in the Hotel of the Year Awards. With opulent textiles, masses of antiques and stunningly theatrical décor they are regularly booked-up by guests months in advance and have become amongst the most photographed rooms in the UK.
Edinburgh's rooftop Tower Restaurant
Sites that appeal to Thomson’s unique style are rare and even rarer in a modern building. In 1998 Thomson saw an opportunity in the landmark new Museum of Scotland which was then under construction nearby. By 1998 both the Witchery and Secret Garden were providing hospitality to over 100,000 guests annually and were close to capacity, so the opportunity to create a new restaurant was welcome.
The landmark Museum of Scotland then under construction was entirely contemporary in style, but it took its inspiration from the Old Town that James had done much to regenerate. He impressed the Trustees of the National Museums of Scotland with his ambitious vision of providing world-class food, wine and service within exceptional and unique venues and Thomson's concept of a destination restaurant, rather than a cafe, was a museum first.
Opened on St Andrew’s Day 1998, the Tower has gathered awards, accolades and fans in large numbers ever since. The Tower rapidly became Scotland's most talked about restaurant, received widespread critical acclaim, and was named the hottest table in Edinburgh by critic AA Gill. The Tower followed the Witchery's trend, gathering an impressive array of awards including the AA Wine Award for Scotland, a Michelin entry, a Good Food Guide listing and Wine Spectator Awards of Excellence and has become a much-loved Edinburgh institution.
Entirely contemporary in style, but glamorous, chic and oozing quiet luxury, the Tower has become a favourite of politicians, celebrities, visitors to the city and locals alike. The Tower quickly became another Edinburgh’s must see – regarded as much for its famed food, wine and service as for the awesome Castle view!
Edinburgh’s first and finest rooftop restaurant remains a first in restaurant terms too. The Tower remains the only destination restaurant operating daily within a museum of gallery in the UK - a feat neither the Dome, Tate Modern nor the National Gallery have matched.
Restaurateur to Hotelier – creating Prestonfield
In 2003 an exceptionally rare opportunity presented itself to Thomson. The owners of Prestonfield House approached him having been impressed with his unique approach to hospitality and growing reputation as Scotland’s pre-eminent restaurateur. He had worked there as a student waiter when at college in the 1970’s and had been entranced by this historic A-listed mansion in Edinburgh ever since. By 2003 a dowdy, faded and rarely visited hotel, Prestonfield had never been on the open market since it was built in 1687 and was too good an opportunity to miss!
Now the owner of another truly unique property, Thomson set about a detailed and lavish multi-million restoration that would see Prestonfield become “the antidote to the bland uniformity of hotels” and a unique new luxury destination hotel for Scotland. Located within the hotel he created Rhubarb, his latest destination restaurant and the most opulent to date!
Prestonfield was astoundingly bold, colourful, opulent and dramatic. Above all, it was fun! It astounded the press and critics following its high-profile opening with a star-studded dinner for the entire cast of the MTV Music Awards in November 2004.
Hip-hop style and rock star chic met in the most dramatic of settings that sent critic’s searching for superlatives. For Time Out it was “beyond compare”, Tatler saw “Divine decadence” and “Triple A-rated spoil me factor” whilst Conde Nast Traveller suggesting it was “So extravagant it’s like walking onto the set of some flamboyant costume drama”. Edinburgh’s most indulgent retreat had arrived! Five stars, a clutch of awards and a crowd of A-list celebrity admirers quickly followed, with Prestonfield becoming Scotland’s most talked about hotel!
Thomson's basic innovative concept was to give each guest a magical experience where each of the elements of food, wine, service, location and decor all combine to create truly magical dining experience. First done with his Witchery, it has been a basic concept in each of his subsequent projects and constant innovation has been a hallmark ever since.
He was ahead of other restaurants installing specialist EPOS systems to process diner’s orders and bills discreetly, whilst discreet pagers inform the kitchen of guest’s orders. Uniquely he has established a state-of-the-art call centre to allow all guest enquiries for his restaurants to be dealt with centrally by a highly skilled team of reservation specialists using specially developed reservation software.
For guests looking to book online he was an early investor in websites that have given each of his venues a 24-hour worldwide presence. Around 2,000 visitors use his websites daily – approaching a million visitors annually - with an increasing number using his portal site www.edinburghsbestrestaurants.com in addition to www.thewitchery.com, www.tower-restaurant.com, www.rhubarb-restaurant.com and www.prestonfield.com.
James Thomson's restaurants became one of the first restaurants in the UK to offer real-time table reservations. Online, he used the latest technology to provide a truly old-fashioned level of service to guests - an ongoing Thomson trademark.
James's long-term commitment to the industry was recently recognised by a Hospitality Industry Trust Industry Achievement Award and he holds a prestigious Scottish Tourist Board's Thistle Awards Manager of the Year Award. Business excellence is high on Thomson's agenda and he works hard to demonstrate that quality hospitality and tourism business are key areas in a thriving Scottish economy. A Company of the Year winner, Thomson's leadership saw the Witchery become the first independent restaurant to achieve Investors in People status in Scotland and has been highly commended by the Quality Scotland Awards for Business Excellence. Uniquely his Company was the only Scottish or hospitality-based Company elected to the BT Vision 100 Index of the UK's 100 most visionary organisations.
Each of Thomson’s enterprises are winners of numerous awards and accolades and full lists of these numerous awards can be found on their respective websites.
Despite the demands of a growing collection of distinctive and successful businesses in Scotland, James remains an enthusiastic ambassador for Scotland, Edinburgh and the wider tourism and hospitality industries. He is actively involved in a range of quality improvement and charitable initiatives. His passion and drive for quality and innovation saw his become the first independent restaurants in Scotland to be accredited as Investors in People as well as Company of the Year in addition to a raft of other awards. Passionate about delivering exceptional experiences to visitors to Scotland, he has endowed the James Thomson Award for Excellence in Customer Service, which is presented annually to hospitality students at Edinburgh’s Telford College.
As an active ambassador for Scotland, James vigorously promotes the best of the Scottish hospitality industry. He is a great enthusiast for Disney's world-renowned approach to customer care and he has encouraged a range of tourism business to learn from the best including leading study tours to the Disney Institute in Florida. He often speaks on the lessons that can be learned from Disney approach and encourages his staff and others to learn from the best. In 2002 in conjunction with other partners he launched Castlehill Christmas, a joint initiative to bring business to local tourism businesses at what was a traditionally quiet time of the year for tem with a dramatic architectural lighting installation and a programme of events focussed on Castlehill. James was a key member of the finance committee raising over £300,000 in sponsorship to bring the prestigious Meeting Planners International Conference to Edinburgh in 2004, an international event that will bring huge benefits for the city and Scotland.
James is a board member of the recently BHA/Restaurateurs Association Committee and was previously a member of the BHA National Restaurant Panel. He was a founder member and past Chairman of the Edinburgh Restaurateurs Association, member of the Edinburgh Tourism Action Group, member of the British Hospitality Association Scottish Executive Committee, he also works on the steering committee of the Scottish Culinary Excellence Awards/Federation of Scottish Chefs, so commits a great deal of time to general industry improvements out with the running of his own businesses.
James has worked closely with numerous public and private sector organisations including the Scottish Enterprise Innovation Group, the Scottish Borders Tourist Board and the National Museums of Scotland, working to improve the standards of Scotland's hospitality industry and to raise our customer care to a world-beating standard. In 2005 he was awarded an OBE for his services to Scottish hospitality and tourism.
As an industry leader he frequently speaks publicly to promote tourism and hospitality issues and his restaurants maintain a high media profile in Scotland and worldwide. He has written a food column in The Herald newspaper and speaks often at industry events. By making the each of his properties regularly available to the media, he helps to promote the publication of many positive quality images of Scottish hospitality in dozens of publications annually including Vogue, Hello, Elle, Cosmopolitan and the New York Times as well as on TV around the world and on the world wide web.
Encouraging talent into an exciting industry is a personal crusade. James supports and funds a number of educational initiatives at primary, secondary and further education levels, including supporting students in both George Heriot’s and Liberton High schools with cookery competitions, training with our chefs and work experience within his restaurants. Recently he was delighted to see a student from Liberton High School reach the Scottish final of the Future Chef of the Year.
Since 1999 he has endowed the James Thomson Award for Outstanding Customer Service that recognises and financially assists a student who has shown outstanding commitment to excellence in customer service during their studies at Edinburgh's Telford College each year. He continues to be a significant sponsor of an annual exchange trip between Edinburgh students and the Francois Rabelais College in Lyon, giving up to 20 students and lecturers hands-on experience in Michelin-starred restaurants in France's culinary capital.
His activities and the positive and high-profile promotion of hospitality as an exciting and rewarding career choice continue to encourage a number of promising students to join the hospitality industry. He is a supporter of Springboard Scotland the organisation that promotes careers in hospitality and tourism to potential recruits and to influencers.
Career and Staff Development
James has made his own impact by inspiring the careers of thousands of staff over the twenty-five years of growth of his operations. When he established the Witchery it was with a staff of three – now over 250 work with him in a diverse team that includes IT, marketing, reservations and maintenance specialists alongside electrician’s, gardeners and the of the more predictable careers of chefs, waiters, porters and managers.
Thomson is strongly committed to the development of staff skills at every opportunity. Following the first of several visits to Florida's Disney Institute, the acknowledged world leaders in customer care, he instituted a new mindset in the company, encouraging staff to constantly seek to exceed guest's already high expectations. Staffs are now empowered to deal with any guest request and are personally responsible for delivering each guest's total satisfaction. James encourages his team to develop rewarding long-term careers within his dynamic and growing Company so staff turnover is significantly below the industry norm and many of his staff have been with him long-term. Unusually a large proportion of staff have returned to work with him again after periods gaining experience with other organisations at home and abroad.
As the first independent restaurant to be accredited as an Investor in People in 1998, this commitment to staff development has been further recognised with the recent re-accreditation of the Witchery and the inclusion of its sister Tower Restaurant with this recognised industry standard. His latest acquisition, Prestonfield is currently committed to gaining this accreditation. He has implemented an innovative internal awards scheme, The Witchery Wow! Awards to recognise and reward exceptional efforts or results by staff at all levels of the company. These frequently take the form of an opportunity to enjoy some of the Thomson hospitality product as either restaurant diner or suite guest, but can include a foreign study tour of trip.
James is a passionate and active ambassador for the Prince's Trust in Scotland and a number of has mentored a number of their clients as they make the move from the bleakest of lives through training and into skilled employment in his restaurants.
Supporting the wider community, especially in Edinburgh's historic Old Town, has a place too. James acts as a Trustee of the Old Town Charitable Trust, A member of the Board of the Queen's Hall and supporter of the advisory group of the local homelessness initiative, the Edinburgh Streetwork Project. Through the Tower Restaurant he supports an under-10 football team, whilst the Witchery supports a local community football team and the National Judo Academy. The innovative Just for Starters scheme that James pioneered as a collaborative venture brought a number of people with difficult backgrounds into the industry by harnessing the resources of a number of public and private sector organisations including BT, the police and Army together to support, educate and mentor them in the transition from homelessness to employment.
As sole shareholder, James is able to commit to returning a significant proportion of the Company's profits back to the community through ongoing support of charities including The Prince's Trust, Barnardos,Hospitality Industry Trust, Crusaid, Shelter, The Army Benevolent Fund, St Columba's Hospice, Save the Children, Prostate Scotland and the Royal Lyceum Theatre. Another scheme sees an even wider range of charities supported with regular donations of dining or accommodation vouchers from the restaurants for organisations to use for their own fundraising purposes.
Halloween 2004 saw the Witchery’s 25th anniversary celebrated with a gala dinner at Prestonfield hosted by James that will raise significant funds for Sight Savers International and aspires to restore the sight of over 1000 children.
James has also used his talent for creating exceptional dining experiences within the events and banqueting sector, creating visually and memorable gastronomic feasts for high-profile corporate clients including the Herald & Zurich Financial Services annual televised Politician of the Year Awards, the Guardian and the New York City Ballet. He leads a team that have produced bespoke events for up to 1500 guests at prestige venues throughout Scotland and beyond including Edinburgh Castle, the Royal Museum, The National Gallery, Edinburgh International Conference Centre and Glasgow's Bute Hall. Now these skills are available to clients in his own spectacular venue – the restored circular Georgian stables at Prestonfield – a flexible and glamorous space that can seat dinners of 500 guests in great style. He has also undertaken a number of high-profile consultancies for other major companies within the hospitality industry.
Now in the Witchery's fourth decade, his aim of creating an antidote to the bland uniformity of hotels has been surpassed at Prestonfield and his collection of restaurants have developed a worldwide reputation as exceptional places to visit. Whilst Thomson can be seen daily at the Witchery, Tower and Prestonfield adding many of the personal touches that make his venues so exceptional.
James lives in Edinburgh where he is restoring a sixteenth-century apartment in Castlehill as a home for his ever-growing collection of antiques, paintings, militaria and a growing bespoke wardrobe. His passion for the buildings of the Old Town continues having just completed a huge restoration project for the Witchery that has included a massive undertaking revealing the original of external sixteenth-century stonework long-hidden under layers of cement render. A keen traveller, he makes regular trips abroad to be inspired by the best the world can offer and constantly evaluates locations both here an abroad for possible addition to his growing collection of unique properties.
For images or opportunities to interview James Thomson please contact the Witchery, Tower and Prestonfield’s PR Manager Mark Rowley firstname.lastname@example.org or 0131 225 0976