Restaurateur James Thomson didn't like school. Much of his time was spent looking out of the windows at the old buildings of Edinburgh, fantasising about their history and the people who had lived there. What Thomson did like was working. Aged 12, he became a dishwasher at Crawford's tearooms on North Bridge. "My grandmother had a cashier job there, and they were always short of dishwashers, so I was called in. I loved the theatre of the place – they served morning coffee, lunches and high tea, and had old-fashioned cake stands and waitresses who all mothered me and gave me strawberry tarts to eat. I also helped the chef. I loved things like the smell of the coffee and cheeses, and the whole ambience of the place."
Despite opposition from his family, who wanted Thomson to become a lawyer or a doctor, his experience at Crawford's had given him a taste for working in the hospitality industry. "I decided that I wanted to one day have my own restaurant. My father was a bank manager and he was horrified. Eventually, though, he saw I was serious about it, so they sent me to Jersey to work in a hotel for a season when I was 17 with the proviso that if I enjoyed it I could come back and study hospitality at college."
He loved it and his parents duly relented. Thomson went to study for an Ordinary National Diploma in Catering and Hotel Keeping at Telford College in Edinburgh. "I credit the course hugely with my success. I was quite a shy youngster and they gave me the confidence to belief in myself. I was kind of the black sheep in the family. My sister went into sports medicine and my brother is a lawyer. I wanted to prove to my parents that I could make something of my life. College gave me the skills and the confidence to take the plunge and do it."
So, aged only 20 and with savings from his dishwashing jobs supplemented by money he had earned catering for friends' parties and a loan from the bank, Thomson established The Witchery by the Castle in a derelict building in Edinburgh's Old Town, one of the buildings in fact that used to get his imagination going when he was at school.
The Witchery is now 30 years old and enjoys a worldwide reputation. Thomson has expanded his collection of restaurants to include the rooftop Tower Restaurant and his historic hotel, Prestonfield, the only hotel in the city to be awarded the AA's ultimate accolade of five red stars. "When I was at college, I worked in Prestonfield House. It's a wonderful old establishment and I had a dream of buying it and doing something with it. I bought it six years ago and I then spent the next few years restoring it," he says.
Thomson, who started his career with a staff of three and now employs more than 250 people, passionately believes in further education. With this in mind, he is a significant sponsor of an annual exchange trip between Edinburgh students and the François Rabelais College in Lyon, France, giving students and lecturers hands-on experience in Michelin-starred restaurants in France's culinary capital. "Many of the students haven't left Scotland before, so for a lot of them it is a huge and wonderful experience to understand French culture and see the real passion the French have for food and ingredients. A few are even offered jobs when they are over there." He also sponsors an award for excellence in customer care, a cash prize that is given to one student each year at Telford College. "There are lots of prizes in hospitality for all kinds of things, but not really for customer service."
Being named as an Association of Colleges gold award winner in 2009 means a great deal to Thomson. Only six former college students are given the award each year, and Thomson was nominated by Telford. "It's a wonderful honour to be recognised by your peers and by the college. I was very proud that they thought I was worthy, especially when you look at some of the previous winners. It's amazing – you forget so many people have been through further education and done so well in industry."
In fact, Thomson doesn't rule out going back to college one day. "It's great to go to college and brush up your skills, even for your own use. I've got friends who are going to brush up their language skills or learn how to grow vegetables or use computers. There are so many wonderful things you can do."