A revival movement: Edinburgh World Heritage Site helps regenerate Scotland's oldest music hall

St. Cecelia’s Hall, Scotland’s oldest purpose-designed concert hall, has just received a £100,000 grant from Edinburgh World Heritage Site to support a £6.5million refurbishment overseen by Edinburgh University.

The project is intended to restore the building to its former eminence within the city’s musical community, and to establish the building as a world class centre of research, performance, teaching and the study of historical musical instruments. The building has been owned by the University since 1959, when storage was needed for what is now known as the Raymond Russell collection – a rare series of early keyboard instruments bequeathed to the university following Russell’s untimely death.

The 1763 building was originally a prominent cultural landmark with an entrance decorated in classical portico, a ceiling cupola and a series of gilded columns leading to a hidden courtyard. It is now home to The Museum of Musical Instruments, which despite holding more than 5,000 rare items has faded into relative anonymity with much of the city population. During the 1785 construction of Edinburgh’s now iconic South Bridge, the noise from the site rendered concerts impossible. In the years intervening, the venue was variously used as a pub, Baptist Church, Freemasons Hall, a school and a ballroom.  It is hoped that the regeneration programme will engage the wider public with the building and its rich history, as well as broaden the appeal of its collections.

The plans include architectural updates to the oval concert room’s staging platforms and tiered seating arrangement. Adam Wilkinson, Director of Edinburgh World Heritage, touched upon the wider social goals of the project, noting its use in changing the way people perceive different parts of the city and its culture, “[The plans] will help change our perception of Niddry Street as the back of the South Bridge, and will encourage residents and visitors to further explore the city. We are thrilled to be supporting this initiative for an important and living part of this city’s musical heritage, and are excited by how it links to other initiatives to lift the Royal Mile out of Old Town.”

Jacky MacBeath, Head of Museums and Deputy Head of Centre for Research Collections, said: “The support of Edinburgh World Heritage is paramount in this project. As part of the UNESCO’s World Heritage Site and located in the heart of Edinburgh’s Old Town, the backing of EWH has been a huge boost to the project which focusses on restoring St Cecilia’s Hall as one of Old Town’s most important musical places. St Cecilia’s not only appreciates the support of EWH in our building project, but also in the innovative educational work currently being developed through the ‘Enlightenment Project’.”

The grant will fund part of a wider conservation project at the site, to restore the original stonework, and extensive repairs to the roof, stage and seating platforms. The plans include reinstating the original public entrance to the Hall, and redesigning the galleries connected to the main chamber. Once the project is completed, performances will increase and museum opening hours will be extended.

Although the main museum is closed until the end of the regeneration project, the building’s Reid Concert Hall Museum of Instruments is open to the public on Saturdays between 10am and 1pm and on Wednesdays between 3pm and 5pm.