Modern makeover for Scotland's oldest concert hall revealed

St Cecilia's Hall in Edinburgh is to reopen next month after a two-year, �6.5million redevelopment.
 Picture: Neil Hanna
St Cecilia's Hall in Edinburgh is to reopen next month after a two-year, �6.5million redevelopment. Picture: Neil Hanna
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It has been only been home to a handful of shows every year - despite being Scotland’s oldest concert hall and once playing host to Hollywood superstar Grace Kelly.

Now an 18th century venue tucked off the Royal Mile is set for a new lease off life after getting a modern makeover worth £6.5 million.

The oldest concert hall showcases treasures of note
 
Scotland's oldest purpose-built concert venue. Picture: Neil Hanna

The oldest concert hall showcases treasures of note Scotland's oldest purpose-built concert venue. Picture: Neil Hanna

Nearly 500 historic musical instruments spanning more than four centuries have been brought together for the first time in an expanded museum created at St Cecilia’s Hall.

It will be opened up five days a week for the first time, instead of the six hours before the revamp was carried out by Edinburgh University, which bought the building in 1959 to accommodate new additions to its instrument collection.

Its £6.5 million project has transformed the little-known venue, one of the oldest concert halls anywhere in Europe, where Kelly famously came out of retirement during the Edinburgh Festival in 1976.

The overhaul has seen storage spaces and offices turned into galleries to help bring the collection - said to be one of the most important in the world - under the one roof for the first time.

New raised seating has been installed in the new-look oval-shaped auditorium, which has a capacity of up to 200, to make the venue more comfortable and offer better sight-lines for concerts.

Dating back to 1763, it was commissioned by the Edinburgh Musical Society and has also been used as a school, masonic lodge and dance hall.

Kelly had not performed in public for 20 years following her marriage to the Prince of Monaco when she read poetry on four nights at the venue to commemorate America’s bicentennial.

The Scotsman critic Allen Wright wrote: “Grace Kelly was escorted by two gents on to the stage in tuxedos. She was wrapped in a gown of radiant coral and was looking more beautiful than ever.”

Jenny Nex, one of the curators of the instrument collection, said: “The university has been thinking about how to redevelop St Cecilia’s for some time. I was a student in the 1990s and even then I can remember conversations going on about it.

“The idea of the project was really to make the collection much more accessible to the public. The museum was always open before but only for six hours on a Wednesday and a Saturday, so it obviously wasn’t ideal.

“We all partake in music in one way or another, whether as a listener or someone who plays something. It’s a really great collection for people to come and enjoy.

“People will hopefully notice a big difference if they’ve been before.

“The auditorium has a much brighter, fresher feel to it and the displays have been thought about very carefully. Each instrument is very much like a pet or a child to us.”

A new entrance has been created on Niddry Street to help attract visitors to the Old Town into the venue, while the number of concerts staged in the venue each year is expected to be dramatically increased.

Ms Nex added: “St Cecilia’s is known about by people who know about musical instruments and the concerts we have had in the past, but there is probably a huge swathe of people in Edinburgh who just don’t know it is here.

“We’ve tried to address that through our new entrance on Niddry Street, which has a fantastic gate that will be visible from the Royal Mile when it is opened up.

“The previous entrance was down an alleyway off the Cowgate, which wasn’t very appealing, so we will hopefully get a lot more visitors.

“We had a steady trickle of concerts before, but will be doing a lot more. It is a perfect venue for acoutstic instruments that are not particularly loud, and it’s great for spoken word events as well. We’re very keen for anyone that wants to use the building to hire it.”

Jacky MacBeath, the university’s head of museums, said: “The building is a triumph that is both sympathetic to its Georgian heritage and equipped for a modern audience.

“The museum has been meticulously curated to showcase our exquisite instruments and teach people about their significance. Visitors will be immersed in the sounds of our instruments, as students and experts will play them throughout the day, so no two visits will be the same.”

Although the most of the funding for the project has come from the university and its fundraising efforts, it has been backed by the Heritage Lottery Fund and the Edinburgh World Heritage trust to the tine of £800,000 and £100,000 respectively.

Adam Wilkinson, director of Edinburgh World Heritage, said: "We are proud to have been a partner in the conservation of this very special concert hall and exhibition space, which reminds us that Edinburgh has always been, and should remain, a city in which art, music and ideas intermingle and flourish."

Lucy Casot, head of the Heritage Lottery Fund in Scotland, said’s collection of musical instruments is regarded as one of the finest in the world. Thanks to players of The National Lottery, Scotland’s oldest purpose-built concert hall has been transformed so that the collection can be brought under one roof so that many more people can study, perform and enjoy it.”