The Assembly Rooms, a people’s history

Laura Bennison of The Assembly Rooms will be taking the monthly tours. Picture: Greg Macvean

Laura Bennison of The Assembly Rooms will be taking the monthly tours. Picture: Greg Macvean

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BACK in the day it was an exclusive venue for the city’s nobility, a prestigious by-invite-only landmark most 18th century Edinburgh folk would never have had the chance to explore.

But in the 200 years of George Street’s spectacular Assembly Rooms, thankfully things have gradually moved on, with the venue now open to everyone, for weddings through to conferences.

Commonwealth Festival at Assembly Rooms

Commonwealth Festival at Assembly Rooms

If only walls could talk. Only then would the extent of the impact this iconic building has had on the lives of locals be truly known, from those who met their future husbands or wives there, to those who launched amazing careers amid its ornate and grand architecture.

Of course, its walls are keeping tight lipped about the events they have witnessed, so staff at the city’s museum and galleries service are asking for the public’s help in spilling the beans.

“The Assembly Rooms has seen all sorts of people who have come and gone over the years and we want to get a real sample of what the building meant to these people,” says Laura Bennison, heritage and outreach officer. “And we want to share these memories with the people of Edinburgh.”

The aim is to compile a “people’s history” of the Assembly Rooms, an archive for Edinburgh museums which 
will also be used as a school resource. Already on board is retired teacher Elizabeth Cormie, from Fairmilehead, who got more than she bargained for when she signed up to a prestigious summer waitressing job at the venue in the late 1950s.

“I was training at Atholl Crescent at the time,” Elizabeth explains. “I was about 17 and was asked to waitress at the Assembly Rooms when the Festival Club used it as a meeting place.

“I remember the manager on my first day telling me about a lot of the regulars, including a ‘poor student’ called Alastair who would come in and order nothing but a biscuit and cheese. Well, that said Alastair became my husband.”

For two summers the teenage Elizabeth worked in the Assembly Rooms, often socialising at its many dances with Alastair, before going on to train as a teacher.

“I thoroughly enjoyed working there, but I do remember one time someone left without paying and I had to pay for their bill. I think it cost me the best part of a week’s wages,” she says.

“It’s been more than 50 years since I waitressed there and met Alastair – who did indeed order some Camembert cheese and a biscuit.”

Love was also in the air at the Assembly Rooms for city couple Robert and Elizabeth Blance – affectionately known as Bob and Elma to friends and family – who held their wedding reception at the venue back in November 1953.

Life during the post-war years could be “dull and drab” recalls Bob, but when the young couple stepped into the George Street building to celebrate their marriage with loved ones the “magical” glittering chandeliers and open fires transported them to a “fairyland”.

And although 60 years have passed since the pair took to the Edinburgh Suite to mark the occasion, Elma can still remember the sheer excitement of the day.

“I remember a dear friend saying, ‘Well, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a couple enjoy their wedding day so much Elma’.”

There was no such romantic attachment at the Assembly Rooms for Marchmont producer Kate Craik, but working there for nine years she definitely formed a bond with the building which proved hugely important in the development of her career.

“It was around 1985 when I was asked to go to work at the Assembly Rooms as its manager,” she explains. “Labour had just taken over power from the Conservatives at the council and there were new ideas about the provision of culture and arts in the city.”

Armed with the task of making the venue a year-round centre for entertainment, packed with concerts and shows outside festival season, Kate jumped at the chance.

“I was in my 30s and very enthusiastic,” she laughs. “I remember when I first started the staff there comprised cleaners and some handymen and that was about it. I think I was a bit of a novelty at the start and not taken that seriously. It was such a warren of a building that I could never find the handymen so I could never get things done. It took me quite a bit of time to realise that occasionally they sneaked out the back and nipped off to the pub!

“It was a fantastic building, but very spooky at times, especially as I was quite frequently the last person to leave and I was based at the old caretaker’s flat right at the back. There were rumours of a ghost, but I have to admit I never saw it.

“I would often be the person to lock up the front door on George Street at 3am, which is strange to think of now.”

Kate signed many big names to the stages of the Assembly Rooms, including the likes of Deacon Blue and The Proclaimers, as well as organising the hugely successful Commonwealth Arts Festival in 1986, before going on to found DanceBase, the national centre for dance. Do you have a story to tell about the Assembly Rooms? Contact 07971874711 or email laura.bennison@edinburgh.gov.uk

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