Jenny Hunter: Halls worth restoring for good of the community

In towns across Scotland there is often a gathering place, a hub for the community to come together for celebrations and civic matters. Usually known as the '˜burgh hall', some are grand and some more humble but all are a focal point of the local community '“ a common ground.

Burgh halls help towns and communities to gather and live together
Burgh halls help towns and communities to gather and live together

Dunoon Burgh Hall is one of those places. Situated on the Cowal peninsula, Dunoon is a characterful Scottish seaside town once synonymous with day-trippers and holidaymakers from Glasgow ‘going doon the watter’ for a summer break, with Dunoon Burgh Hall dominating one end of the high street.

Designed in the Scots Baronial style by Glasgow architect Robert Alexander Bryden and completed in 1874, Dunoon Burgh Hall was the cultural heartbeat of the town and, as the first theatre in Argyll, was a much loved venue throughout the region over more than 100 years.

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The building began to fall into disrepair during the 1970s. What was once a testament to the community’s spirit and energy steadily declined.

In what could be a model for other towns across Scotland with similarly loved but run-down venues, it was the Dunoon community that banded together to harness its collective strengths to firstly save and then rejuvenate its Burgh Hall.

The John McAslan Family Trust, working alongside a local community group, secured the ownership of the property for a token £1 in 2008 from a developer, and saved it from demolition before restoring the building to its former glory.

The transformation of Dunoon Burgh Hall is a significant cultural place-making project, creating a new focal point for the local community and beyond. Nearly 10 years later, this transformative project has been realised following the success of a major fundraising campaign that secured in excess of £3.5 million raised from charitable donations and funding awards, including significant sums from the Heritage Lottery Fund, Creative Scotland and the John McAslan Family Trust along with generous support from Highlands and Islands Enterprise, Historic Environment Scotland and others.

After this decade-long, locally-led campaign and regeneration project, Dunoon Burgh Hall re-opened last month as a vibrant centre for contemporary arts. The project is a story of community spirit and sheer collective determination to restore the town’s iconic cultural building.

Recent key funding from the Big Lottery Fund Scotland will support the delivery of an ambitious and exciting five-year business plan to support the sustainability of the building as an arts-led community asset.

The success of the project is summed up with the inaugural exhibition where works by Andy Warhol are being showcased. In addition, a range of locally based cultural activities are getting the community, young and old, to engage with the art on display.

These are the first of many shows and events that are in the pipeline.

It is vital that we preserve buildings that have helped our towns and communities to gather and live together, safeguarding not only the relics from our past but also ensuring our togetherness and combined success in the future.

Jenny Hunter is art programme manager at Dunoon Burgh Hall