SHEILA McLean recalls when she and fellow skater Alan McIver launched Murrayfield Ice Rink’s first children’s skating lessons - almost 60 years ago.
“We started off with two children one week and within the month, we had 120,” she laughs. “The owner of the rink, Mr Kerr, came rushing up to us, saying ‘No more children!’ - there was no room.”
Ms McLean, 78 and Mr McIver, 83, are still key members of the historic rink’s Murrayfield Ice Skating Club, which meets every Sunday morning. The club gives youngsters the chance to learn from the elder skaters, many of whom were successful competitors in their youth, as well as international figure skating judges such as Noel Grimshaw, who judged the first World Synchronised Skating championships in the US in 2000.
But now, the club often struggles to attract young skaters to join them, while the wider rink is also suffering a fall in ticket sales.
When Murrayfield first opened its doors in 1956 - 17 years after it was first built and after being used the UK Government as a wartime storage unit - the rink, the largest in the UK, was packed.
“We used to regularly have 1,000 people on the ice on a Saturday night, skating to a live band,” explains managing director Richard Stirling, who first visited the rink 55 years ago, when his friend’s sister dragged him along as a thirteen year old.
“Now, it is not so easy.”
An increasing number of activities on offer in Edinburgh - from trampoline parks to bowling alleys as well as time spent on social media - have left the ice rink jockeying for children's attention.
“There is something about this rink, it just gets into your blood,” adds Mr Stirling, who played for various Murrayfield ice hockey teams and worked as a part-time engineer on top of a full time job before becoming managing director. Since 1957, the rink has been owned by two local families, allowing over three generations of Capital children to learn to skate.
“It has such a history for Edinburgh locals,” he says. “The number of people who have met their partners here is phenomenal. But we just don’t get the same number of children coming these days.”
Behind the scenes, in a B-listed building which has altered little in the past 60 years, skating is thriving.
As well as a team of professional figure skating coaches who train beginners right up to elite skaters competing for the top spot at the annual British Figure Skating Championships, the rink also boasts an ice hockey team, the Murrayfield Racers, with training squads for all ages.
Last year, it welcomed more than 2,000 people through its doors during the Edinburgh Fringe Festival when it hosted French-Canadian contemporary ice dance performers Le Patin Libre.
It also has daily public sessions for recreational skaters and has been the launchpad for many top international competitors, including Livingston siblings Sinead and John Kerr who won two European bronze medals for ice dance.
However, the managers admit that for the art deco-fronted facility to remain open long term, they need a turnaround in attendance. The television comeback two years ago of ITV show Dancing on Ice had some impact on the sport’s popularity, but of those who either visit the rink independently after watching the show, or join the popular group weekend Learn to Skate classes, relatively few keep returning long term.
On Monday, the first day of the half term holiday, the rink is hosting a free open day to showcase everything that it has on offer - ranging from free entrance and boot hire to displays from figure skaters and ice hockey players. Professional coaches will also be on hand to teach beginners the basics.
“Skating is such good exercise and is so good for all aspects of the body and it’s a sport the whole family can do together,” says Mr Stirling. “You can skate year round and work at your own pace - you don’t have to worry about beating anyone else.”
As an indoor activity, skating should prove popular with Scotland, where the weather can often put a dampener on outdoor sports.
“I don’t know what the problem is with Edinburgh,” says Murrayfield Ice Skating Club treasurer William Findlay, who started out on the ice as a two year old, 50 years ago. “There is too much to do. I think ice skating is not seen as cool. People usually do a couple of years, then give up, often when they hit that teenage stage, or when it becomes competitive and expensive.
“I think one of the problems is that people want results instantly these days. They see Dancing on Ice and they think they’re going to be able to do all of that after six weeks.”
He adds: “At the club, we’re trying to offer people a fun alternative to competitive skating, to show it is also a really sociable activity.”
On the ice, skaters are practising their spins and turns while group lessons are held at one end of the rink and older skaters practice pattern dances at the other. Meanwhile, a new member, 13-year-old Nicola, is being shown the ropes by Ms McLean.
“I like to coach the new people, give them a hand,” she explains.
Running an ice rink is a pricey business. Management installed a new cooling plant six years ago, which saves 450 kilowatt hours a year of electricity over the old version. Over a million pounds worth of investment has been ploughed back into the building over the last twenty years, however electricity bills still run to £15,000 a month.
Coach and duty manager Nicolas Salicis, a former competitive ice dancer from France, admits that the historic building makes outward renovation difficult.
Yet, the interior has an 1980s charm which sparks nostalgia for many Edinburgh residents.
“To compare with modern ice rink buildings, where parents expect a cafe looking out onto the ice, where they can see they children practising, would take an enormous amount of investment,” he says. “This building just wasn’t built like that. People don’t see the investment we do put into it, it’s about keeping the ice going. If a trampoline park isn’t used at night, they can turn off the electricity. If we did that, we’d be left with a paddling pool.
“A lot of people I meet in Edinburgh have fond memories of the ice rink, they say they remember coming here as children, but they’re just not bringing their own children here.”
For the youngsters who do skate, the rink is a second home. Seven year old Olivia Mandle, a promising skater who attends the rink’s academy, trains three times a week, while her mother, Julia, also skates and hopes to start competing in adult skating competitions soon.
“It’s just really fun,” explains Olivia, from Midlothian. “I had my birthday party here one year and brought all of my friends from school along. I love skating and I love competing.”
Katie Powell, who is one of two Murrayfield skaters set to compete in this year’s senior competition at the British Figure Skating Championships, is coached by Alice Fell, herself a former Scottish champion. Ms Powell moved to Edinburgh from Dundee earlier this year and also coaches junior skaters at the rink.
“It’s got a really friendly atmosphere,” says Ms Powell, who was ranked fourth in the UK last year and is set to compete in Budapest later this month. “Skating is not like anything else, people see it as really unusual.”
Mr Stirling is hopeful that by showing local families what the rink has to offer, the facility will see a turnaround in business.
“We need to get more youngsters in to make sure we can keep it open for future generations,” he says. “Hopefully, people will see that we are here, that it is the only place to ice skate in Edinburgh and will keep coming back.”
Free places and an arrival time at the open day on Monday, 14 October, can be booked online at www.murrayfieldicerinkltd.co.uk or by contacting the box office on firstname.lastname@example.org or 0131 337 6933. Limited tickets will also be available on the day.
Murrayfield Ice Rink was due to open in late 1939, however with the outbreak of war, the Government requisitioned the premises as a
Royal Army Service Corp Depot . It remained under the control of the Government and was used as an HM Stationery Office store until 1951.
It opened as a rink in 1955 and was bought by Murrayfield Ice Rink Limited, owned by a consortium of local businessmen. It has been under the same ownership ever since.
The building is listed by Environmental Historic Scotland for its art deco front and original seats.