Less than a decade after a bid to replace Perth’s century-old City Hall with a civic square was thwarted, work is well underway on a dramatic reinvention as Scotland’s next major cultural and heritage attraction.
Due to open in 2024, the £26.5 million project has seen the inside of the building completely stripped out since work began last summer.
The new national museum being created in the “blank canvas” interior of the building will explore how Scotland was shaped by people, places and events “uniquely associated” with Perth.
It will feature everything from rarely-seen prehistoric and Neolothic stone carvings and Pictish slabs to specially-created displays and commissions on Perth’s role as “a melting pot of trade, religion, culture and politics,” the Scottish Reformation, the Jacobite Risings, the Highland Clearances, colonialism, slavery and modern-day immigration.
The star attraction will be arguably Scotland’s most celebrated historic artefact, the Stone of Scone, better known as the Stone of Destiny, the ancient symbol of monarchy used for centuries in the inauguration of Scottish kings, until it was seized by King Edward of England in 1296 from Scone in Perthshire.
It is hoped the project, which is backed by both the Scottish and UK governments - will not only secure the future of the building, but help revitalise Perth city centre and put the city firmly on the map as a must-visit tourism destination for the first time.
Built in 1911 following the demolition of Perth’s main performance venue, the City Hall played host to everything from live music events, ceilidh dances and political gatherings to markets and wrestling matches, but its condition was declining when it was closed down after a new concert hall opened nearby in 2005.
Prolonged objections by government agency Historic Scotland to its proposed demolition of the building led to Perth & Kinross Council agreeing to bring it back into public use.
A project to provide a new home for the city’s collections of national significance and attract major touring exhibitions became part of Perth’s 2017 bid to become a UK City of Culture.
The City Hall was able to go ahead after under the £700 million Tay Cities Deal backed by the two governments and the council.
In an exclusive construction site interview, Fiona Robertson, the council’s head of culture, said: “The City Hall is really the flagship project of a 10-year strategy for Perth.
"Tourism has always been very important to Perth, but most tourism activity has actually been focused in Highland Perthshire.
“We really felt people were missing out on Perth, which is not only a medieval city, but has also has a burgeoning contemporary arts scene, and also played a big part in the cultural renaissance of Scotland in the early 20th century, through people like William Soutar, John Duncan Fergusson and Patrick Geddes.
“A touchstone for the whole project is to tell the story of Scotland through the story of Perth and Perth & Kinross.
“There is a whole web of different stories and connections here. We want to tell those stories from a hyper-local perspective, through particular events and people, as a lens to open out and understand Scotland more broadly.
"The Jacobite Risings and the Highland Clearances, for example, had a very particular impact on Highland Perthshire, on communities, on ways of life, on language and the landscape.
"They are very important parts of Scottish history, but are also inter-connected with other themes and stories to do with colonialism, slavery and emigration.”
JP Reid, collections officer at the council, said less than one per cent of its historic artefacts were able to go on display in the city's current museum, which dates back to 1822:
He added: “The City Hall project will give us a significant expansion in our capacity, but we're carrying out a conservation programme which will mean that lots of material which isn’t suitable for public display will be able to see for the first time, particularly medieval material which has come out of the ground.
"We should get an absolutely exquisite picture of what day-to-day life was like in Perth in the 13th, 14th and 15th centuries for the first time in a significant body of content.”
With town and city centres across Scotland suffering due to the combined impact of the decline of the retail industry and the impact of the pandemic, it is hoped the City Hall project can generate the kind of attention to Perth that the V&A museum did for Dundee when it opened four years ago.
Ms Robertson added: "We’ll be telling the story of ancient Perth & Kinross and its part in how ancient Scotland emerged, but City Hall will also be about modern Scotland.
"We want to tell both those stories to attract a broad range of audience as well as crucially reconnecting with local communities.
“One of the things we found when we were bidding for UK City of Culture status was that some of our communities felt that they had lost a sense of connection and pride with Perth and the wider area. That’s what we want to reignite.
"We all know that small cities and large towns face challenges, but it’s really important to be optimistic and forward-thinking about the future.
"Perth is a small, walkable city. The idea of the 20-minute neighbourhood is increasingly being talked about as people are living and working in their own community and are rediscovering local businesses and making connections with people and places that they just didn’t before.”
"When the City Hall first opened it wasn’t a bureaucratic, administrative seat – it was a real gathering place where concerts, ceilidhs, dances and trade union gatherings all happened. It will be different, but we really want it to retain that spirit.”