Musical Instrument Museums | Edinburgh University Collection of Historic Musical Instruments

A Brief History of St Cecilia's Hall

St Cecilia's Hall is the oldest purpose-built concert hall in Scotland, and the second oldest in use (after Oxford's Holywell Room) in the British Isles. The original building dates from 1763 when it consisted only of the Concert Room, the Laigh (="Lower") Room and the Foyer. Today it is owned by The University of Edinburgh who bought it in 1959 to accommodate its expanding Music Faculty and to display the Raymond Russell collection of Early Keyboards Instruments. Structural alterations and extensions over two centuries complete the complex we have now, providing modern workshops, offices, lecture room and practice facilities, with two museum galleries and of course, the eighteenth-century concert room which is the perfect size and setting for performances on the instruments in the Collection.

The Concert Room

The Concert Room

The Hall was designed by the young architect Robert Mylne (1733-1811) for the Edinburgh Musical Society, an exclusive body of competent amateur musicians who met regularly in hired rooms to play. The Society also organised weekly formal concerts engaging professional directors, singers, and instrumentalists from home and abroad. The Society's Minute Books have survived. Beginning in 1728 they show that by the 1750s the Society had become sufficiently ambitious to want to build a prestigious concert room of its own. After an initial scheme involving the Adam Brothers came to nothing, the committee appointed Robert Mylne.

Mylne was born in Edinburgh, a member of the important family of Scottish master masons and architects-royal who contributed greatly to the building of old Edinburgh and elsewhere. After studying architecture in Rome, he launched his career in London, securing immediate fame by winning the Blackfairs Bridge competition in 1759. This was the start of his long and distinguished working life as architect and engineer and St Cecilia's Hall, in 1760, was one of his earliest buildings. It was complete in 1763 and named after the Patron Saint of Musicians. Mylne's original layout consisted simply of the Laigh Room and the Lobby on the ground floor, and a double staircase leading to the Concert Room on the floor above.

The heyday of the concert Room, though glorious, was short-lived. Despite becoming the focus for the best performances in Scotland, the Musical Society succumbed to mounting debts and to other problems. In 1798 it folded and sold up. The building then suffered a succession of changes of use and consequently became substantially altered. Its original setting, likewise, changed beyond recognition.

In the eighteenth century St Cecilia's Hall formed the East side of a courtyard of older houses set back from the mediaeval Niddrie's Wynd. All this, with the exception of St Cecilia's Hall, was demolished in 1785 as part of the scheme for extending the city Northwards. New road systems were constructed to link the New town with the Old, including the South Bridge across the Cowgate. Overshadowed by the Bridge and stripped of the original courtyard, St Cecilia's now opened directly on to the new and narrow Niddry Street.

The main entrance was originally approached from the West: the principal door still stands in the West wall. Very little of the building's original fabric remains: one survivor however, is the screen of four Roman Doric Columns which support the upper landing. The present double staircase is a modern replica of the original, the flight on the east-side having been removed at some point during the nineteenth century. The stone flagged floor is also a replacement. Original Entrance to St Cecilia's Hall

Original Entrance to St Cecilia's Hall

The Laigh Room

This was the Musical Society's rehearsal room and meeting place, originally subdivided. It is thought that the massive, load-bearing semi-elliptical arches which support the floor of the Concert Room above may not be in their original form. Today the Laigh Room is used for small concerts, as a practice room, and for interval refreshments.

The Concert Room

What you see today is reconstruction. When the University took ownership in 1959, this room was rectangular and had Victorian windows in the East Wall. Eighteenth century sources, however, show that the room was originally elliptical in shape, and without windows, natural light coming solely through the oval cupola, which also supplied ventilation. All this had to be recreated, broadly, by the university's architects.

The original seating consisted of tiered covered benches built around the walls, facing inwards, and leaving an oval space in the centre of the floor. This seating plan has not been recreated. The present central chandelier is Georgian and was installed in the 1960s.

At the North end of the room stood the stage, as today, suitably sized for a small chamber orchestra. In the niche was a fine chamber organ commissioned from the renowned London organ builder Johannes Snetzler (1710-1785) similar to the present one but a little larger. In this elegant setting the very best and the very newest music was introduced to Scotland. The contents of the Musical Society's impressive library ranged from the seventeenth century (Corelli and Purcell) to the contemporary (Haydn), and from the celebrated (Handel) to the local (The Earl of Kelly, whose portrait hangs opposite the windows in the Newman Gallery). Solo parts were taken by professional performers, the core of both the chorus and orchestra by the Society's gentlemen members. Treble parts were sung by the boys from George Heriot's Hospital.

Their very last concert took place in the Hall in 1798. Three years later the building was sold to the Baptist Church who used the concert hall as their place of worship for the next nine years, until their own church was built. Ownership then passed to the Masonic Grand Lodge of Scotland.

The 1812 Gallery

The Freemasons effected dramatic alterations. They bought the adjacent strip of land to the South on which they built a two-storey extension fronting the Cowgate. Their elegant South-facing upper room now exhibits some of the British instruments in the Collection. Outside, at roof level on the Cowgate fagade, their plaque can be seen reading "Freemasons Hall 1812". At about the same time the Freemasons transformed the interior of the Concert Room, converting it to a rectangle by removing the inner walls.

Freemasons' Extension to St Cecilia's Hall

Freemasons' Extension to St Cecilia's Hall

1844-1959

In 1844 the entire premises were sold to the Edinburgh Town Council to accommodate a school based on the system of Dr Andrew Bell, the Scottish educationist and benefactor. Large windows were inserted in the East wall of the former Concert Room. When the school closed at the end of the nineteenth century the place became a bookbinding and printing business, typical of the many small industries then occupying this district of the city.

The next owner, Miss Magdalene Cairns, turned the place into a palais de danse. The former Concert Room now became the very popular "Excelsior Ballroom", decorated in full-blown Art Deco style, flourishing throughout the Second World War and into the 1950s. Miss Cairns, however, had cherished a long-standing ambition to return the room to its original purpose as a concert hall. This she achieved after some costly refurbishment, and opened it, albeit in it rectangular form and with the windows, with a concert of Scottish music in April 1959. Later that year she sold the building to the University .

St Cecilia's Hall and the Raymond Russell Collection

The University, having been offered his magnificent collection of early keyboard instruments by the English antiquarian and collector Raymond Russell (1922-1964) needed premises for its display. St Cecilia's Hall with its recital room and potential gallery space seemed ideal. The architect Ian Lindsay was appointed to work out a daunting programme of repair, rebuilding and adaptation. Mylne's elliptical Concert Room had to be reconstructed and also the double staircase. A new extension along the East side, with instrument gallery, artists' room, washrooms, etc had to be incorporated into the scheme, and a new main entrance sited here. The ground floor of the Freemasons' wing was converted into workshops and offices, and a fine 1812 Room became a gallery for housing the British instruments. Opening out of this was the new East gallery, named after the late Sidney Newman, then Reid Professor of Music, a driving force behind the scheme. Certain artistic compromises, though, were made in the overall decoration, which reflects the gaunt, functional style of the 1960s. The interior, however, has since been adorned with paintings and other furnishings, including an eighteenth century sedan chair, on view today. Some of these furnishings are owned by the University and others are on loan from private individuals. Several paintings are on loan from the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, and the "Parliament Clock" in the foyer is lent by the National Trust.

Plan of St Cecilia's Hall with the two Extensions

Plan of St Cecilia's Hall with the two Extensions"

St Cecilia's Hall was finally opened in its present enlarged form in the summer of 1968. Since then the number of instruments in the Collection has increased, most notably by the acquisition of the Rodger Mirrey Collection of Early Keyboard Instruments. The fund-raising activities of the Friends of St Cecilia's Hall and Museum have enhanced the facilities in numerous ways. The building is now active as a public museum and internationally-renowned research centre, and once again as a special venue for recitals of early music.

Convergence with the John Donaldson Collection, Reid Concert Hall

In January 2004 the decision was made by the Director of University Collections in consultation with the Director of Edinburgh University Collection of Historic Musical Instruments that the instruments museums at the Reid Concert Hall and St Cecilia's Hall should be operated by a unified management team. This reorganisation was triggered by the early retirement of the Director and Curator of the Russell Collection, Dr Grant O'Brien. The new structure necessitated changes to the naming, and the opportunity was taken to adopt a stronger branding of the two museums, projecting a clearer image. In March 2004 the University's Museums and Galleries Office agreed the names:

Reid Concert Hall Museum of Instruments (the John Donaldson Collection of Musical Instruments)
St Cecilia's Hall Museum of Instruments (the Raymond Russell Collection of Early Keyboard Instruments)
The name "Edinburgh University Collection of Historic Musical Instruments" being used for the Collection and for use when the two museums are considered jointly.

Text by Jane Blackie 1995, updated by Arnold Myers 2013

EUCHMI Publications Describing the Collection

See Sidney Newman Remembered 1906-1971: a centenary collection of personal reminiscences by Edinburgh colleagues and Other Books in the

Other Publications

The Temple of Harmony: A new architectural history of St Cecilia's Hall, Edinburgh By Joe Rock, Martin Hillman and Antonia J. Bunch. Published by the Friends of St Cecilia's Hall and Museum, November 2011.

'The Rodger Mirrey Collection'. Soundboard, Special Issue 2006.


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