A Short History of St Cecilia’s Hall

A post by Tina Wennerwald:

If you walk just below South Bridge in Edinburgh to the corner of Niddry Street and the Cowgate, you’ll find St Cecilia’s Hall.  Over the Festival of Museums weekend (16-18th May), the building will be transformed into a 1940s dance hall once again for “One Last Dance”.

St Cecilia’s hall was built between 1761 and 1763 for the Edinburgh Musical Society and it is the oldest purpose-built concert hall in Scotland.  The Musical Society was later forced to sell the building, and held their last concert in St Cecilia’s in 1798.  Since then there has been a great variety of owners and uses of the building from worship to learning and entertainment; a Baptist Church, the Freemason’s hall, Dr. Bell’s school, the Excelsior Ballroom.  Now St Cecilia’s Hall is owned by the University of Edinburgh and houses the University’s collection of bagpipes and early keyboard instruments.

As part of the Festivals of Museums weekend in May, the University of Edinburgh will host a number of events based around the theme of Edinburgh in the 1940’s.  During the 40s St Cecilia’s Hall was a dance hall named the “Excelsior Ballroom”.  It was opened in 1933 by Miss Magdalene Cairns, who had inherited St Cecilia’s Hall from her father, Andrew Cairns.  Miss Cairns had noticed that there was a growing interest in public dancing in Edinburgh at the time and decided to transform the concert hall into a dance venue.  The public quickly embraced this new dance venue and visited the new ballroom, making the place a success from the very beginning.

The Excelsior Ballroom was only one of a number of dance halls in Edinburgh during the 40s, all of which helped to provide an opportunity for public dancing and general entertainment of the locals.  As a space for social gathering, dance halls also had a series of more specific and very important roles at the time.  Significantly, many patrons got to meet their future spouse in a dance hall.

At the Excelsior Ballroom it was the music from the New Excelsior Band which resounded in the hall.  On Saturdays it was also possible to take dance lessons, which were taught by Miss Ena Linton.  The Excelsior Ballroom hosted various events such as the Hogmanay Ball and Novelty Carnival, and dance nights such as the Leith Hospital Dance and the Dance for the Fighters Fund in support of select causes.  Ballroom dancing competitions were also popular around the time and some of the competitions were held in Excelsior Ballroom.

In the late 1950’s Miss Cairns found that the demand for dance halls was in decline and in 1959 she decided to sell the building to the University of Edinburgh. The University then returned the building to the feel of an 18th-century concert hall.

Come and join us for the Festival of Museums weekend when St Cecilia’s Hall will be converted into a ballroom with dance, live music, and lots of fun.


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