The St. Cecilia’s Hall of to-day, numbered
prosaically as ‘40 Niddry Street’ in the Post-Office Directory, must
present a good deal of difference externally from what it did when
it formed a portion of the southern end of the eastern side of
Niddry’s Wynd. For the present Niddry Street is not exactly upon the
site of Niddry’s Wynd, which was further to the west than is the
line of the existing street.
As you descend from the High Street, you notice on
the left-hand side a smoke-stained building jucting out into the
street, and thereby causing the pavement on the east side to come to
an abrupt ending. On looking up at this edifice you notice at once
it is different in character from the neighbouring houses, and
that—with its Grecian pediment surmounting the west wall—it has, as
viewed from this, the front elevation, an indefinable air of having
seen better days. Our illustration suggests this appearance of faded
grandeur, which an inspection of the place confirms, for that
entrance, shown with its lintel and ornamental supports, which once
admitted the exquisites of Edinburgh into a vestibule below their
beautiful concert-room, leads you to-diy into a stone-flagged
storage-room filled with barrels and boxes.
The hall and the vestibule below it were built in
1762, on the site of a number of very old houses standing at the
south-east corner of Niddry's Wynd, near its opening into the
Thus the position of the hall in relation to its
surroundings is clearly stated in the following extract from ‘An Act
and Warrant,’ dated 1760, of the Dean of Guild’s Court of Edinburgh,
in favour of the Musical Society for the erection of a hall:—‘ Anent
the petition given by William Douglas, merchant in Edinburgh,
treasurer to and in name of the Musical Society of Edinburgh,
showing that the stid Society had lately purchased and acquired
several houses, and an area having an entry from the Cowgate by the
close called Davidson’s Close, and a separate entry by a large area
entering from Niddry’s Wynd, which whole area consists of 77 feet in
length from North to South, and 46 feet in breadth . . . the Musical
Society intend to build a great hall, or musical house, upon the
ground above mentioned . . . attended with great expense,’ etc. etc.
Subject to the two following conditions, the Society
was to be allowed to build the hall:—
1. The Musical Society was to provide a drain
(‘water-gang’) to pass their hall, in order to carry away water from
the higher grounds ‘passed the chapel’ (St. Mary’s, belonging to the
Incorporated Trades), for—‘The Incorporations have a servitude upon
the Society’s said ground of a water gang or free passage for water
coming down from the higher grounds on the north side of the
2. The Musical Society was not to make any passage or
doorway, and not to open up an old one, long closed, between
Davidson’s property on the south and St. Mary’s Chapel on the north
of their ground.
All these things being duly promised, the Dean of
Guild, John Carmichael, and his council gave permission. For further
details as to the formalities incident to this transaction see
Appendix No. I.
The illustration on page 19, which is a reproduction
of a portion of a plan in the possession of the City of Edinburgh,
shows in darker lines the outline of St. Cecilia’s Hall, from which
it is clear that there were buildings on the western aspect of the
hall both to the north and to the south of the entrance.
When these buildings came to be removed, to make way
for the foundations of the houses which were to form the eastern
side of South Bridge Street, the backs of which were to form the
western side of Niddry Street, the whole of the western elevation of
St. Cecilia’s Hall was, for the first time, exposed to view. But,
naturally, where these buildings had abutted on the hall, the wall
of the latter would not have been so carefully finished as the
central portion, which had a clear space in front of it, and
contained the entrance; and the previously hidden portions, not
having been faced in sandstone or ashlar-work like the part in the
middle, were faced in plaster, to obliterate the raw or rough
finished appearance occasioned by the removal of these buildings.
Hence it is that the northern and southern portions of the elevation
towards Niddry Street have not a facing of ashlar-work.
The plan in the possession of the City of Edinburgh,
of which we reproduce only a small part, is undated, or more
probably the section bearing the date has been destroyed, as it does
not seem to be complete. The measurement of each line on the plan is
most accurately given1 in feet and inches, and it has evidently been
a careful survey for some important purpose, possibly for
determining the best site for the South Bridge. In any case, whether
prepared specially or not, it has been used for this purpose, as
there are a number of pencil-lines drawn across it corresponding
with the present position of South Bridge Street and Hunter Square.
Two of these pencil-lines, which, by careful inspection of the
Ordnance Survey Map of the present time, we have proved to
correspond exactly with the front and back of the buildings on the
east side of the South Bridge, are indicated on our reproduction by
heavy dotted lines.
This clearly shows that the houses forming the
eastern side of South Bridge Street stand upon the ground occupied
by the line of Niddry’s Wynd, and that the present Niddry Street
passes right through the site of houses which formed the eastern
side of the wynd. Thus both sides of Niddry’s Wynd were
demolished—not the eastern side only, as Grant’s Old and New
Edinburgh would lead us to believe.
The position of the famous St. Mary’s Chapel is shown
in the plan, and it will be seen that the line of the South Bridge
Street buildings is carried right through the chapel.
The operations in connection with that truly great
triumph of engineering skill—the South Bridge—lasted from 1785 to
1788, when South Bridge Street was opened for vehicular traffic.
Hence among the papers and title-deeds pertaining to
the property of the Musical Society we read of the loss and damage
sustained by the formation of Niddry Street and the South Bridge,’
in consequence of which it is recorded that the ‘Trustees of the
South Bridge in 1787 gave as a recompense to the Directors (of the
Musical Society) a small area fronting the Cowgate, on the
south-east side of St. Cecilia’s Hall, as well as the area between
the hall and the Cowgate.’
Another document speaks of the directors of the
Musical Society ‘having agreed to the widening of Niddry Street, by
which the entry to the hall was much hurt,’ which we can quite well
understand must have been so, when we remember that, as the plan
shows, the whole western side of the wynd was to be pulled down, and
much of the eastern side, after which the houses flanking the great
bridge of nineteen arches were to be erected.
The inconvenience occasioned by the extensive
operations in the wynd was such that for a time the regular concerts
of the Musical Society, or, as it now occasionally called itself,
the ‘Harmonical Society,’ had to be held in another building. In
the Edinburgh Evening Courant of June 7th, 1787, there occurs the
following:—‘Harmonical Society. The access to St. Cecilia’s Hall, in
which the meetings of the Harmonical Society have hitherto been
held, being rendered extremely incommodious by the taking down the
tenements at the foot of Niddry’s Wynd, the next meeting will be
held, Monday next the nth of June current, in St. John’s Lodge,
Canongate, at seven in the evening, and the meetings will be
thereafter regularly continued once a fortnight till further
Two other wynds disappeared at this time—Marlin’s and
Peebles’ Wynds—Hunter Square and Blair Street partly replacing them.
From our reproduction of the well-known map of
Edinburgh by Edgar, published in 1765, the position of St. Cecilia’s
Hall in the Niddry Wynd can be clearly made out.
The original map by William Edgar, architect, was
published in 1742, and gives Niddry’s Wynd with, of course, no St.
Cecilia’s Hall; but in the new edition of 1765, which was issued
with a nott—'N.B. All the new buildings, etc., are expressed in this
plan to the present year by an eminent architect ’—one can very
easily see where the copperplate has been altered to indicate the
position of the concert-hall erected three years before. It is
possible to make out this in our reproduction of a portion of the
Another interesting feature of this second edition of
the map is that it shows the propused new North Bridge, one of the
piers of which had been founded at this time (1765). It is explained
in the index that 'the dott'd lines show ye Road along ye intended
The closes or wynds in this locality, as at 1765,
were, parsing from west to east, Peebles’, Marlin’s, Niddry’s,
Kinloch’s, Dickson’s, and Cant’s.
The building of St. Cecilia’s itself comprises two
distinct portions, one on the level of the street—the ground-lloor—and
the concert-hall proper on the floor above. We give an illustration
of each, and in the plan of the ground-floor the space marked
‘entrance’ is the ornamental doorway in Niddry Street in front of
which, apparently, judging from the plan in the possession of the
City of Edinburgh, there formerly existed two pillars, no trace of
which is now visible.
This ground-floor space is found to be divided into
three portions by two transverse structures, the northern of which
consists of three arches, while the southern is at present a wall,
but in all probability was originally arched like its neighbour.
On very close examination we could make out
appearances indicating arches filled in with masonry, and then
plastered over so that there is a bulging along the curved line of
the inside of each arch.
Towards the south end of this ground-floor space or
vestibule, as we might call it—for it is difficult to 5nd a single
term that is applicable,—we see in the plan the indications of four
pillars. The shafts of these are of stone—monoliths indeed—and are
by no means slender, for they support the ‘landing’ of the upper
floor, to which access is gained by the two staircases indicated
east and west of the pillars.
The capitals of the pillars are of wood boldly carved
to represent hanging bunches of fruit of some sort amidst leaves,
the whole being so heavily v hitewashed over that these details were
not made out until we had scraped off more than one coating of the
plaster or limy material.
Of the two staircases only the western one is intact,
its neighbour having evidently been long ago built up during the
course of one of the many transformations which this old place has
undergone since 1800.
The east wall of this vestibule is also not solid but
arched, as many as four arches being yet observable.
These arched spaces, for they are not cellars, make
excellent dry storage-room, and for this purpose the owner of the
hall has let them.
There can be little doubt this arched and pillared
vestibule served the purpose of a lobby, under-hall, or place of
assembling for those attending a concert.
Into this place, protected from wind and rain, and
after dark lit up by lamps, the sedan-chairs would be carried, so
that the ladies could al’ght in comfort without the risk of having
their finery soiled; no rushing across a rain-splashed pavement,
ruining satin shoes, and, with skirts gathered up, more like the
proverbial ‘hen on the hot girdle ’ than anything human. Down here,
too, people could greet and meet one another;
there were friends to be recognised and parties made
up before going into the hall upstairs. Similarly, on leaving the
place, the chairs could be brought into the vestibule and the fair
burdens carried off, attended by the link men
or 'flambeaux-bearers,’ in a state of at least physical comfort—the
mental comfort would depend upon how many women had just been seen
considered to be better dressed than the ‘fair burden’ in question.
The staircase, which is still open, is wonderfully
easy of ascent, the steps being low and broad: at the place
indicated on the plan there is a stone landing whence the steps are
continued up, at right angles to the first portion, on to the lane
ing of the concert-hall.
Here, then, are the original steps leading to this
most famous of concert-rooms—worn indeed, in places almost worn away
altogether, and now piled high with boxes, baskets, packing-cases,
hampers, packages and bundles, but still there—still there, the very
steps that during the last four decades of last century must have
been trodden by almost every well-known person in Scottish society.
Lords and ladies, judges and advocates, musical
connoisseurs, artistic critics, men of letters, men of science, men
of business, men of leisure, distinguished foreign visitors—any that
were anybody and some that were certainly somebody—perhaps Arne,
Burns, Hume, I)r. Johnson, Boswell, Mackenzie, Walter
Scott, and the Due de Berri—passed up and down these same old stone
stairs on which we are now standing! Did the ‘Flower of Strathmore’
actually tread these steps?—certainly, unless it was the set built
up on the other side!
We may now pass to our plan of the ha'l itself: this
shows the famous ‘oval’ mentioned in nearly all the descriptions of
The stairs converged on a landing, only five feet ten
inrhes wide, which led by two stone steps to the door of the hall.
At the north end of the oval, opposite the entrance,
stood the organ behind the spare for the orchestra: the seats, we
are told, were ranged amphitheatrically round the hail, leaving a
space in the centre where the people could walk about during the
No doubt the rows of seats in tiers followed the
curve of the great ellipse, except at the end near the door, where
there may have been an opening admitting the audience to the central
space. Thomson, however, describes ‘ a passage a few feet broad that
was carried quite round the hall behind the last of the elevated
seats,’ from which we may infer that on arriving in the hall you
could go round through this passage to the orchestra or north end,
and then, turning back, proceed to your seat, as is still the way in
many halls and theatres where the stall seats are entered from the
front or stage end only. Perhaps, as we have suggested in the plan,
there were short straight passages between the seats at intervals.
In Thomson’s account we are told that the musicians
gained access to the orchestra by a separate staircase not visible
from the auditorium : of this structure no trace is left, unless we
regard an obliquely placed beam in the roof of the north-west corner
of the vestibule below the hal! as having been erected in this
position to support the joists and give a free space for the stair
case. It was probably a wooden structure, and has long ago
disappeared, but we have indicated on the plan its supposed
A visitor to-day to the interior of St. Cecilia’s
Hall will see no trace whatever of its having been oval; the
internal space is rectangular,1 the walls meet at right angles, and
yet the reproduction of the plan of the locality on p. 19 distinctly
shows the oval, carried into the east and west walls, within an
outer rectangular structure. The elliptical arched roof, with its
truly oval cupola or centre light, has apparently never been
interfered with from the inside, although the present ventilator of
zinc on the outside of the glass was almost certainly added after
the concert period was over, i.e. after 1800.
The small gallery at the south end represented in the
view of the hall on page 37, was probably not present in the days of
the concerts, but subsequently added, possibly by the Freemasons, to
whose alterations on the place we shall shortly allude.
It certainly never was the ‘ musicians’ gallery,’ as
some writers on the hall have conjectured, because orchestra,
harpsichord, and organ were all together at the north end, and
because there could have been no room for an organ in a gallery so
near the ceiling.
Quite different is the state of matters in the large
Freemasons’ Hall in George Street, where there is certainly a
‘musicians’ gallery,’ large enough to accommodate not only musicians
but the organ too.
With the history of what went on between 1762 and
1800 in the hall thus described we have no concern in this chapter
dealing exclusively w'th the fabric and the changes wrought on it.
Amongst the papers relative to the property, there is one dated June
5, 1801, entitled—‘ Articles of Roup and Sale by Musical Society of
St. Cecilia’s Hall, and two areas in the Cowgate, and enactment
thereon, in favour of Mr. James Gibson, W'.S.,’ which shows that the
end of something had come.
Appended to this paper are one or two rather
interesting signatures, viz., those of David Rae, Lord Eskgrove,
whom Cockburn and Sir Walter Scott used to make such fun of, as also
of Sir William Forbes of Pitsligo, and Gilbert Innes of Stow, who,
as we know, was one of the directors of the Musical Society.
In 1802, St. Cecilia’s Hall became the property of
the members of the Baptist Communion, and doubtless they altered it
internally in some way to suit the rather different purpose to which
they were to put it. No trace of anything resembling a pulpit or
platform remains to-day.
In 1809 it changed hands, for we find it
recorded: ‘At a meeting on 18th August 1809, it was reported that
St. Cecilia’s Hall, Niddry Street, had been purchased by the
Substitute Grand Master, William Inglis, Alexander Lawrie, and James
Bartram, Esqrs., on the part of the Grand Lodge of Scotland, for the
purpose of converting it into a Freemasons’ Hall, at the price of
^1400, which purchase was unanimously approved of.’
From the very first, then, the Freemasons
contemplated making alterations upon the hall, but it seems these
were not immediately commenced, for the hall was ‘consecrated’ upon
21st November 1809, as we read:2 ‘On 21st November 1809, the Iree
Masons’ Hall of Scotland was consecrated.’
This ceremony over, a committee was appointed to take
charge of the necessary alterations, and on 5th November 1810 it was
reported by the committee in charge that the alterations were
It may have been during these alterations that the
walls giving the oval form to the interior were removed, and that
the gallery was constructed. Possibly the large cupboard in the east
wall was constructed to utilise the space in the outer wall when the
oval wall was taken down.
In June 1811 the Baptists removed to their ‘new
meeting house in the Pleasance,’ and from Masonic records it would
seem that, although they sold the place to the Freemasons in 1809,
they still used the hall for their services for two years more.
No sooner had the Baptists left, and the Freemasons
begun to meet in their hall so lately altered to suit them, than
they seem to have found it too small for due exercise in their
stimulating mysteries. We find, on 5th March 1812, a petition lodged
in the Dean of Guild Court, Edinburgh, on behalf of the Grand Lodge
of Freemasons, for making an addition to the building at the foot of
Niddry Street, formerly called St. Cecilia’s Hall, now 'Free Masons’
They desired to build on ‘ the piece of vacant ground
lying on the south of said hall, the length of Cowgate
Street.’1 What they did build was an additional hall on the level of
St. Cecilia’s Hall, with an inside entrance to it from the landing
which formerly gave access only to St. Cecilia’s : this additional
hall rested on shops, or a shop—at present a public-house, 214
At the level of the roof of the new or additional
hall, on the side overlooking the Cowgate, we accordingly find ‘Free
Masons’ Hall, 1812,’ carved on a rectangular stone tablet.
This extra hall, and the shops below, were merely
built on to the southern end of St. Cecilia’s, i.e. only three new
walls and a roof had to be provided.
This renovated and enlarged St. Cecilia’s Hall formed
the home for thirty-five years (i.e. from 1809 to 1844) of the Grand
Lodge of Freemasons of Scotland. Thus in Freemasonry in Scotland1 we
read of ‘St. Cecilia’s Hall, where the Grand Lodge of Scotland was
for thirty-five years accustomed to hold its meetings, having in
1809 purchased the building for £1400, and converted it into a
But once again ‘ tempora mutantur ’; exeunt
Freemasons! In 1844 the Town Council of Edinburgh purchased the
whole property of the Freemasons in Niddry Street, with the
intention of locating a school for young children in it.
‘For some time negotiations had been going on' for
the purchase of the Grand Lodge property in Niddry Street, by the
Town Council of Edinburgh, for the purpose of converting it irto a
school under the trust-settlements of the late Dr. Bell, the founder
of the Madras system of Education, and a Missive of Sale was signed
in the City Chambers on the ioth day of October 1844, whereby the
whole heritable property belonging to the Grand Lodge of Scotland at
the foot of Niddry Street, comprising two halls, shops, etc., was
disposed of at the price of £1800 sterling.’
The two halls mentioned here are of course old
Cecilia’s and the smaller hall of 1812; the shops may refer to
whatever was below the latter hall, and entered from the Cowgate, or
it may allude to the arched space or vestibule entered from Niddry
Street. Certain it is that at the present moment there is an
entrance (numbered 42) to the northern portion of this space, which
is walled off from the southern portion, entered by the old or
original entrance (numbered 44), and in this way two different shops
or stores down here could have existed.
The illustration which we give from Grant’s Old and
New Edinburgh clearly belongs to this period, when school classes
were held in the hall, the figures represented being those of little
boys and their master.
A portion of the famous cyclopaean cupola is well
seen, and the gallery is shown with staircases at the ends.
The children probably used the arched space below as
a playground at the time the classes were held in the hall above.
For many years past a firm of bookbinders and
paper-rulers has been installed in this long-deserted ‘hall of
song.’ To-day the rattle of machinery and the hum of busy workers
has replaced the harmonies of the overture and the melodic solemnity
of the oratorio; but possibly, to the ears of those who estimate all
things at their value in £ s. d., these metallic sounds in the St.
Cecilia of to-day may be ‘sweeter sounds than music makes.’ And so
the pageant of life has marched through this old room : Singer,
Peer, Beauty, Baptist Preacher, Right Worshipful Master, Dominie—your
voices all are still,—‘Sic transit gloria mundi.'
As to the name itself: St. Cecilia was a Roman virgin
who suffered martyrdom in the beginning of the third century. Being
so exquisite a player that even angels came down to listen to her,
it was decided she was to ‘wed music,’ and in consequence she vowed
We are told, however, that, against her will, she was
betrothed to a Pagan, Valerian, but that, having converted him to
Christianity, she preserved the integrity of her vow. It was the
early Roman Catholic Italian painters who regarded her as the ‘
patron saint of Music,’ and the honour has been ascribed to her ever
since. She is usually represented seated at an organ in a Gothic
church, and clad more in keeping with her future celestial character
than with her then existing earthly one. No doubt both the organ and
St. Cecilia’s wings are alike anticipatory.
St. Cecilia’s Day, or the ‘ Feast of St. Cecilia,’ is
November 22nd. The late Professor Sir F. A. Gore Ouseley, Bart.,
Oxon., is of opinion that this saint was ‘historical,’ and came of
the Roman patrician family Ctecilia. She is reported to have
converted her judge to Christianity, and then to have suffered
martyrdom in the reign of Marcus Aurelius, a.d. 177. For centuries a
tomb in the Roman catacombs has been pointed out as that of St.
Cecilia, and over it is a seventh-century fresco representing her in
a richly embroidered 'stola,’ the distinctive dress of the
patricians. So many pilgrims flocked to her tomb during the early
centuries of the Christian era, that the entrance to the crypt was
used as a vestibule-chapel.
In Dresden there is a painting by Carlo Dolci of St.
Cecilia playing the organ; in the Louvre one of her by Domenichino
in which she plays a six-stringed 1 bass,’ the music being held by a
cherub; while Bologna has a St. Cecilia by Raphael; but there are
many others in the various galleries of Europe.