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Saint Cecilia's Hall in the Niddry Wynd
Chapter II The Building, and the Name


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 Cowgate.

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. 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 chapel.’

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 notice.'

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 map.1

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 Bridge.’

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, Smollett,

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 place.

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 intervals.

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 position.

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 completed.

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’ Hall.’

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 Cowgate.

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 Freemasons’ Hall.’

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 perpetual virginity.

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.


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