The Grade B listed Burgh Hall was designed in the Scots Baronial style by the Glasgow architect Robert Bryden, and opened in 1874 at a key location in the town. With an initial seating capacity of 500 it was for a time the only theatre in Argyll, and until the 1960s the focus of public life in Dunoon. The Burgh Hall is considered to be the town’s most important civic building, marking its 19th century transition to Burgh status and as an important coastal resort.
Among its key remaining features are the local green schist stone of its facades, the main staircase, plasterwork to the first floor landing, original doors and windows, the stained glass rose window by W&JJ Kier, and the volume of the main hall. Regrettably the decorative ceiling of the hall – one of its most striking single features – was removed in the 1970s.
The Burgh Hall stood between two churches also designed by Bryden: St Cuthbert’s (which was lost not long ago in a fire) and St John’s. The latter is Grade A listed, and has been described as, “an immense achievement of Victorian piety.” Strathclyde Building Preservation Trust (SBPT) notes that the Burgh Hall, “forms a unique element in this group of important commissions executed by this architect … This promotes [the Hall’s] importance to regional level … Retention of the Burgh Hall in something approaching its original use is therefore important … The streetscape and group value of these buildings remaining as a pair is considerable, and their significance is likely to increase.”
A Rich Cutural Heritage
The construction of Dunoon Burgh Hall was funded by public subscription with four hundred local business people donating £10 each to build this venue for the community. Being home to a theatre upstairs and a base for the Town Chamberlain’s Office downstairs means that the building has a rich history to share. In it’s heyday it hosted many events including dinner dances, flower shows, amateur dramatics, Masonic evenings, political hustings and ’improving lectures’ and was a hub for many municipal improvements in Victorian Dunoon. It was also the place where the ’Burgh Men’ (or their wives and mothers) came to collect their wages each week.
The Dunoon Observer of 1893 described the Hall as it hosted a Masonic Assembly: “On each window sill were numerous fairy lights clustered round the base of a pedestal lamp, making each window an alcove of light. From the platform amidst a bower of greenhouse plants and shrubs, sounded forth the strain of the dance music. At each side of the platform were suspended mammoth Japanese umbrellas. The dancing began with a polka, during which the gas was turned down and the dance proceeded in the subdued light of the fairy lights. Dancing continued until 5 a.m.”.
Heading in to Decline
By the 1980s the Burgh Hall could no longer compete with the larger, more modern Queen’s Hall, built in the 1950’s and, after nearly a century of providing the area with a place of gaiety, entertainment and community spirit, the old Burgh Hall theatre eventually fell into disuse and disrepair.
The cost of operating the Hall and the need to update facilities saw its then owners, Argyll & Bute Council, close the upper floors. The Council retained offices on the ground floor and instigated a series of major structural repairs, but finally turned the building over to Dunoon and Cowal Housing Association in 1993. Later the Hall changed hands again to social landlord Fyne Homes, who submitted an application to convert it into a mixed use of residential and office accommodation. However, public opinion was largely against the idea, proving that the old Hall still had a place in the hearts of the community.
A New Dawn Begins
The ensuing outcry at this proposed change of use led to Fyne Homes helping the emerging Burgh Hall Steering Group to carry out a feasibility study into the possibility of bringing the hall back into community ownership with a mix of arts and community based uses. The Steering Group was then succeeded by the ‘Friends of the Burgh Hall’ who worked to raise awareness of the plight of the building.
In 2008 ownership of the Burgh Hall was transferred to the John McAslan Family Trust (JMFT), who worked with the Friends group to develop Dunoon Burgh Hall Trust as the local management body to take on ownership of the building and progress its refurbishment.
Finally, following a significant investment by the John McAslan Family Trust to make some spaces safe for public access, the old Burgh Hall threw open its doors to the community once more. Our Open Day on 2 May 2009 saw over 2,500 visitors come to watch local bands, appreciate works of art, browse craft stalls and enjoy local produce. Many of these visitors brought wonderful memories of past times spent in the Hall. This strong turnout from local people, along with local and national politicians, clearly demonstrated the interest in the building and the project, and the strength of support for the reinstatement of the Burgh Hall at the centre of Dunoon life.
At that time the intention was to open the building on Saturday afternoons to keep in touch with the community, while working away behind the scenes to raise the money needed for the major refurbishment. But, once they had been inside, the people of Dunoon and Cowal had a different idea and requests to use the hall for a wide variety of events and activities started to come in thick and fast. Soon the hall was open almost every day of the week playing host to workshops, classes, charity events and we began to develop our own activity programme and develop our audiences. Over three years on we have now hosted a major ARTIST ROOMS exhibition of Robert Mapplethorpe photography and the first Dunoon Film Festival. We have also developed excellent partnerships with The Glasgow School of Art, The Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, Rambert Dance Company, Streetlevel Photoworks, Comar, Cowal Open Studios, Cowalfest and more.
So, that’s where we are today. Granted, still a work in progress, but what a lot we have achieved in those few short years since that Open Day. The old Burgh Hall has been through quite a few changes, from its glory days as the place to go to dance by fairy light until 5 in the morning, through years as a functional municipal office space, to near dereliction and ruin, with a very doubtful future. And now? Now we are looking forward to completing our ambitious restoration project while continuing to delight, amuse, intrigue and entertain – and always at the heart of the community.