Tour brings Assembly Rooms golden age back to life

IT REPRESENTS the ultimate in Georgian elegance but is no stranger to fencing competitions, office Christmas parties and Nato conferences.

Admirers of the Assembly Rooms are in for a surprise this weekend after culture chiefs launched a monthly tour exploring lesser-known and more unpredictable episodes from its past.

Thousands of old images have been donated by the public, adding colour to the landmark venue’s spectacular history.

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From George Formby with his ukulele to 70s legends Heat Wave and Jocelyn Brown, there are many stories to be told. Retired Stockbridge lawyer Andrew Kerr, 73, then living in Northumberland Street, was asked to represent the views of residents at a 1970 conference on the conservation of Georgian Edinburgh, attended by former poet laureate and broadcaster Sir John Betjeman.

He said: “The Assembly Rooms was a very grand world and a very grand set of rooms. It certainly wasn’t kept to the standard of Holyrood Palace – it was rather shabby but still very impressive, and incredible things happened there.

“That conference, which led to the creation of the New Town Conservation Committee and, later, the Old Town Renewal Trust, was an absolutely huge event.

“Edinburgh in the 1970s had never seen anything like it. You had delegates coming from overseas who left with the impression that the city was wonderful.”

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Mr Kerr hailed the new monthly tours as a fitting tribute to the Assembly Rooms, which he said were a central feature of the city’s social life when he was in his early 20s.

The building played host to a series of dazzling grand balls, with couples dancing the night away as two blazing coal fires slowly burnt out in the ballroom.

“It was a big ball and you had bands,” he said. “You were each given a dance card, which you filled in with your partner’s name for each dance, and that was the way a grand ball worked in those days.

“It all seemed terribly exotic. I doubt whether it works that way now.”

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Wendy Jones, a former newspaper promotions executive, said her most vivid memories were of a fashion event she helped organise at the Assembly Rooms to celebrate the Queen’s Silver Jubilee in 1977. “It was a show celebrating 25 years of fashion in the period after the Queen’s coronation,” she said.

“I remember we had the models walking down the catwalk wearing coronets and the red gown that the Duchess of Buccleuch wore at the coronation itself.

“At the end of the catwalk we had each model lift the coronet and reveal some sandwiches, which is apparently where they were kept by 
nobles attending the Queen’s coronation.

“It was a wonderful event. But then the Assembly Rooms was the place everybody went to for something special. It shaped the life of the city.””

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Laura Bennison, city council heritage officer, who will lead the tours, said: “The project has proved so popular that we’re running three separate tours today.

“People have their own individual relationship with the Assembly Rooms but are unaware of the bigger picture. Through this tour, we can reveal all sorts of things that have gone on there.”

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