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On 14th May 1783, the foundation stone for the
Assembly Rooms was laid. This marked the beginning
of an exciting and ambitious project that was to provide the aristocracy with a new establishment in the New
A competition was decided upon as the best method for
attracting first class designs for the new building. It did
so with John Henderson securing himself a first prize
win of 25 guineas. Building was to commence on the
site in George Street that had been gifted by the Town Council. Midway through construction, John Henderson
died and responsibility was passed to his father, David, a mason who had worked with Adam on Register
The Assembly Rooms opened its doors, in an
incomplete state, on the 11th January 1787 for the
Caledonian Hunt Ball, at a cost from public subscription of £6,300. Through further subscription in 1796, ceiling
roses, fluted Corinthian pilasters, drapes, mirrors and the magnificent chandeliers were installed by John
Finally completed by the beginning of the 19th Century,
the Assembly Rooms exceeded that of the Great Room
in Bath in its elegance and “just proportion”. The
Ballroom comprised of a bow fronted tea-room and two
card rooms that were all reached through side entrances on the east & west of the building. Two principal
staircases lead into a central square salon, known today as the Crush Hall.
The first Edinburgh Music Festival in 1815 was housed in the Ballroom, and a year later Sir Walter Scott “supervised” a banquet bestowed on the Black Watch. In 1827, the Assembly Rooms played host to the annual dinner of the Edinburgh Theatrical Fund Association during which Scott chose to reveal his identity as the “The Great Unknown” author of the Waverley Novels.
Realising that the role of the Assembly Rooms was subtly changing, it was recognised that a change and a second major phase of redevelopment was necessary. Two of the great figures of 19th Century Scottish Architecture, William Burn and David Bryce became involved and so the second phase began.
Opening to acclaim in 1843, the Music Hall held a
week of performances that included Beethoven’s Fifth
Symphony. Any hopes of money-making the Directors had were dashed, possibly due to poor ticketing
arrangements, when a loss of up to £600 was reported. By now, the Assembly Rooms had established itself
as a venue that, whilst still catering for both public and private balls, was now equipped to accommodate public
meetings, concerts, recitals, music festivals, dinners, banquets, Royal occasions and public readings by
celebrated authors such as Dickens and Thackeray. The Assembly Rooms was now a principal performing arts venue vital to social and artistic life within the City.
The Way Forward
Over the years the building has undergone further developments and improvements such as:
The Guest Book
Since opening in 1787, the Assembly Rooms has played host to many distinguished guests and historical events such as Sir Walter Scott, King George IV’s visit in 1822 (a painting by Turner of this event hangs in the Tate Britain), a public banquet held in the honour of Charles Dickens in 1841, and the first music festival held in the Music Hall in 1843. 1879 saw the first of many visits by Gladstone, and more recently Seamus Heaney, Norman McCaig and J.K. Rowling have all read excerpts from their best selling books. Prime Ministers and Presidents attended the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in 1997 and in 1999 Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II was guest of honour at a Regimental Dinner.
The venue also hosts major annual events such as the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, the celebrations at Hogmanay, Fiddle Festival, Christies Auction and CAMRA Real Ale Festival.
As an imposing city centre venue, the Assembly Rooms is admired by all who enter her doors. Join in the fun with a traditional Ceilidh dance or celebrate a special occasion with friends and family, the Assembly Rooms is sure to leave a lasting impression.