In August, Edinburgh comes alive. The famous city of contrasts, of ‘shifting light, of changing skies, of sudden vistas’ – as Alexander McCall Smith described it – sees its historic Old and New Town’s fill with festival goers. But behind these festival venues there are centuries of history that you may accidentally overlook in favour of that absorbing comedy sketch, author’s keynote or finale show.
So in this speedy blog, we’ve unearthed the hidden histories behind some of Edinburgh’s most iconic gothic and Georgian festival venues.
The Assembly Rooms on George Street is one of the main important Festival venues in the whole city. It’s even influenced the Festival itself – one of the main promoters of the Festival is named Assembly, after the building.
First opening its doors to revellers in January 1787, the Assembly Rooms has played host to many a shindig over the last 230 years. Following a £9.3m refurb in 2011, the site is now a major venue for the month-long extravaganza, with its stage graced by everything from comedy shows and music gigs to cabaret shows.
The building has a long history on our registers too. It’s now held on the Land Register of Scotland – you can see its title plan, taken from the business user view of our Land Information Service (ScotLIS) below.
One of the main venues on the Southside of Edinburgh during the festivities is the Pleasance. It’s owned by the University of Edinburgh, and with its bars, sports centre and other facilities, the Pleasance serves a number of roles for the University during term time, which makes it well suited as a Fringe venue every August.
You can find historic records for the Pleasance on our registers. The record from the General Register of Sasines – the world’s oldest national land register – shown below is a 1922 entry from the pages relating to the University Court of the University of Edinburgh, and specifically references a Theatre in the Pleasance.
Another firm festival favourite is Summerhall, which you can find near the Meadows in one of Edinburgh’s other student hubs. Though the present building dates to the early 20th century, the site has seen much over the years, from a brewery to private houses and churches. It then became the University of Edinburgh’s Royal Dick Veterinary School, before transforming to an art and performance space in 2011.
As well as a colourful past, it has a colourful title plan too! The various shades on the title plan denote different details of the plan, such as burdens.
Summerhall isn’t the only Festival venue with a medical past. Just down the road on Nicolson Street you’ll find Surgeons’ Hall, the headquarters of the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh (RCSE). It’s also home to Surgeons’ Hall Museum, one of the UK’s main medical museums, and during the Festival features everything from comedy puppet shows to a children’s clown show.
The history of Surgeons’ Hall is preserved on our registers, as you can see in the images below from the General Register of Sasines. These pages show the general search sheet for the RCSE, and record a number of transactions relating to the building on Nicolson Street dating back to the 1820s.