Among Edinburgh's many free entry museums and galleries, St Cecilia's Hall is unique, operating as a classical concert venue as well as a museum of musical instruments. The building which houses it was built in 1763, when it was the first purpose-built concert hall in Scotland.
Designed by Robert Mylne, the hall was narrowly spared when the plans to build South Bridge necessitated the demolition of the lane adjacent to the concert hall on its western side in the 1780s.
After a period as a Baptist church, an arts college and a masonic lodge, the building was bought by the University of Edinburgh in 1959. Today St Cecilia's concert room hosts regular classical music recitals and lectures, as well as being a public museum of musical instruments from all around the world.
The museum holds over 500 musical instruments, from a collection started by Raymond Russell, an organologist, who donated his collection to the University of Edinburgh in 1960.
The range of instruments on display will undoubtedly be more interesting to those with knowledge and experience of music (ie. musicians) but is still impressive to those without such professional insight.
I was especially intrigued by a Tibetan kangling, a ritual flute made from a human thigh bone ("the leg bone of a criminal or a person who died a violent death is preferred," according to Wikipedia), and a violin from the 18th century which is so thin the curatorial note indicates that they are not entirely certain it is technically a violin at all...
There are musical instruments of (almost) every shape and variety on display, from harpsichords (one of which may have been played by a young Mozart...) to guitars, to wind instruments. In one of the sections of national instruments are, of course, bagpipes.
But it is the curiosities which are most likely to catch the attention of a casual visitor - the serpent, for example, an early woodwind instrument which could be up to 5m in length, or the double bell euphonium, a brass instrument with not one but two horns....
The collection of instruments are displayed in bright and clean cases, with information about their date, country of provenance, and some detail about their historical or cultural significance.
The museum is split over two levels, and its on the upper floor that you can peer into the oval Sypert Concert Room itself. Having been substantially renovated and modernised in 2017, the museum and concert room together feel like contemporary spaces that combine history and modernity.
As always, with museums in these historic spaces, it's difficult not to imagine the people who have occupied these rooms before us, the feet which have climbed the stairs, and the more than 250 years of history of the concert room itself.
So step off the narrow cobbled lane of Niddry Street and through the piano-shaped entrance of this small but perfectly formed museum of musical heritage, and catch a glimpse of Georgian-era Edinburgh.
Explore more hidden gems of the city with my private city walking tours!
Enjoy the blog but can't take a tour?
Show your support and
buy me a coffee!