Case study: Dunoon Burgh Hall

What is the history of the building, monument or area?

​The restoration of Dunoon Burgh Hall is an inspiring story of a small Scottish community coming together to preserve its rich cultural heritage. The building was rescued from demolition by the community, who worked with the John McAslan Family Trust to purchase it for a token £1.

The building’s history began with the Commissioners’ appointment of R A Bryden to prepare plans for a hall to accommodate 700 people. It was formally opened on 25 June 1874 and it has remained in almost continuous use. The building was constructed by local subscription on land gifted to the town by Mr Macarthur Moir. It is held very dear by the people of Dunoon as a highly significant, tangible reminder of the history of the town. It served the people of Dunoon for over 150 years as a place of entertainment and congregation. 

This important civic building was  described in the Dictionary of the Clyde (published 1888) as ‘one of the principal edifices in the town most worthy of notice’.  The building is of great merit particularly in Bryden’s subtle treatment of the Scots Baronial styled exterior and the quality of its detailing. The survival in the Burgh Hall of original features such as doors, windows and the 1896 balcony are all significant. The B-listed Burgh Hall is part of a group of buildings from the second half of the 19th century which define Dunoon as a town and as a community, all of which were designed by the architect Robert Alexander Bryden. 

In December 2014, after £1.9million was secured, the building closed for renovations and re-opened in June 2017. Dunoon Burgh Hall is now a fully accessible venue for exhibitions, performances and gatherings. Alongside a gallery and theatre, the venue offers creative workshop space, a garden and a cafe. We run a year-long programme of exhibitions, theatre and events and alongside this we offer learning programmes for children and young people, artist talks for the community and dance and drama opportunities from professional theatre companies.  We are an important asset to our local community and to the wider Argyll area.

How did the project begin and what community need(s) was it seeking to address?

In 2009, following public outcry at the threat of the building being demolished, the local community came together to try and save it. This came to the attention of John McAslan who came from Dunoon and whose mother still lived in the town, and who supported the purchase of the building.

In 2010, the Dunoon Burgh Hall Trust was formed and work began to bring the hall back into public use. With funding from the Robertson Trust, two part-time members of staff were employed to engage with the community, run arts and heritage events and to move the fundraising efforts forward.

Dunoon Burgh Hall was in an area of relative disadvantage. Dunoon’s wealth was built on its place as a holiday destination and then as a base for the US Navy, but with the move away from UK seaside holidays and the subsequent withdrawal of the US Navy from the Holy Loch, the town had struggled to find a new purpose and to build a resilient economy. Like other communities affected by the demise of either heavy industry or micro-electronics, these socio-economic changes can be deep rooted and take generations to improve. 

Dunoon suffered from below average wage levels and poor access to many services, both of which have a disproportionate effect on young people in their transition to adulthood. This was resulting in outward migration of young people and families, many of whom left for work or study and didn’t intend to return. This trend was creating an increasing imbalance in our community. The young people who did remain were largely unskilled, had low aspirations and few opportunities for employment locally. In relation to this trend, the population of Dunoon had a disproportionate number of elderly people (23.56%) compared to the national average (19.83%). Many moved to the area to retire and not only often don’t take part in community life, but have little contact with local young people as their own families are not here. 

There was a lot of community-based activity, but much of this was temporary and seasonal, and it was feared that these activities could peter out if not built on and without an anchor building. Evidence suggested that a small number of groups spoke to each other and were high profile while many others worked away in silos and didn’t communicate well. Creating a central place that would bring these groups and individuals together aimed to enhance partnership and joint-working. The town also had lots of small family and sole-trader owned businesses, an asset that could  that could be built on to enhance local economic, social and environmental regeneration.

Thus, before the building’s regeneration, Dunoon was a place of contrasts between visitors being attracted to the suite of high profile events, quirky shops and cafes versus a local lack of employment, lack of skills development. Many people worked off the peninsula or lived elsewhere but work here. 80% of teachers travelled by ferry to work for example and this had an inherent vulnerability within the make-up of the community.  

So though there was still the shadow of its holiday destination history, Dunoon was clearly a vibrant place at a time of change. The creativity that the Trust had promoted was vital to the town being able to re-imagine itself for the future. This in turn started to draw people back to the area and create a more vibrant place to live, work, visit and create. 

How did you source funding and support for the project?

Funding was sourced from multiple avenues:

How did the project progress from inception to delivery? What obstacles did you overcome and what were the major milestones?

The project took many years to come to fruition – from inception as a small group of local people with a wish to save a much-loved public building, to involving experts who were able to move the project forward, secure professional services and secure the funding necessary from a wide variety of sources.  

One of the main hurdles was using the building itself which was in a damp and dilapidated state. The original trustees overcame this by installing a temperature controlled cube within the downstairs hall in 2011. This enabled us to apply for a high profile ARTIST ROOMS exhibition, and in March 2012 we hosted a 3 month Robert Mapplethorpe exhibition. This put Dunoon on the cultural map and into our building and it has continued in this vein ever since. 

How did you involve the community in your project?

The community have been involved in the project from the very start. Social isolation is a critical issue in rural communities, and even more so following COVID-19. We support our community in a range of ways to combat loneliness. We offer free or affordable opportunities for children and young people through creative engagement with professional designers, performers and filmmakers. By hosting live events, exhibitions and family gatherings we bring the community together and are seen as an affordable, friendly and accessible building in the heart of the town. For many of those who have recently moved into the area, the Burgh Hall is the first step to making community connections and finding their feet. Contributions made by this diverse group extend the boundaries of what can be offered and achieved and are the reason our project has been able to thrive and grow. 

The building is an important venue for our creative community. We regularly support freelance musicians, performers and visual artists and throughout the pandemic we made this a priority through commissioning new work, live-streaming performances and offering workshop opportunities for children and young people. We ensure design, tech and digital employment is offered locally. We support Cowal Open Studios every year with an exhibition slot in our gallery and sell original artists work in our gift shop. 

We offer paid trainee positions in music, visual art, front of house and catering, thereby supporting the local economy and youth employability. We currently offer two posts for 16-24 year olds under the Kickstart Scheme, and support a trainee Creative Workshop Assistant who is under 25. Where relevant we support these young people to gain Arts Award certificates, which helps them to secure future employment or gain entry into further education. We also have a team of local volunteers who are at the heart of our operations and take on roles such as sound and lighting technicians. Many of these volunteers are retired, but we support our young volunteers to receive Saltire Awards.

During lockdown we also ran a community kitchen and were a designated Anchor organisation working with smaller organisations in our area to offer training, funding and space. 

What has been the impact of the project on the community? 

Our work with children and young people through the creative industries has nurtured confidence, resilience, and optimism for the future. Skills have improved and we have introduced young people to careers in the creative industries, in catering, event management, publishing, design and workshop delivery.  

We know that wellbeing is improved through social interaction, making new friends, trying out new things and learning new skills and this is applicable across all ages and demographics. Our Creative Blethers programme is a key wellbeing programme devised around our events to encourage people to get involved and try new things.

Dunoon Players, Dunoon Choral Club, Youthstuff Youth theatre and Dunoon Jazz Festival are local amateur dramatic and music groups who use our theatre for rehearsals, workshops, meetings and performances. Between them they work across the whole community. Having an easily functioning sound and lighting system is part of the attraction in their decisions to make the Burgh Hall their home.

The theatre space is used widely by our community for weddings and family gatherings. Third sector agencies and Argyll and Bute Council host conferences and public consultations. Increasingly our lighting system is required for presentations within those gatherings, which this makes our venue the first choice in the town.

The Burgh Hall has increased tourism in the area as well as been one of the reasons that the people have moved back into Dunoon and the surrounding area during the pandemic. Our regular exhibitions and events draw people from across the UK, especially high profile exhibitions such as ARTIST ROOMS: Andy Warhol and Martin Parr. 

We work in partnership with agencies in the area and are a key cornerstone for CHARTS – the Culture, Heritage and Arts agency working across Argyll. We have supported the formation of the Dunoon Alliance and now the Dunoon Community Development Trust to effect change across our wider community.

What’s next for your project? 

Our project is growing from strength to strength. We have secured emergency funding during COVID-19 which has enabled us to survive as a theatre and cultural venue. We continue to run year-round exhibitions, offer activities for children and young people and offer traineeships. We will continue to commission new work from local theatre and dance companies, and offer performance space for local musicians. These opportunities are vital to a sector that has faced many challenges throughout the pandemic. 

To learn more about Dunoon Burgh Hall: