Duns is to celebrate the 120th anniversary of its Volunteer Hall in a very fitting way - with a performance of Handel’s Messiah, just as it did for the opening ceremony in 1895.
The concert, on Sunday, February 8, is being organised by the community group A Heart for Duns. Around 100 amateur singers will be joined by soloists from the Royal Scottish Conservatoire and musicians from Scotland’s leading orchestras.
The evening will represent another milestone for a hall whose history reflects both its military role and its place at the heart of community life in Duns and district.
The Volunteer Hall was built as a suitable drill hall for the 2nd (Berwickshire) Volunteer Battalion, King’s Own Scottish Borderers. This unit was formed in 1888, a few years after a rifle volunteer battalion of the Royal Scots was moved back to Duns from Coldstream.
The hall’s military role is evident today: it is owned by the Ministry of Defence (though currently administered by Scottish Borders Council), it houses the local Air Training Corps and Army Cadet Force, and its street-facing gable still displays the KOSB regimental badge.
The hall was built by public subscription, mostly from the people of Duns, and the architect and contractors were local firms. The largest donation, however, came from Colonel Charles Hope of Cowdenknowes, near Earlston, the commanding officer of the volunteer battalion. He also offered a low-cost loan to support the funding if needed. After his retirement from the KOSB in 1906, Col Hope went on to be Lord Lieutenant of Berwickshire for eight years until his death, aged 80, in 1930.
The hall was formally opened by Col Hope on February 13, 1895, at a ceremony attended by over 1,000 people.
Col Hope remarked: “This hall has been built for the uses and convenience of the Volunteers. Duns has for a long time been in want of a good hall but it can no longer complain of this.
“I trust that the opening of this fine hall will mark a new era of prosperity in the town. I think this meeting here tonight is an excellent prediction of the many splendid meetings which may take place here in the future and the many excellent purposes to which this hall can be applied.”
The audience then enjoyed a performance of Handel’s Messiah by 100 local singers and soloists from Edinburgh, which was later pronounced to be the finest musical entertainment ever performed in Duns.
Indeed, from its earliest days the hall has been a hub for social and artistic life in Duns, as contemporary newspaper reports show.
Music was provided in March 1901 by Craig Lumsden, a vocalist from Edinburgh. His programme in Duns ‘consisted of a selection of Scottish songs introduced by apt and humorous remarks’.
Following the music came a ‘cinematograph exhibition, which included a most interesting display of pictures connected with the Boer War and the funeral of the late Queen’. Sadly ‘although the entertainment was of a high class nature, it was well worthy of more public patronage than it received.’
August 1901 saw the annual presentation of prizes and dance, where there was a ‘good attendance of Volunteers, ladies and young people,’ doubtless attracted by the Battalion Band and the ‘temperance refreshments purveyed during the night by members of the committee under the management of Lance Corporal A Blaikie’.
In March 1903, a ping-pong tournament was held in aid of the golf club: ‘a series of valuable prizes are offered, and as there are a number of crack players of this game in the town and district an interesting evening is expected … and no doubt the financial result will be in keeping with the usual liberality with which Duns and district people support healthful and innocent recreation.’
In contrast, February 1904 saw a lecture by the famous religious speaker, Dr W.T.P Wolston, brought up in the Plymouth Brethren. For his talk ‘the erection of a special screen and sounding-board improved the acoustic qualities of the hall.’
In September 1904, there was a competition for heather honey, in association with the Berwickshire Horticultural Society’s show, with prizes donated by Col Hope. In November an exhibition of arts and crafts was advertised, to be opened by Lord Binning. The classes were similar to those seen in the industrial sections of shows today, with the exception, perhaps of ‘lamp and candle shades’ and children’s knitted gaiters.
In recent years, A Heart for Duns has been working to revitalise the Volunteer Hall for the modern age. Its regular programme ranges from food and craft fairs to film and quiz nights, though it hosted a party last Christmas and is planning a beer festival in April.
In 2014 the group secured funding from The Big Lottery, Blackhill Windfarm Community Fund and The People’s Millions, which has put the hall on a much sounder footing ahead of its 120th anniversary.
Derek Janes, convenor of A Heart for Duns, said: “Most of the funding will be used to improve the community theatre and cinema facilities in Duns Volunteer Hall. This will allow our partners, Duns and District Amateur Operatic Society and Duns Players, to present their superb shows in a more professional setting, and let AHFD itself host high-quality film nights and in time develop live streaming of performances from other venues.
“There is also money to underwrite some other activities and provide support for our events team. This will mesh with a recent grant from the Blackhill Windfarm Community Fund for events support, promotion and training.’
“In addition to this, AHFD will soon receive a feasibility study and business plan, paid for by the Big Lottery. This will inform our decisions about the long-term future of the Volunteer Hall as a vibrant and flexible venue for all the people of Duns and Berwickshire.’
“A lot of things will be happening behind the scenes over the next couple of months, but one thing is certain. The Volunteer Hall will have a vibrant and successful future, thanks to you!”
Singers can still sign up for the concert, which will be led by Greg Batsleer, chorus director of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra. Rehearsals are on Saturday, February 7 (10am–5pm) and Sunday, February 8 (2pm–5pm). Singer tickets are £20. Scores will be provided if required, as well as refreshments on both days. To apply, please visit www.aheartforduns.org.
The public performance of Handel’s Messiah is on Sunday, February 8 at 6pm. Audience tickets are £10, from Nairn’s Newsagents in Duns and at www.aheartforduns.org.
Thanks to Dunse History Society. The story of Duns Volunteer Hall and its opening concert can be found on their website: www.dunsehistorysociety.co.uk/volunteer_hall.shtml