Dunbar’s Town House now fit for 21st century

The newly refurbished Dunbar Town House in the High Street.
The newly refurbished Dunbar Town House in the High Street.

It’s reputed to be the oldest Council Chamber still in use in Scotland but Dunbar’s Town House or Tolbooth, which spans more than 400 years, has been given a 21st century £1.4 million revamp inside.

The four year phased refurbishment project, led by East Lothian Council with other funders such as Viridor, the Heritage Lottery Fund, Historic Scotland and ASDA, is now complete and a public preview attracted 300 visitors who gave it their seal of approval.

The newly refurbished Dunbar Town House in the High Street.

The newly refurbished Dunbar Town House in the High Street.

The High Street building, which has been put back to its original look on the outside with stone masonry repairs and re-harling on which a moon dial can be seen, has modern temporary and permanent museum exhibition space, a gallery area for artwork, as well as an education room for community groups.

Its historical interior, with a jail used in the past for all kinds of prisoners including debtors, drunks and witches, has been retained.

New discoveries from bygone days were also made as the contractors’ work progressed. Writings, dating back to 1762, scraped on the wall of a debtors’ cell and tool marks where cutlery was sharpened were unearthed.

A piece of masonry above the cell is thought to have come from Dunbar Castle as architectural salvage when parts of it were demolished.

The newly refurbished Dunbar Town House in the High Street.''Jo Moulin views a black painted wooden paton & hard backed volume of court proceedings

The newly refurbished Dunbar Town House in the High Street.''Jo Moulin views a black painted wooden paton & hard backed volume of court proceedings

The remains of an old Town Council election poster, believed to date from the late 19th or early 20th century, was found pasted on the back of a door.

The councillors and magistrates managed the affairs of the town from the Council Chamber on the top floor where a new carpet was laid when the Queen visited in the 1950s.

Inside the room, which has wooden panelling, two large heraldic panels have been cleaned up as part of the renovation which also saw new lighting installed.

One, dated 1686, bears the royal arms of King James VII or II, and the second represents the Hanoverian period. On the walls hang photographs of past provosts.

The chamber, with a small window with view out to the sea, is a venue for meetings of Dunbar Community Council and weddings.

A door leads into the tower and steeple which house the town clock and bell.

References to the clock and a knocksmith or clockmaker from as far back as the 16th century show that the clock was tended to carefully.

The inscription on the bell tells that it was “built in this first year of Burgh Reform, 1834.”

A 10 o’clock curfew was rung, originally to warn frequenters of the ale houses that it was closing time.

Until now the only way to reach the top floor was by the stairs but a lift has been provided as access for disabled people.

The enthusiastic, voluntary members of Dunbar History Society are delighted with the light and airy environment which has been created following the refurbishment which took place over two phases costing about £565,000 and £914,500.

They will continue to play a major role in the life of the Town House which they man every weekend during the winter and summer. They now occupy a modern work room in which to keep photographic records up-to-date and help people who have historical enquiries.

They have their own exhibition space which at the moment shows initiatives the society has been involved in during the last two decades since it was formed including: a 10 year survey which has resulted in a disc being produced of all the inscriptions in Dunbar Parish Church graveyard by the Scottish Geneaology Society; Dunbar Vaults community archaeology project; lifeboat days; and 50 years on from Dunbar United winning the Junior Cup back in 1961.

The re-opening of the Town House is also being celebrated with photographs and the last provost’s robes and chain of office will be on display for a temporary period.

Secretary Pauline Smeed commented: “It is fantastic and is what the history society has been working on, together with the museums service, for 20 years.

“What is wonderful is that it has still kept the original features and still has that historical feel but it is nice and light, and bright.

“We are now hoping to get some more volunteers on board and will use the community room for our monthly talks, and the Council Chambers for our social night.

“Museum services all over can’t manage without volunteers, especially in the current situation, they are very dependent on volunteers - it is a partnership.

“We are hoping now that more people will come forward to let us have photographs or documents to copy, and more objects to borrow.”

Chairman Gordon Easingwood said he was “overwhelmed” at the new look building and decribed the relationship between the society and museum service as “a two way street.”

He explained: “We complement the museums service. This is definitely an asset to the town and is open every weekend.”

Jo Moulin, manager at Dunbar’s John Muir Birthplace, said the first temporary exhibition would be an update of the millennium exhibition ‘Dunbar in Living Memory’. This charts the history of the town over the past century and is based on the recollections of local residents.

Artefacts include a pipe band trophy, early police truncheon, keys for the jail and satchels made by Mains the saddlers for use by workers at caravan parks during the season.

The Town House will also be home to a VisitScotland stand in the main foyer which will replace Dunbar’s tourist information office and museums’ staff will be trained to deal with visitors’ queries.

The building will be open to the public seven days a week from 1pm to 5pm from April 1 to October 31.