Scottish Broadcasting House, Edinburgh
Scottish Broadcasting House at 5 Queen Street was home to the BBC's Edinburgh studios from 14 July 1930 until April 2002. It was also the BBC's Scottish headquarters from its opening until 19??.
- 1 Development
- 2 History of Queen's Hall
- 3 Studios
- 4 Staff transferred from Glasgow
- 5 Opening ceremony
- 6 Unfinished until 1931
- 7 Control room switched from Glasgow to Edinburgh
- 8 Extension
- 9 Public concerts
- 10 Staffing
- 11 Aborted plans for new building
- 12 BBC vacates premises
- 13 Links
- 14 References
David Cleghorn Thomson had always favoured the his home city as the headquarters of the BBC in Scotland and when the lease on the George Street premises was due to expire on 28 May 1930, he saw his opportunity. He informed the Board of Governors that not only was there no opportunity of renewal, but the securing of alternative similar accommodation in Edinburgh was apparently impossible, despite a prolonged and exhaustive search. Instead, Thomson argued that a larger building should be secured and the headquarters moved from Glasgow. Since the reduction of the Scottish Orchestra and the increase of programme centralisation in London, there was much less need to utilise artists who were resident in Glasgow and the majority of staff would be better housed in the capital and cultural centre of Scotland.
At a board meeting on 16 October 1929, the BBC Governors approved the transference of the Scottish headquarters from Glasgow to Edinburgh.
In March 1930 it was publicly announced that the BBC had acquired the former Queen's Hall at 5 Queen Street. The Board of Governors granted approval for £2,950 to be spent on alterations and redecorations, carried out by Messrs. Adam Currie & Sons.
The Edinburgh staff transferred from George Street on 29 May, followed by the Glasgow staff on 13 July. Programmes were initially broadcast from a temporary curtain-draped room until work on the three studios was complete.
Scottish Broadcasting House benefitted from a new studio decoration technique designed to improve acoustics. In the early days of broadcasting studio walls were draped with curtains, but the BBC was not satisfied with the results as it tended to deaden the sound too much. Building on experiments which had been carried out in London, wooden strips about three feet apart were attached to the walls, covered with a one-inch thick layer of felt, on top of which decorative fabrics were stretched. The finished result gave the appearance of a rich wallpaper and reduced the echo to almost imperceptible proportions — from 4.5 seconds to just half a second.
The consultant for the decorative schemes was Mr J. R. M'Kay of Richardson & M'Kay architects, Edinburgh; and the fabrics were woven by the Edinburgh Weavers at Corstorphine, who had been engaged on the work for several months, introducing new fast dyes into the fabrics.
History of Queen's Hall
Before the BBC moved in, No.1 studio had for a long time been known as Queen's Hall. It was here that many eminent Victorians gave lectures. Mark Twain is reputed to have called it the finest hall he had ever spoken in. Queen's Hall probably also played host to the first cinematograph show in Edinburgh and where the first telewriter was demonstrated. Public meetings of various kinds were also held there and it was the scene of a riotous outbreak on one occasion during the South African War, when an attempt was made to hold a pro-Boer meeting in the hall. The Edinburgh Society of Musicians used it as their headquarters. It was also the home of the somewhat notorious Embassy Dance Club. Following a police raid at the Club in 1927 when drink was found to be consumed after hours, the premises lay disused until they were taken over by the BBC in April 1934.
The largest of the three studios consisted of the auditorium of the former Queen's Hall and was the biggest studio in Britain when it opened. The stage was surrounded by galleries on three sides with tip-up seats. Used in conjunction with the fine dance floor in front of the stage, the studio could hold an audience of over 300 people — which, it was hoped, might stimulate performers and players. By admitting audiences the BBC was able to present music which did not depend on commercial success. Consequently, the studio was used mainly for concerts, plays and vaudeville. Choirs and orchestras benefitted from travelling microphones suspended from the ceiling. The walls were draped with a deep golden wool fabric.
Popular Wireless magazine called the setting 'magnificent': "Imagine a hall like a super-modern cinema, exquisitely decorated in green and fawn. The strings of the orchestra are grouped on the floor of the hall, the "heavy artillery" are on the stage, the percussion player in black evening dress silhouetted against the deep blue backcloth."
Overlooking the studio was a cubicle where the announcements were made. Howard Lockhart, who was a full-time announcer in Edinburgh from 1935, described it so:
One of the curious features of the Edinburgh studio was that the announcements had to be made from a cubicle on the floor above, and this often led to complications, making liaison between the announcers and the conductor difficult, to say the least of it. A flight of steep stone, grey-carpeted stairs had to be negotiated, often at speed, and there was one step out of alignment with the rest, I never could remember which one. And how we announcers cursed that irregular step! 
The second studio, which was about twice the size of a large drawing room was decorated with damask of green and silver. It was used for Children's Hour, chamber music and singing among other programme genres.
The third studio was a small room used for talks. It featured modern hand-woven tapestry in new designs based on medieval patterns. To avoid the 'boxed-in' feeling which some wireless speakers had complained of, the room had the appearence of a comfortable study, with a comfortable armchair and a draped recess suggesting a curtained window.
Staff transferred from Glasgow
It was mainly executive and administrative staff who were transferred across. Glasgow still remained a centre for programme production.
- David Cleghorn Thomson permanently based there from 14 July 1930.
- Dr. Low
- Andrew Stewart
- Mr Webster
- Mr D Stuart Wilkie
- Miss Betty Ferguson, the Scottish Regional Director's Secretary
- Miss Ross
- Miss A. Jamieson
- Sergt Rutherford
The rest of the original Glasgow staff remained at the Glasgow station.
Scottish Broadcasting House was formally opened on the evening of St Andrew's Eve, 29 November 1930, by William Anderson MP, Secretary of State for Scotland.
Anderson remarked in his speech that the transformation of the building had been effected in a way that "satisfied the soul of the artist and the technical demands of the radio engineer". The Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, the Right Rev. Dr A. N. Bogle, then offered the dedicatory prayer, after which the Second Paraphrase was sung. Mrs Whitson, the Lady Provost, then formally handed over the Mr Adamson a presentation key as a moment of the occasion, which he then struck on a bell to signal the official opening of the building.
Speaking for the BBC's Board of Governors, Mrs Snowden, in thanking those who had taken part in the proceedings, referred to the occasion as important not only in the history of broadcasting but also in the history of the Scottish nation. She said the Board were not what they were sometimes represented to be, people wedded to a cold, hard policy of centralisation. They realised the title and the just claim of each country to what she might call its own empire must have recognition in the scheme of things.
David Cleghorn Thomson returned thanks on behalf of the Scottish regional staff, and said that the achievement and completion of that great building had been a cherished ideal in Scottish broadcasting. He then superintended over a "celebration of Scotland in song and verse", reflecting the famous music and poetry of Scotland from the past 600 years, and designed to harmonise with St Andrew's Eve. The hour-long concert included: the Glasgow Orpheus Choir, conducted by Mr Hugh S. Roberton; a verse choir of women's voices trained by Mr Duncan Clark; a studio orchestra under the direction of Mr David Stephen; solos by Miss Rhoda Macleod and Mr Robert Burnett; pieces by pipers led by Pipe-Major Ross; and solo passages in the linked performance spoken by Mr R. B. Wharrie, the chairman of the Scottish National Theatre, and Mr Cleghorn Thomson himself.
Other members of the platform that night included the Duke of Atholl, who occupied the Chair; the Countess Haig; the Marquis of Aberdeen and Temair; the Archbishop of Edinburgh and St Andrews; the Most Rev Joseph McDonald; the Very Rev the Dean of Edinburgh; Lord Provosts Whitson and Mrs Whitson; Provost A. A. McEwan, Inverness, and Mrs McEwan; Brigadier-General Dudgeon and Mrs Dudgeon; Mr J. R. M'Kay, the architect of me premises, and Mrs M'Kay; Professor F. A. E. Crew and Mrs Crew; Mr W. W. M'Kechnie, Secretary of the Scottish Education Department, and Mrs M'Kechnie; the Very Rev Sir George Adam Smith and Lady Adam Smith; Mrs Philip Snowden, a governor of the BBC; Sir John Reith, the BBC's Director-General; and David Cleghorn Thomson.
Unfinished until 1931
The Edinburgh premises were not fully completed until 1931. On a visit midway through the year, a journalist with Popular Wireless described Scottish Broadcasting House as "unfinished" and remarked that, aside from 'No.1' studio, it could not be compared with the North Region headquarters at Manchester in terms of equipment. There was no dramatic control panel at Edinburgh and plays had to be produced with actors, sound effects and musicians all in one room — "a method years behind the times". Preparations were, however, being made to provide both an effects studio and echo rooms.
Control room switched from Glasgow to Edinburgh
In early 1932, ahead of the opening of the new Scottish Regional transmitter at Westerglen, the BBC's main Scottish control room was moved from Glasgow to Edinburgh. The switch was part of a general upgrading of the landlines which connected the BBC's transmitters and studios throughout Britain. Instead of programmes from the south coming to Scotland by an overhead line via Leeds to Glasgow (and then fed onwards to Edinburgh, Dundee and Aberdeen), the replacement cabling went underground from Manchester to Edinburgh (with lines then taking the signal to Glasgow and through Dundee to Aberdeen). The new underground cabling was capable of transmitting music better than the old overhead type.
The control room was under the care of 15 engineers led by Mr J. A. Beveridge, who had been engineer-in-charge at Edinburgh since the start of broadcasting.
The premises soon became overcrowded and, in 1933, seven more rooms were leased as offices in the neighbouring property at 6 Queen Street. Short-term relief from from cramped quarters was also achieved by renting temporary premises at 28 Queen Street (another source says no.42 Queen Street?). Schools staff, meanwhile, moved to quarters further down the road in York Place.
In late 1935/early 1936 another scheme of improvements was carried out, the main change being the addition of a new talks studio. This brought the total number of studios to five: the others being studio No.1, a small drama studio, effects and tiny room with twin turntables for gramophone recitals and talks. The entire building was redecorated and a complete redevelopment of the studio acoustics saw the felt-over-plaster in studio No.1 torn away and the walls re-covered with building board, giving the result of a brighter acoustic.
But still, the premises remained a problem. The director of regional relations, Charles Siepmann, wrote in 1936 that: "A great number of the staff are working in ill-lighted rooms and overcrowded conditions. The studios are inadequate in equipment, in ventilation and in extent. With the formation of the new orchestra the difficulties of rehearsal and studio work generally are aggravated to an extent which makes for inefficiency."
Aside from the opening ceremony, the first public concert from the Queen Street studios was broadcast on 13 January 1931. Tickets were sold for ten shillings with the proceeds going to the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary Bi-centenary Extension Fund. The programme centred around Gordon Bottomley's verse play Towie Castle.
However, a few days before, on Saturday 10 January 1931, Edinburgh children were invited in to the studio to participate in the annual children's party given by the Children's Hour aunts and uncles. Admission was 1s 6d and wireless listeners heard the fun for three-quarters of an hour.
By the beginning of 1936 the staff at Scottish Broadcasting House numbered 66, with only one member not of Scottish nationality. This number was confirmed in the June 1936 edition of the staff magazine Ariel, which listed a total of 71 when the five employees in the Schools annexe at 9 York Place were included. Around 32 of the 71 — nearly half — were women, though they mainly occupied secretarial, administrative and ancillary roles; Children's Hour was the only programme department where they were represented.
Scottish Regional Director: Melville Dinwiddie (secretary: Betty Fergusson)
Regional Executive: James Cameron (secretary: Helen King)
Programme Director: Moray McLaren
Music Director: Ian Whyte (assisted by Miss Mary Thomson)
Music Assistant: Kemlo Stephen
Conductor, BBC Scottish Orchestra: Guy Warrack
Talks Assistant: James Fergusson (assistant: Nan Thomson)
Feature Programmes: John Gough
Children's Hour: Ceciie Walton, Children's Hour Organiser, and Miss Binnie Crawford.
Studio Assistants (basement): Paul Ellingham, Robert Richardson.
Chief Clerk, Supervisor of Women Staff, canteen manageress: Mrs. Daisy Haverfield, M.B.E.
Programme Routine: Catherine Wilkie (times and monies), Ena Quade, Margaret Dow, Nettie Anderson.
General Office: May Turnbull; Miss Greta Macdonald (worked for John Gough); Miss Anne Wahon (worked for studio assistants, announcers and programme routine); Barbara Scott (occasionally programme routine); Miss Evelyn Ash (dealt with the Press)
Petty Cash Clerk: William Meikle
Front desk: Sergeant A. Rutherford, formerly of the Royal Scots, and Sergeant J. Connolly.
Office boys: John Gilroy, Dennis Gridley, Edwin Hardie.
Public relations: George Burnett and Miss Madeleine Strong.
Library: Alex Swinton Paterson, Assistant to Regional Executive, and Miss Mary Ross.
Telephonists: Miss Isobel Aird and one other.
Registry: Mary Campbell (in charge), Mary Dick.
Duplicating and Stationery: Norah McCann.
Secretarial: Margaret Macpherson; Winifred Hunter; Sara Black; Margaret Anne Macnair.
Canteen: Anne Hood, Joan Heath.
Boiler rooms: James Stratford, Arthur Hislop.
Cleaners: Mrs Dolan, Mrs Kinvig, Mrs Reid, Miss Harrow, Miss Dickson.
Schools (9 York Place annex)
Senior schools official: Archie Adam
Schools assistants: Douglas R. Allan; Harry Hoggan; Miss ? Benson.
Schools radio doctor: C. R. Stewart
Aborted plans for new building
In December 1946, following the end of the Second World War, Scottish Director Melville Dinwiddie wrote to the Senior Controller at head office to state that he was "working out a schedule for new Edinburgh premises, on the lines agreed with Lord Reith in 1937". Such new premises did not materialise.
BBC vacates premises
The final programme to be broadcast from the building was The Brian Morton Show.
The Scotsman diarist Simon Pia noted that "in true Birtian style [...] there was no-one to film this little bit of history".
- RCAHMS: site record for 4, 5, 6 Queen Street
- British Listed Buildings
- Queen Street, Edinburgh (Scottish Places)
- 2004 redesign of building (Edinburgh Architecture)
- 'What next for BBC building?', Scotsman, 18 September 2001.
- 'Live music venue to open in BBC's former studios', Scotsman, 28 November 2002.
- 'Jools to jazz up city scene with new club', Scotsman, 28 November 2002.
- 'Change of frequency', Scotsman, 13 October 2004.
- 'Jools to jazz up capital with £1.5m music club', Scotsman, 15 September 2005.
- 'New premises at Edinburgh', 2 April 1930, BBC WAC R1/66/1.
- Minutes of Board of Governors Meeting, 16 Oct 1929, BBC WAC R1/1/1.
- 'BBC's new Scottish headquarters', Glasgow Herald, 25 March 1930, 6.
- Minutes of Board of Governors Meeting, 30 April 1930, BBC WAC R1/1/1.
- 'New BBC studios: Edinburgh developments: decorative technique', Scotsman, 15 August 1930.
- Ariel, June 1936, 24.
- 'BBC's new Scottish headquarters', Glasgow Herald, 25 March 1930, 6.
- 'New BBC Scots headquarters', Scottish Daily Express, 25 March 1930.
- 'With the BBC in the North: 2. Edinburgh', Popular Wireless, 11 July 1931.
- Howard Lockhart, On My Wavelength (Aberdeen: Impulse Books, 1973), 21.
- 'Scottish Headquarters', memo from Assistant Controller, 16 June 1930, BBC WAC R13/369/2.
- Administration Executive to Mrs Whitticom, 15 July 1930
- BBC Year Book 1934, 335.
- Popular Wireless, 11 July 1931, 567.
- 'Better Scots broadcasting', Scottish Daily Express, 8 January 1932.
- Wireless World, 10 January 1936, 38.
- Minutes of Board of Governors meeting, 10 May 1933, BBC WAC R1/3/1.
- Walker, 107.
- 'Broadcasting in Scotland: progress and development', Glasgow Herald, 11 June 1936, 10.
- 'Extension of Scottish BBC headquarters', Glasgow Herald, 17 November 1934, 2; Wireless World, 10 January 1936, 37.
- ‘Interim report on visit to Scotland’, Director of Regional Relations to Controller (Programmes) and Controller (Administration), 14 January 1936, BBC WAC R13/369/2.
- 'Scottish Broadcasting Premiere', Glasgow Herald, 12 January 1931, 10.
- 'Children's party at the BBC', Scottish Daily Express, 3 January 1931.
- Wireless World, 10 January 1936, 37.
- Ariel, June 1936, 24-26.
- Scottish Director to Senior Controller, 'Scottish Region developments', 2 December 1946, BBC WAC R13/372.
- 'Simon Pia's Diary', Scotsman, 5 April 2002.